Truckee’s Political Women
Patricia Sutton first got involved in Truckee politics in 1973 because she thought she could make better decisions than the ones that were being made for her.
Today, 29 years and several public offices later, as a member of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, Sutton said she is still motivated by the things that initially sparked her interest in legislature: advocating a responsible government and insuring the public’s rights and participation in the political process.
Although Sutton sees no real differences between men and women serving in local government, she values a balance of the sexes on every district board.
“Having women in local politics is important because they bring with them a different set of perspectives and concerns,” she said.
However, the number of women in government, whether it be on a federal, state, or local level, remains disproportionately lower nationwide than the number of men. In Truckee, things are no different, with women currently occupying only seven of 20 possible seats on the Town Council, and various school, hospital and public utilities boards.
“It’s abundantly clear that women are still vastly underrepresented in local politics,” said Councilwoman and former mayor Maia Schneider.
Recently, Schneider and several other women in the community joined forces in efforts to reverse this trend by encouraging more women to become active politically.
“It all started when Lisa Dobey (President of the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation), a good friend of mine, and I were talking one night about the lack of women in politics in our community. We decided we would need a specific and direct approach to get women involved,” she said.
The pair then generated a diverse list of 20 women from the community for a roundtable discussion of the problem. Eighteen of those 20 attended the meeting, which took place Nov. 5. The specific goal of the roundtable was to increase the number of women running for and serving in public office (specifically Town Council, which could have as many as three open seats in the fall), according to the meeting’s formal agenda.
Schneider stressed that the purpose of the meeting was not, however, to select one specific candidate to endorse.
“The first thing we did was identify a list of traits that we thought were key to a good political candidate,” she said. Some of those traits included “finesse, patience, analytical skills, dependability, ability to compromise, good listening skills, and a strong interest in public service.”
From that list, the group then drafted a list of 34 women in the community who embodied those specific traits. “We generated a really good list that ranged in age and economic status, as well as included some Hispanic women. Getting Hispanic women involved in local politics is extremely important.”
Finally, the group divided up the list of women and assigned a roundtable participant or group of participants to each potential candidate. “The goal was to convince them to at least start thinking about local politics,” Schneider said.
When approaching those women that had been selected, roundtable members spent time talking to them about town politics, as well as the meeting and steps they had taken to generate the lists of leadership traits and potential candidates.
“It’s a lot different than when someone approached me about running for office,” Schneider said with a laugh. “I was convinced to throw my name in the hat for
appointment to council after some heavy dialogue and a volume of Scotch.”
So why aren’t more of these highly qualified women braving the local political scene? “Women are too consumed in their traditional female roles. They’re too busy taking care of the kids, working a full-time job, and driving to soccer practice or ballet,” Schneider said. “Participation in politics just isn’t in their realm of thinking.”
According to Tahoe Forest Hospital Board member Karen Sessler, the main reason is because people simply haven’t asked women to participate.
“Women in our community are running non-profits and other organizations which require basically the same skills as are needed in elected office. I didn’t begin thinking about running for office until another woman in the community suggested it to me. Then, after others encouraged me to run, I finally felt comfortable doing so.”
Sessler said she is extremely supportive of the roundtable’s goals and approach to the problem because having local women encourage and offer to mentor potential candidates is the best way to get more women to run.
MaryLou Sullivan, roundtable attendee and also a Tahoe Forest Hospital Board of Directors member, said the outreach the group has been doing has also done a great job of raising political awareness in the community. “There’s so much more of an opportunity to become involved in local politics in Truckee than in a large metropolitan area. Here, the average woman can do public service and has a chance to really make a difference,” Sullivan said.
Another element of the roundtable’s outreach efforts has been to inform women of the rewards that public service has to offer, said Councilwoman Schneider.
“Speaking as a woman, the whole experience of being involved with local politics has been a very good learning, maturing experience,” Schneider said. “It’s also a great honor. People call it a thankless job, but I feel it’s really the highest honor bestowed on a citizen to be able to influence public policy.”
Even more important according to Sessler, is that having women politically involved allows government to better serve its constituency.
“It’s not that women have different qualities than men, but rather that they have different life experiences,” Sessler said. “When making decisions in office, an official calls upon all their knowledge and experience to choose the best course of action. If a town council, or other governing body is made up of people from one background their similar life experiences will result in a government that doesn’t best represent the diverse community in which we live.”
Although not every potential candidate has been approached yet, Schneider said the response so far is encouraging.
“The women we’ve talked to have been really flattered. There’s been an understandable amount of reluctance, but if anything, we’re beginning to inspire an interest in politics in women.”
The full effects of the group’s outreach won’t really be evident until the deadline for declaration of candidacy for local offices later in the summer.
“Of course what I want to see are the best possible candidates, male or female, elected to the positions on Town Council,” Schneider said. “But I really hope to hell that one of those candidates happens to be a woman.”