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Buffalo’s dubious distinction: No female elected officials

Buffalo City Hall is a bit of a Boys Club these days.

Plenty of women work in the building. Some, in fact, have the most influential and high-paying positions in the Brown administration.

But when it comes to elected officials, not a woman is to be found. Not in the mayor’s chair. Not in the comptroller’s chair. Not in any of the nine Common Council seats.

And based on last week’s primary elections, that’s not going to change any time soon.

That’s an anomaly as far as major New York State cities go, particularly upstate.

Go 75 miles east of Buffalo to Rochester, another 90 miles east to Syracuse, and another 150 miles east to Albany, and you will find women in all three mayoral offices.

What’s more, 16 of the 35 Council members in those three cities combined are women, including two of the three Council presidents.

So what’s up with Buffalo?

Hard to say, but many theories are offered on why few women even enter city races.

Perhaps, some political insiders say, there’s an all-boys network at play, from the grass-roots level right up to leaders of the Democratic Party, which dominates city politics. That could either discourage Buffalo women from running or ensure women don’t get supported when they do.

Not so, party leaders say.

Perhaps, other politicos speculate, it’s a Republican ploy to quash political activity – among men and women – in the largely Democratic city.

“Poppycock,” the GOP leader responds.

Or maybe women are just turned off by the pay. Or, some suggest, perhaps it’s related to the elimination years ago of at-large Council seats that attracted female candidates; or possibly it’s because all the city’s elected positions now have four-year terms, so they don’t turn over that often.

Then there is Councilman David A. Franczyk’s suggestion:

“Perhaps it’s a fluke,” he said. “We should have women on the Council. I’m sure it will happen again.”

Until a couple of years ago, Franczyk noted, at least one woman sat on the Council, and as many as six once have sat on the Council in the past, before the downsizing that eliminated the four citywide seats and reduced the number of seats to nine.

Whatever the reason for the current single-sex elected city government, the discussion seems to be creating one of those “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” moments.

“If we had an all-white Council, this community would be in an uproar. If we had an all-black Council, this community would be in an uproar. But we can have an all-male Council, and those in power see nothing wrong with it,” said Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant, who served on the Buffalo Common Council before being elected to the Legislature.

Members of the male power structure respond that they would like to see more women in elective office.

Republican Chairman Nicholas Langworthy and Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner talked about their commitment to getting more women elected, and both talked about women they are supporting in upcoming elections. All in the suburbs.

“Diversity matters,” added Mayor Byron W. Brown, who said he is referring to gender as well as racial diversity.

But most men interviewed for this article generally didn’t seem to think the lack of women in elective office in City Hall was as big a deal as the female politicians and activists did.

When asked about the male dominance in City Hall’s elective posts, Brown responded that he has appointed women to some of the most influential and top-paying positions in City Hall – finance commissioner, personnel director, deputy mayor, deputy police commissioner.

Council President Darius G. Pridgen had a similar response.

“We have women in powerful positions in Buffalo,” Pridgen said.

Brown and Pridgen also mentioned that women from Buffalo currently hold elected office in Erie County and state government.

The Common Council became an all-male body in January 2014, after the lone female member, Bonnie Russell, left her University District Council seat to take a job in Family Court. The Council temporarily appointed Rasheed N.C. Wyatt to replace her, and he went on to win re-election to complete her term.

Two other Council members, Michael J. LoCurto and Demone A. Smith, resigned this year. LoCurto was replaced by Joel Feroleto. Because LoCurto resigned late in the election process, his successor was picked by Democratic Party leaders.

Voters selected Smith’s successor in last week’s primary election. Ulysees O. Wingo, backed by the Erie County Democratic Party, as well as Mayor Brown and the Grassroots political organization, beat two candidates, including School Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman, the only woman running in any of the Council races so far this year.

Only one incumbent, Franczyk, faced a primary challenge in last week’s election. He beat the two men trying to unseat him. All nine current Council members are on the November ballot. With little if any opposition, all are expected to easily win four-year terms.

Maria Whyte, the deputy Erie County executive, who previously served as an Erie County legislator from Buffalo, applauded Brown for appointing women to top positions in the executive branch of his government.

But it’s important, she and other women said, that women – who represent 52 percent of the city’s population and in many cases, are heads of households – be represented in the city’s legislative branch, as well.

Women, Whyte and others said, bring a different perspective to the table than men, and it’s important their voices be part of the discussion.

“The issues important to us are a product of our experiences and upbringing,” Whyte said. “So certainly that is different for women and men, and different for minorities and different ethnic groups. It’s important for an elected body to be representative of the demographics trends of the communities, not just women, but minorities.”

There is no cookie-cutter approach to politics, but generally, women tend to be more focused on family, health, education and quality-of-life issues, said Diana Cihak, founder of WomenElect, a Buffalo organization devoted to helping prepare women for elective office. Women also tend to govern more through consensus and collaboration than men do, she said.

Women tend to be more results-oriented than men, added Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “Women are natural nurturers. Looking to try and help everyone,” she said.

In addition to the different style, perspective and sensibilities women bring, it’s also important for women to serve in local government as role models for other women, said Barbra A. Kavanaugh, a Buffalo Council member in the mid-1990s.

“It’s important for other women to see that it’s a community they can see themselves as part of – not unlike a black job applicant may look for other people of color in a workplace,” Kavanaugh said.

Women tend not to be as confident as men about running for office, and often have to be coaxed to run, Cihak said.

Some women, she added, have learned to use neighborhood and community issues they are involved with as a jumping off point to run for office.

That’s what neighborhood activist Yvette Suarez is trying to do, but it hasn’t been easy. The Masten District woman was knocked off the Democratic primary ballot because she didn’t have enough valid petition signatures. She’s now trying to run a write-in campaign.

There are a number of Buffalo women currently active in community organizing who are capable or running, and may do so in the future, Peoples-Stokes said.

“It’s not as easy for women as men,” the assemblywoman said. “It’s not as easy for women to raise money as it is for men.”

“Buffalo politics is challenging,” Cihak added. “You have to get in line well in advance.”

It’s important, Whyte said, that women get on boards and in agencies that can serve as jumping-off points, preparing them for public office.

“I think we have to do more to fuel the pipelines,” Whyte said, adding: “Because it matters.”