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Penny F. Zeplowitz: Running for office is exciting, aggravating

Although the presidential election won’t be for another year, every few weeks another candidate pops up. But for the first time in U.S. history, there is a possibility that both major party tickets might be headed by women.

Recently it struck me how unusual that really is. In March, at a ceremony in Amherst Town Hall celebrating Women’s History Month, I learned that as a former councilmember for Amherst, I was one of only 13 women who had ever been elected to public office in the town. Since Amherst became a town in the mid 1800s, the idea that mostly men had served during all that time amazed me.

I’ve always been interested in politics, since it was usually the favorite topic around my family’s dinner table. But I never thought of actually running for office until the year I became very unhappy with the Town Board’s actions. My husband, who is a pollster and a political consultant, tired of listening to my daily complaints and finally said, “If you don’t like what they’re doing, run for a seat yourself!” So I did. I think he later regretted that comment. After the hectic campaign was over, he told me I was the most irritating “client” he’d ever had! He said his “paying clients” always listened to all of his advice. I, on the other hand, occasionally didn’t.

Running for office was both exciting and aggravating. When I entered the Republican primary against three already endorsed Republican councilmen, I was obviously not welcomed to the race. Still, I walked door to door each day carefully obtaining more than the required signatures on my nominating petitions so they would be accepted by the Board of Elections, which they were.

Shortly afterward, my opponents took me to court. Their complaint was that my petitions said I was running for councilmember not councilwoman! Their lawsuit prompted an editorial by The News attacking the ridiculousness of their complaint, which was soon followed by similar editorials in other newspapers around the state. After winning the court cases, I won the primary and the general election. Because of the court cases, my victory was also noted with a few lines on the front page of USA Today.

No campaign can succeed, though, without help, and my family, friends and neighbors all played a major role in helping to ensure my victory. Our son, Jeffery, picked out the eye-catching color and design for my signs and my husband steered the whole campaign, gathering up extra volunteers and cheering me on whenever I needed that extra push. Our friend, Allen, a former Amherst supervisor, not only hosted a large fundraiser for me but went out with a hammer and nails and hung up my signs all over town.

The interesting thing about running for office, though, is that it isn’t just about winning. It’s a unique opportunity to see what’s on people’s minds, to discover what they really care about and to realize that they’re not just names on a sheet of paper but people who have concerns that are just as important to them as your concerns are to you. One of the best parts of the whole experience was that after I got elected I had a real chance to use my vote to help address some of those concerns.

I was also pleased that at our first meeting the new Town Board unanimously approved a resolution changing the name of the office from “councilmen” to the gender neutral term of “councilmember,” which it still is today.