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Groups pushing for women, other new faces on all-male Council

Women in City Hall have some of the highest-paid and most influential appointed positions, including Deputy Mayor and Chief of Staff Elizabeth A. Ball; Donna J. Estrich, commissioner of administration, finance, policy and urban affairs; and Human Resources Commissioner Gladys Herndon-Hill.

But as the petition season begins Feb. 26, there's a push to get women — and other newcomers — to run this year for elected office, including for city comptroller and the nine seats on the all-male, all-Democrat Buffalo Common Council. The Council has been an all-male body since January 2014, when Bonnie Russell left her University District seat to take a job in Family Court.

It's important to have women in leadership in government because studies demonstrate that women govern differently, and there are better outcomes when women are in office, said Diana Cihak, founder of WomenElect, a training program that helps prepare women to run for office. She cited a Harvard Business Review study that concluded that diverse nations with female heads had higher economic growth than those headed by men. Other studies have shown that women in Congress sponsor more bills and different types of bills than their male colleagues, focusing more on issues such as health care and education.

"In 2019, a city the size of Buffalo should not have such unequal representation," said Cihak.

WomenElect — which started in Buffalo in 2010 and began expanding in Rochester, Auburn and Corning in 2016 —  teamed up with Eleanor's Legacy, which promotes and funds pro-choice Democratic women candidates. Last week, the two groups launched a social media campaign with a 15-second commercial on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and a text campaign to registered Democrats in Erie County.

The campaign urged the Common Council to "strongly consider" Vanessa Glushefski, 37, or Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, 62, for appointment as interim city comptroller, a position that became vacant when Mark J.F. Schroeder left the job to take a post in Albany. The term expires Dec. 31. Glushefski became acting comptroller when Schroeder resigned Feb. 1.

The two were the only women among six applicants for the appointment, and both have said they plan to run this year for a full, four-year term as comptroller.

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"Our democracy and our government functions best when it looks like all of us, speaks for all of us and works for all of us ... At this historic moment when more women than ever before are serving in Congress and the New York State Legislature, it is unconscionable that the City of Buffalo has an elected government that consists entirely of men," said Brette McSweeney, president of Eleanor's Legacy, a New York City-based organization that takes its name from Eleanor Roosevelt and focuses on state and local races. "Buffalo has over 125,000 female residents. How not a single woman is considered worthy of holding elected city office defies logic. Eleanor's Legacy is proud to partner with WomenElect to draw attention to this egregious under-representation of the women of Western New York."

Through its Baker Project, Eleanor's Legacy recruited 12 women — including Western New Yorkers Carima El-Behairy and Joan Seamans —  to run against incumbent Republicans in the State Senate last year, Cihak said. El-Behairy and Seamans lost to Chris Jacobs and Mike Ranzenhofer, respectively.

As for this year's Council races, at least two women have publicly launched campaigns.

Community advocate Tina Sanders is running for the Fillmore District seat. Sanders is  founder and president of No More Tears, a nonprofit community-based organization that helps families of homicide and domestic violence victims.

Even though she was not responding to a call from any group to run, the fact that there are no women on the Council prompted Sanders to jump into the race.

“Yes, the fact that it’s been so long since a woman has been on the Council, and a black woman,” Sanders said, when asked if that was a factor in her decision to run.

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A woman on the Council can add a new sense of direction, she said.

“Sometimes men kind of turn their heads to certain issues, whereas women dig deeper and try to find a solution to the problem,” she said, referring to her role as an advocate for families of homicide and domestic violence  victims.

Houghton Academy instructor Jennifer Strickland, 57, kicked off her campaign Friday night for the Masten District seat. She said she hadn't really thought about the fact that there were no women on the Council until someone mentioned it to her. Instead, she was motivated by a "desire to move Masten forward" while "not placing blame on anybody for what happened or has not happened in Masten."

Organizations like Elect A Woman 716 would like to see even more women on the ballot.

"We are here to support you. We understand that female candidates face more barriers than men, especially here in Buffalo. Our mission is to help reduce that inequity by providing training, support and resources," according to its website,  which asks women interested in running to complete and submit an online form.

But the push for new candidates is not limited to women.

Earlier this month, Rise Collaborative and the OUR CITY Coalition published an online article calling for challengers — male or female — for all nine seats on the Council, saying the same men have been ruling the city for too long.

"The same faces have made up the Common Council for too long, and none of these representatives (or anyone for that matter) should run unopposed," wrote Gretchen Cercone of OUR CITY Coalition.

"The time is now to get off the sidelines and join the movement for change in Buffalo," wrote Kevin Heffernan, managing director for Rise Collaborative.

The article was widely shared on social media, and in less than 24 hours, the coalition received about 20 emails from people interested in running, and the number is growing, said Harper Bishop, deputy director of movement building at PUSH Buffalo, one of the member organizations of the coalition.

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"About 35 people have contacted the OUR CITY Coalition to express interest in either running for Buffalo Common Council or support progressive candidates/campaigns," Bishop said in an email to The Buffalo News early last week. Later, Bishop said that about 50 people showed up at a workshop the coalition held Tuesday night on the basics of running for office.

Currently, there are at least four men vying for public office in city government this year.

Bryan J. Bollman and Mitchell Nowakowski are two millennials running for the Lovejoy and Fillmore Council seats, respectively.

Bollman, 33, a legislative aide to Richard A. Fontana, is running for Fontana's Lovejoy District seat after Fontana decided not to seek re-election after 21 years on the Council.

Nowakowski, 27, who was a legislative aide to Niagara District Council Member David A. Rivera, is a Council central office staffer.

Gerhardt J. Yaskow, 47, a county Democratic Committee member and owner and president of Dixon Enterprises, a real estate business, also is a running for the Fillmore District seat currently held by David A. Franczyk, who has said he is not running for re-election.

Scott J. Wilson, 18, is seeking the comptroller appointment. Wilson worked briefly in the comptroller's office from February 2018 to May 2018.

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