Every year, citizens in Maine municipalities choose candidates willing to serve on their behalf as decision-makers and leaders. Voters go to the polls and town meetings to elect city councilors, selectpersons, planning and school board representatives, budget committee members, county commissioners and sheriffs at the local level. They choose by secret ballot or by raising their hands at town meetings. Although more men than women have filled these positions, that pattern may be changing. In the past year, more Maine women have decided to put their names on a variety of ballots, regardless of political affiliation.

Three local public servants represent that shift in thinking. Marci Alexander, an Augusta City Councilor, has just finished her first three-year term and plans to run again. As MaineGeneral Health’s attorney, as an assistant attorney general in the Maine Attorney General’s Office and as a board member of HealthReach, she knew she had the requisite good listening skills and the appreciation for varied points of view. She also said political party designations didn’t seem to matter as much as a true interest in making Augusta a great place to live.

“At the City Council level, you can really make a difference,” she said.

She’s met many older residents living on fixed incomes, and she knew that tax increases that seemed small to many would be a real hardship for them.
“Their tax bills and oil bills are a big part of their incomes,” she said.

One of the biggest learning curves for her, she said, was absorbing the procedural process and interpretation of rules. She keeps all necessary information for quick reference on her iPad, which helps during discussions at meetings. She also found her past experience in resolving conflicts and negotiating equitable solutions helps her do her job more easily.

Cherianne Harrison of Wilton said a frightening bout with cancer 13 years ago caused her to reflect on priorities and goals for her life. She stepped out of her comfort zone to make a successful run for a seat on the town’s Planning Board. She also won a seat on the Mt. Blue school district school board, and that job has been a challenge. The proposed 2018-19 school budget was a particularly difficult process, with voters in 10 towns voting down three versions of the budget. Unfazed, Harrison is now taking the next step in her quest as a public servant, running for the 114th District seat in the state’s legislature.

“People really want their government leaders to represent their concerns, no matter what party they belong to,” she said. “It shouldn’t be about a letter after your name.”
Lauren Lessing, a Waterville City Councilor, said the challenges which face her as a public servant are well worth the time and energy she spends listening to constituents and solving problems. When she lived in Kansas, she worked with her neighbors to save a local park from a bid by Cingular Wireless to turn it into a cell phone relay station. In Waterville, her motivations remain the same.

The rewards are clear, she said.
“I love being able to help people,” she said.
Lessing said that making sure snow is removed, potholes are filled, and public parking is safe might not sound like exciting goals, but it’s part of the job. She also enjoys her work with colleagues on the city council.

“This year and last, we were able to reach across party lines and find consensus among ourselves on a compromise city budget,” she said. “I’m proud of that.”
All three women said they were grateful for family, friends and their network of supporters to get through the maze of campaign requirements, including gathering signatures, raising funds and getting their message to voters.

“The key is to get out there and meet voters face to face and listen to them,” said Harrison. “I also have such a supportive network that’s always there for me when I need them.”

Lessing has suggestions for female candidates at any level: “Build strong personal relationships with neighbors and constituents and listen to them actively and with empathy. Connect people with one another, seek consensus, make peace when you can and fight when you have to.”

For all women new to the campaign process, whether as president of the local Parent-Teachers Association or running for the state legislature, networking is the key, according to Jennifer L. Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute and a Professor of Government at American University. She wanted to know why so few women ran for office, what happened when they did and the extent to which their presence affected the legislative process. She’s written extensively on the subject.

“When asked what made someone qualified to run for office, women named very specific credentials, like a law degree or a business degree,” Lawless said. “Men mentioned more general traits, like passion and vision.”

Lawless says women hold themselves up to a hypothetical standard that neither they nor anyone else could ever meet.

“I think a lot of it has to do with traditional gender socialization and this idea that a lot of professional fields, certainly politics among them, have been male-dominated,” she said in a recent Politico interview.”

If women enter male-dominated fields, they think they have to work harder than their male counterparts to be perceived as qualified, she said.
“I think that perception is deeply embedded in women’s psyches,” Lawless said.

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