In 1920, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters after the passage of the 19th Amendment, to equip women to exercise their right to vote.’
By Margot Clark-Junkins
In 1920, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters after the passage of the 19th Amendment, to equip women to exercise their right to vote.
Fast forward to 2009, when the LWV’s local chapter was perilously close to being decommissioned. Former LWV President Catherine Parker approached fellow resident Debbie Reisner, who had just completed a run for City Council, and asked if she would step up. Reisner, now in her third term as President of the Rye-Rye Brook-Port Chester chapter, is a firm believer that citizens deserve “a safe space to learn about policy and to debate issues.”
Among the 75 members are both men and women. With annual dues of $65 for an individual ($85 for a family, $25 for students), members enjoy opportunities throughout the year to chat with policymakers and each other about the issues. An excellent reason to join, says Reisner, is that you will enjoy intelligent conversations with folks of all political and cultural backgrounds, and you will play a direct role in raising the level of political discourse in your own community.
An annual party is held to mark the opening of the Election Season. This year’s event, “The Grapes of Autumn,” was hosted by Joe and Roz Carvin of Rye Brook. Last year’s opening party was hosted by Barbara and Fred Cummings and included a chance to “Meet Your Mayors” from the four municipalities: Rye, Rye Brook, Port Chester, and the Town of Rye.
There is a lot going on at the LWV. After New Year’s, there is a fundraiser to benefit student outreach, a vast array of programs designed to get students involved in local politics. “Running and Winning” encourages two young women from each high school to “step up” into the political arena. “Students Inside Albany” sends two students for a three-day immersion in Albany. The Student Civic Achievement Award honors one high school junior who has demonstrated leadership and civic engagement. The “Tools For Change” seminar for high school students is taught by a professor from Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute. Students are tasked with examining problems in our area and then present their research to the Rye Town Council. (Most recently, they’ve been addressing the topic of food insecurity and hunger in our communities.)
In addition to student outreach, the LWV puts together and hosts issue forums. They identify a topic and invite speakers with a range of perspectives to debate the issue. The issue forum addressing the Affordable Housing Stipulation brought together three mayors, a Federally appointed monitor, two HUD representatives from Westchester County, and one from Washington, D.C.
The LWV also offers a variety of voter services; they sponsor candidate forums, register citizens to vote, and produce a useful tool we have all relied upon at one time or another: the voter’s guide. It is important to note that one thing the LWV never does is to endorse candidates. They wish to remain non-partisan because it facilitates discussion. “But we will vigorously defend the people’s right to be informed and actively participate in their government and in the democratic process,” stressed Resiner.
When asked about voter turnout, Reisner grimaced and described it with a single word: “anemic.” “It’s a national problem,” she acknowledged. What about the uncontested runs for office throughout the county? More complicated, she explained. Could be a lack of interest, could be that the incumbent is doing a perfectly good job. Could be that potential opponents choose not to run because we all suffer from divided attention and busy lives. And “democracy is messy,” added Reisner. “Running takes courage, resources, and time.” Conflict is necessary if we are to have a dialogue, she pointed out. And someone must prevail in that dialogue, if decisions are to be made. That is democracy.
Reisner takes inspiration from her father, an attorney with a passion for American history. “I grew up in a house where dinner conversation was ‘What do you think and why do you think it?’” Her father will be speaking at the League of Women Voters Fireside Chat, a fundraiser on November 23. The topic: “Richard Nixon and the Prelude to Watergate.” If you are thinking of joining the LWV, do it, said Reisner. “You don’t have to be political to be engaged.”