Suffolk Closeup: Welcoming women in government

TIMES REVIEW PHOTO Laura Jens-Smith

TIMES REVIEW PHOTO Laura Jens-Smith

In Suffolk County — and all over the United States — last week’s election saw great victories for women to enter government. There were many breakthroughs.

Laura Jens-Smith, for example, was elected supervisor of the Town of Riverhead, the first woman elected supervisor of Riverhead since the town was founded 225 years ago.

Ms. Jen-Smith is president of the Mattituck-Cutchogue Board of Education and a project director with the North Fork Alliance which combats substance abuse among area youngsters.

Through the centuries, only six women have been elected to the Riverhead Town Board. Winning with Ms. Jens-Smith last week to take a seat on board was Catherine Kent. Ms. Kent has been a teacher in Riverhead for 31 years.

In the Town of Southampton, Ann Welker was elected to the Southampton Board of Trustees, the first woman to become a Southampton Trustee since establishment of the panel in 1686. Yes, 331 years ago.

The Southampton board predates the United States and was created by a royal decree, the Dongan Patent. It’s one of the oldest governing bodies in North America. The Trustees serve as stewards for the more than 25,000 acres of bay bottoms, shorelines, waterways and marshes for the “freeholders and commonality” of the Town of Southampton.

Ms. Welker studied animal science at Cornell, has a graduate degree in business from Adelphi and has spent years teaching swimming, including ocean swimming, paddleboarding and water safety to youngsters and adults.

“I share my love for, respect of and appreciation for our fragile marine environments and therefore create awareness and hopefully engagement with the environment on behalf of my students,” she noted during the campaign. She’s also a volunteer with the Eastern Long Island Chapter of Surfrider and involved with its water testing program.

Ms. Welker’s dad, John “Ral” Welker, with whom I taught for many years at Southampton College, would be so proud of his daughter’s election as a trustee. Ral, who died in 2012 at 84, was a marine biologist and a founding member of the Southampton College marine science program.

In neighboring Nassau County, Laura Curran was elected the first female county executive in the history of that county.

Women still have far to go on Long Island and in the nation in achieving government office. Here in Suffolk, for instance, there has never been a female county executive or a woman representing Suffolk in the U.S. House of Representatives or New York State Senate. There’s now only one female town supervisor among Suffolk’s 10 towns (with Ms. Jens-Smith there’ll be two).

Still, as a story last week in The Washington Post was headlined: “Women Racked Up Victories Across the Country Tuesday. It May Be Only the Beginning.”

The first woman to become a town supervisor on Long Island was Judith Hope when she was elected to the helm of East Hampton town government in 1973. It was a time when all levels of government were a virtual men’s club.

Looking at the results of last week’s election, I smiled when I saw the name Lynne Nowick and her being re-elected with the most votes of any candidate for Smithtown Town Board. I first got to know Ms. Nowick 50 years ago.

She was then Lynne Cannataro, the daughter of Eugene Cannataro, a farmer who for 24 years was a member of the Smithtown Town Board. I was covering Suffolk cops-and-courts for the daily Long Island Press, and Lynne was a secretary in the District Court Bureau of the Suffolk DA’s Office.

All the assistant DAs working in the bureau, as I recall, were men, all the secretaries women, a gender division widely existing in government and business then.

There would be change — fortunately for Lynne and us — in her time. She ran for Smithtown receiver of taxes and then for the Suffolk Legislature, where she did a superb job focusing on environmental preservation, consumer issues and fighting drug use by youth. Term-limited after 12 years in the Legislature, she first ran for the Smithtown Town Board.

The Washington Post story began by noting that “until yesterday, only 17 of the 100 members of the Virginia House of Representatives were women. Now the number will surge to nearly 30.”

There has been an “explosion of women candidates who have entered the political stage since Donald Trump was elected president one year ago. The wave is likely to continue. In 2018, 40 women are already planning to run for governor.

Dozens more are considering congressional and other statewide office bids. And Tuesday’s results have already become a rallying cry for activists seeking to draw even more women into the public square.”

It’s been a long time coming.

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