Suffolk Closeup: A long time coming

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION Something to hope for.

There has never been a woman representing Suffolk in the New York State Senate, but that will end in the new year when Monica R. Martinez becomes a state senator.

The story of Ms. Martinez, born in El Salvador, an educator who took a pay cut from her position as a middle school assistant principal after becoming a Suffolk County legislator, is an American story, especially regarding the changing demographics of the United States.

“I came to this country at the age of three,” Ms. Martinez of Brentwood stated in her literature during her run for the State Senate. “My parents sacrificed so much and fought so hard to give me the opportunity to succeed, that I have dedicated my life to the belief we must make the opportunity to fulfill the American dream available to everyone. That is the reason I attended college and became a teacher. It is the reason I stepped up to serve the community in the Suffolk County Legislature. And it is the reason I am running today for the New York State Senate.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news: There are only two women among the 10 town supervisors in Suffolk and there will be only men representing Suffolk in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has been the case for more than two centuries.

Although Ms. Martinez broke through a political glass ceiling, the other four senators from Suffolk will be men. And further, of the 12 members of the State Assembly representing Suffolk, only one in the new year will be a woman.

One out of 12! That’s not fair or equitable considering that women comprise more than 50 percent of Suffolk County’s 1.5 million population.

There have been two women in the Suffolk Assembly delegation this year and last. But incumbent Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino lost in last month’s election.

The one woman in Suffolk’s Assembly delegation will be Kimberly Jean-Pierre of Wheatley Heights who was re-elected to a third two-year term. She is the daughter of immigrants to the U.S. from Haiti. Like Ms. Martinez, who received a bachelor’s degree from Binghamton University, a master’s degree in secondary education from NYU and an administrative degree in school leadership from Stony Brook University, Ms. Jean-Pierre is also well-educated. She received a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a master’s in public policy from Stony Brook University.

Both have extensive community experience, Ms. Martinez as a high school social studies teacher and school administrator and Ms. Jean-Pierre as director of the Wyandanch Resource Center. Before that she was a vice president of the Babylon Town Industrial Agency, and before that she worked as community outreach director for former U.S. Representative Steve Israel and was an aide to Suffolk Legislator DuWayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature.

Speaking of glass ceilings, Legislator Gregory is the first African-American to attain what is considered the Number 2 position in Suffolk after county executive,

“On the stumps and on the march, women broke down barriers in 2018,” was the post-election headline in The Christian Science Monitor. The headline was moderated with a sub-head in the middle of the page noting: “Women’s representation in federal government jumped in 2018, but they still make up less than a quarter of Congress.”

The U.S. and Suffolk County still have far to go in terms of women in elected office.

When I first started covering Suffolk County in the 1960s, the county’s governing board, the centuries-old Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, made up of the supervisors of each of the county’s 10 towns, consisted of 10 men. Its members throughout its history were only guys — white guys, incidentally.

The big breakthrough in terms of women in Suffolk County came in 1973 with the election of Judith Hope as East Hampton Town supervisor, the first woman town supervisor in Suffolk. Ms. Hope, however, was too late to be a member of the Suffolk Board of Supervisors, since it was phased out in 1970 for a Suffolk Legislature based on districts of equal population, a result of one-person-one-vote court decisions.

The Suffolk Legislature has had an O.K., but not great, women membership — currently five of the 18 legislative seats are held by women. Among them is Bridget Fleming whose district includes Shelter Island. And women have been presiding officers of the legislature.

Ms. Hope went on to become chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Party, the first woman to head a major political party in New York State. And she subsequently launched the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee committed to the important mission of bringing more women into elected office in the state.