Lehigh Valley Live: The significance of Bethlehem electing 1st female-majority council in 104-year history
By: Sarah K. Satullo
When Olga Negron was sworn into her first term on Bethlehem City Council in 2016, she was the lone woman on the seven-seat governing body.
Things will look very different when Negron, who opted to not seek a third term, leaves council in 2022.
Bethlehem voters in the Tuesday primary selected four women to join Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt at the Town Hall dais come January, creating the first female-majority council in the united city’s 104-year history.
“Every single council in the history of Bethlehem up until this (new) council has been majority male,” Van Wirt said. “This slight counterbalance to that historical phenomenon gives me great joy.”
This isn’t just a historic moment for Pennsylvania’s eighth-largest city. The election results mirror national gains made by female candidates in recent years. A record number of women are serving in state legislatures in 2021, holding 30.8% of offices across the country. Pennsylvania now ranks 31st nationally for the proportion of women in its state legislature, an improvement over 11 years ago when it ranked 46th, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
More and more women, many of them people of color, are running for elected office. Nationwide, women now hold 30.5% of municipal offices, including mayoral offices, city councils and similar bodies, according to the center.
Yet, women are far from the majority in government. Women comprise just 26.5% of the current Congress. Of the nation’s 50 biggest cities, only 16 have majority female city councils. The top states for women’s representation in municipal office are Hawaii (50%), Alaska (46%), and Colorado (44.4%).
Bethlehem voters on Tuesday endorsed Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith for another term and selected political newcomers Rachel Leon, Hillary Kwiatek and Kiera Wilhelm over Councilman Bryan Callahan, who was seeking his third-term and had considered a mayoral run. Council President Adam Waldron opted to not run again.
All of the women are Democrats and they face no Republican opponents in November’s election. They will join Councilman J. William Reynolds, who is the Democratic nominee for mayor, and Councilman Michael Colon on the body barring anything unforeseen. If Reynolds defeats Republican John Kachmar in the mayoral race, one of the new council’s first tasks could be filling Reynolds’s seat.
“It says a lot about the community as well as the interests and desires of the community,” Negron said of the election results. “It was all good news to have all the powerful women in there. I am happy to retire. The city is going to be in good hands.”
Gone are the days when a candidate’s sex alone was a matter of controversy. Female candidates for office once had to justify how they could run their household and serve the citizens of Bethlehem. Today, female candidates face questions about housing the homeless, police reform and climate change.
Crampsie Smith’s appointment to council in 2019 marked the second time in history council had three women serving at the same time. The first female trio came in 2006 with Karen Dolan, Jean Belinski and Magdalena Szabo. No female alliance arose out of either council, they often differed on a wide range of issues, but they brought new viewpoints to the table.
When women are in the majority, policies that benefit families rise to the top, said Yari Aquino, deputy director of campaign communications at EMILYs List, a national group that helps to elect Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights.
“When women are elected to office they have proven to prioritize the issues that impact families most,” Aquino said. “From the women leaders in New Mexico who took tremendous strides towards increasing access to reproductive health care and paid leave, to Nevada, where the women majority strengthened penalties for domestic violence and expanded access to health care — when we elect women, real progress is made.”
EMILYs List helped elect more than 400 women to state and local office this election cycle and flipped 54 seats to Democrats, with an intention of increasing representation and diversity, Aquino said. Out of those wins, 150 were women of color and 29 were LGBTQ+ women, she noted.
But there’s still more work to be done, Aquino said. In 2021, women only represent 50% or more of state legislators in just one state: Nevada. Six state legislative chambers are now majority women: the Nevada House and Senate; Colorado House; the New Mexico House; the Arizona Senate; and the Rhode Island Senate.
The impact of female-majority state legislatures have been substantial. For example, New Mexico lawmakers passed a bill providing paid sick leave to private sector employees and repealed the state’s 1969 abortion ban, Aquino said.
At the local government level, there are fewer opportunities for sweeping laws to support families. Although, no matter the number of female members, recent Bethlehem’s city councils often champion progressive causes, like marijuana decriminalization and a climate action plan.
This new slate of councilwomen are likely the most progressive yet, though there’s little precedent. Dolan, Belinski and Szabo were only the fourth, fifth and sixth councilwomen in modern city history.
Councilwoman Cathey Reuscher, who was appointed to replace Mayor Bob Donchez on council, opted not to run in the 2015 race the same year Negron won Dolan’s unexpired term. Negron often felt like she was trying to break into a boy’s club as the lone woman when she took her seat in 2016.
Negron faced pushback from council when she didn’t do things the way they’d always been done, such as vetting her grassroots ethics reform ordinance with the city solicitor before introducing it.
“It was really tough to be on council with just men for many reasons,” Negron reflected Friday. “They didn’t even know how to talk to me many times I felt. I have a strong voice and it was really tough in the beginning. I think I earned my stripes and showed my voice and that I have followers. That was why I was the highest vote-getter the second time I ran. I think it has shifted. The boys — as I call them, I am like a grandmother — have changed. It took time, but they understand the voice is here and we are here to stay.”
Negron’s presence shook up council so much that when Van Wirt was appointed in 2018 she felt a very different atmosphere.
“I do feel my voice is listened to on council regardless of my sex,” Van Wirt said. “You do have that inherent power of being an elected official, (which adds an authority). I have not experienced the same type of sexism in my political life as I have in professional life.”
The elder care doctor is often assumed to be a nurse in the nursing homes where she works. Many of her patients grew up in an era where doctors were men and nurses were women. She’s fielded complaint calls from families saying their loved one has not seen a doctor in months, yet she’s been caring for them the entire time.
“They inherently don’t recognize me as a doctor. I don’t have that male voice,” Van Wirt said. “I don’t have that male authority. It has been a real learning process for me coming on to council and learning my voice.”
Men controlled Bethlehem’s city council for decades after Bethlehem and South Bethlehem merged to form the current city in 1917.
Elaine H. Meilicke, a Republican mother of two, became the first woman to win a council seat in 1961. She resigned in 1965 when she moved out of the city and council appointed Ann F. Ardoline, also a Republican, to finish her term.
Men continued to dominate until 1973 when local civil rights leader Dolores Caskey, a columnist for The Bethlehem Globe-Times, became the highest vote-getter. Caskey is still the only woman to serve as council president, which she did for two terms. The Bethlehem community passionately backed Negron for council president in 2020, but a majority backed Waldron.
It wasn’t until 1998 that Belinksi brought a female voice back to the city’s governing body.
“The only people in the past who felt they could run or were qualified to run or were perhaps tapped by the local political entities of the day were men,” Van Wirt said. “Now that has flipped. I don’t think it has flipped because they are women. I think it is despite the fact that they are women. They have persevered. It is time to have the best possible people elected and they happen to be women.”
Negron’s taken an inclusive approach in her time on council, trying to recruit other candidates to run. She prodded Wilhelm for almost two years, she said.
Van Wirt credits Negron with lifting her up and helping her find her way on the governing body. She waged an unsuccessful mail-in bid for council before she was appointed to fill a vacancy and Negron backed her effort.
“She promoted me at a risk to herself and I’ve never forgotten that,” Van Wirt said. “She fully believed I had the background and the qualifications and the viewpoint to represent the people.”
At the time, Negron recalls she was facing opposition to her comprehensive ethics reform and Van Wirt became a regular at city council meetings, which mobilized her to run.
“Even though I knew I was taking a chance to have me lose and her win (I had to do it),” Negron said. “This is the conversation I had with my daughters, ‘What is the worst thing that can happen if I help Paige? Council will still have a powerful woman in there and it doesn’t have to be me.”
Negron accepted it might mean she lost, but her selflessness had the opposite effect. This exposed her to a wider group of voters and she was the highest vote-getter. While she may be retiring from council, Negron says she won’t be disappearing.
“I will keep encouraging others, especially Southsiders and Latinos to run and I’ll still be around,” she said. “I will still have my voice and speak out any time I feel I should.”