‘Madam Mayors’ Share Success Stories and Advice (video)
(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 1, 2014)
Fighting and faith were themes that came up repeatedly in the “Madam Mayors” discussion with the Women Officials Network on Feb. 28 in West Bloomfield. Mayor Deirdre Waterman (Pontiac), Mayor Brenda Lawrence (Southfield), and Mayor Marian McClellan (Oak Park) spoke to a room of over 50 female elected officials from throughout the Oakland County area.
They fielded questions about what led to their success, and what advice they would have for other women in the often male-dominated world of politics. Each one shared the need to get past personal worries and focus on a greater calling, and they each developed essential skills for tackling problems and handling attacks.
Mayor McClellan shared a story of one way women hold themselves back. “This one story, it’s about this girl who is a translator, Hebrew to English,” McClellan said. “And she was in her 20s and she was offered a job to translate a document, but she hadn’t experienced documents before. But her parents had a friend who had done that. So did she take the job? No, because she ‘wasn’t ready.’ And I talked to that girl. I said if you were a guy you would take the job, learn on the job, and find out from your mother’s friend how to translate that document. A little hutzpah goes a long way.”
McClellan knew first-hand what it was like to feel hesitation and self-doubt. “I was one of the typical women that have been active in politics for 20 years, but on the side supporting other candidates. And at a meeting I was asked to run. And I think typically for women I thought I’m not ready, I’ve not enough to offer. You know, it’s what we do to ourselves as women, I think,” she said. “I became interested in doing it because I believe in inclusive, respectful public service. And I wanted that for our city, and I wanted growth for our city. I looked around and other cities looked very dynamic and we looked very tired. And so I felt strongly that it was time for a change.” McClellan defeated a 20-year incumbent in Oak Park, and the city has seen growth under a new City Manager, a new Communications Manager, and the hiring of an Economic Development Manager.
Being able to get past self-doubt was easier once she had faith in a bigger vision for her city. “I think that if we take the purpose off of us, and put it where it belongs on the issue, we are not as afraid to get up there and advocate. There comes a turning point when you realize talking, it’s not about you, What you look like, and what are people thinking about you. It’s about they need to hear this message. And when you flip that focus it becomes possible to do that.”
Mayor Lawrence and Mayor Waterman were both pulled into political leadership in part because of love for their local libraries. In Southfield there was debate about whether the library should be built in a grandiose way or not, while in Pontiac Waterman had invested in fundraising to improve the library, only to see it face being closed down in the midst of economic struggle for the city.
“We had a dusty little library there that nobody was paying much attention to… We turned that into a library where we increased patronage 15 times and I really have a passion for education and buying books for children and so we took it from there to another height. We got multiple people who were interested in supporting the library and supporting the issue of education and literacy in our community and it sort of grew in momentum from there,” Waterman said. She was simply a businessperson, an opthamologist, who wanted to give back to her community. Six years after the start of her library advocacy, Waterman found herself in the position to run, and win, for Mayor.
Having a good heart and a sense of purpose is not enough to win in politics. Each of the “Madam Mayors” had enlisted the help of political campaign manager Chris Jensen to help them get their message out and toughen them up for the stresses of public life. Mayor Lawrence called her “a very talented, tenacious and passionate woman,” and “a mayor maker.”
Waterman, like most politicians, had to balance faith in her purpose with a strong backbone. “When you have to dig in in those days when you have to get out there and get on the campaign trail, and you have to take those barbs and arrows that are slung at you, sometimes you have to look deep within yourself and say ‘Why did I do this? Why did I do this?’ And for me it was because I had a message and I had a purpose.”
Mayor Lawrence learned hard lessons on the job in how to work with others and manage the tension of facing political fire. “I often tell women the best lesson is to learn how to fight in public. We aren’t taught to show raw emotion. We’re docile. We’re crying. Then someone saves us. When there are times to kick someone’s butt it’s usually not in public,” she said. “The first couple of fights I had in public were not pretty… I wanted to call you names other than what your mother gave you. I wanted to stand up and fight you. And I had to learn how to have that heated debate, be attacked and stay on point.
She added that “men are not as strong as they claim to be. They have learned to master the exterior. That was my greatest lesson, to learn how to fight then stand up and shake your hand after the fight. Because, you know what, when we fight with somebody, we don’t talk to you for the rest of your life… But you have to know that this fight may end up being your greatest ally on the next issue. And so you fight the issue.”
Mayor McClellan learned to be more assertive. “At one of my first council meetings the former mayor came in with a diatribe, calling me ‘Mrs’ McClellan instead of ‘Mayor McClellan,’ which is a real regular way of demeaning women is not using their title. I reacted the first time away we usually do, which is get smaller, put our head down, tilt our head, and look up and smile which is like the submissive pose,” she said.
“So I read the book, that you all must get, called Hardball for Women. Hardball for Women talks about how men take up a lot of space, not using a quiet little voice but using a strong low-toned voice, not smiling when you’re attacked, [using your] game face. Assertive. Not saying ‘I think this might be a great idea’, but ‘I recommend this.’ There are things that are learnable, that we can learn. And it was amazing for me that they were in a book. So get the book.”
A big comfort for all the “Madam Mayors” was having the support of other women. The Women Officials Network brings women together across party lines for support and sharing of ideas and resources. Mayor Waterman explained how it can be an advantage when women from all over the area support each other emotionally and financially. One of the key parts to Waterman’s campaign was a fundraising idea called “100 Dynamic Women for DW” campaign. “I think being a woman in this political climate is only a barrier if you let it be a barrier,” she said. “Look for ways that we can work together and continue to support each other.”
For more information about WON go to their website at http://www.womenofficialsnetwork.org/
For a previous story on WON, featuring Debbie Stabenow, visit https://oaklandcounty115.com/2013/11/25/senator-stabenow-speaks-to-women-elected-officials-video/.