By Vicki de Vries
When Election Day rolls around November 4th this year, how many residents of New Castle will enter the voting booth with an air of confidence, familiar with the candidates and the issues?
Despite over 12,000 registered voters in New Castle, chances are that a significant percentage will still lack the information needed to make an informed decision.
The League of Women Voters of New Castle to the rescue! Courtesy of the League, all households in New Castle will receive a mailed copy of the annual Voter’s Guide with its vital information on the candidates from the local to the federal level, their positions and other related topics. This year, three state-wide propositions are up for a vote, making the guide all the more invaluable.
Co-President Sheila Miller Bernson said, “The New Castle League pays to have the guide mailed to every household in New Castle. It costs thousands of dollars for us to mail these out. Most people think their taxpayer money has paid for the Voter’s Guide, but it comes out of the League budget.”
Clearly, the Voter’s Guide, also found in the local library, community center, and some supermarkets, provides a major community service. But that’s not all.
Helping To Keep the Wheels of Democracy Turning
“We encourage people to register, vote, and become well-informed about candidates and issues,” said Mary Kirsch, the local chapter’s Voter Service Chair. In that statement resides a world of dedicated members willing to roll up their sleeves.
Active all year long, the New Castle League provides a host of important civic services to residents. Fostering its goals, the local chapter sets up a booth on New Castle Community Day to encourage voter registration. On September 23rd, National Voter Registration Day this year, the League set up a voter registration table near the local Starbucks in Chappaqua. And when Westchester Community College holds its Registration Day, the League helps to register prospective voters on campus.
Every year in March, the New Castle League also sponsors “Conversation with the Supervisor”; this event, historically held only in the mornings, now runs an evening session too so that more people can hear Supervisor Greenstein discuss the state of New Castle and take questions from the audience.
League members also serve as observers at school and Town Board meetings. When the New Castle League got started in 1949, the Town Board at first was suspicious of the members who were only trying to be well-informed citizens!
Even high-school students have a place in the League. “For the past three years, we’ve sent a New Castle student to the State League’s four-day ‘Students Inside Albany’ conference to learn about State government,” said Lea Barth, Membership Chair.
One of the newest programs is “Running and Winning,” a day-long workshop that Co-President Jennifer Mebes Flagg says gives Westchester high-school girls “a chance to meet with women elected officials and learn what it means to run for office.”
Last but not least, the New Castle League sponsors “Candidates Night,” at which candidates get to present their positions and take questions from the public. This year, Candidates Night falls on October 23, and will be held at the Chappaqua Library.
True to its roots, the New Castle League is non-partisan, meaning it does not endorse a candidate or a political party. That kind of position vis-à-vis candidates is quite remarkable.
But, then again, being non-partisan has been a hallmark of the parent organization since its own inception in 1920, when Carrie Chapman Catt founded the League of Women Voters. Some marvel at her prescience as just six months later, the historic 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote.
When the national organization modified its charter in 1973 to permit men to join its ranks, all of the other state, county and local leagues followed suit. Today, the New Castle chapter boasts over 100 members, some of whom are men. Few know, for example, that Bruce Gilchrist once served as a New Castle League president.
Taking a Stand on Issues
An objective observer could easily say that the New Castle League does enough already. But the members don’t see it that way!
From its very inception, the League of Women Voters has taken advocacy seriously. The New Castle chapter is no exception, having tackled a variety of national and local issues including, but not limited to, gun control, fracking, affordable housing, health care and education over the years.
Before the League takes a position of its own, Co-President Bernson explained, it follows a highly disciplined consensus process. League members listen to a presentation of both sides of an issue, discuss it for an hour or more, and then put it to a vote. If there is no unanimous vote, the local League does not take a public stand on the issue, even if the State and National Leagues have taken stands.
While the League might take an official position on an issue, Flagg said it also “provides a rationale for both sides of that issue, and allows voters to make up their own mind” through educational forums which are paid for out of membership dues.
Sometimes the issues are tied in with educational endeavors. “This year, together with a Bell student, we cosponsored a screening of the film Girl Rising, which is about the education of girls around the world,” Flagg said. “And in 2012, we cosponsored with Chappaqua’s Temple Beth-El the film Miss Representation, which is about how women and girls are represented in the media.”
“When I first moved to town over 20 years ago,” said Carol Hurford, a member and past president of the New Castle League, “the League… played an instrumental role in studying and educating our citizens on the pros and cons of professional town management. After reaching consensus, it worked tirelessly to achieve such management for the town.” In fact, “no other organization in New Castle provides the non-partisan, in-depth issue study or education services on local issues that the League does.”
The League has always had an international focus as well. The National League, which was supportive of the founding of the United Nations, sends representatives to serve as observers, while the New York State chapter sponsors “League Day at the UN” to tour the facilities and focus on issues of special concern to women. Additionally, in 2012, the New Castle League organized its own trip to the UN and spent the day learning about human trafficking.
Some of the positions the National League has taken are decidedly controversial. One such position was its objection to the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which the Supreme Court held up as constitutional in 2007. Given its overall goals, modus operandi and substantial achievements, the League is to be commended for its commitment to the democratic process and the ideals of fair play, consensus and non-partisanship toward candidates and political parties. And, yes, for its willingness to study all sides of a controversial issue and take a position on it.
Flagg’s comment captures it all: “The League can be a powerful force in issues.” For example, “the New York State League has taken a position on the redistricting proposal and is advocating voters to vote ‘yes’ this November on Proposition 1.”
Clearly, “in addressing local, state, national or international issues, our LWV hats are ever changing,” said past chapter president Suzanne Maltz, who is an alternate observer to the United Nations for 2014-2015. “Our willingness to try on different hats is very challenging, and that’s exactly the way we like it!”
The Consensus Is In
While a lot of the work of the New Castle League is time consuming, the members find a great deal of satisfaction in being part of it. Public service and civic responsibility aside, a less promoted side of the League is the camaraderie it exudes.
“I feel it is a privilege to sit around a table at meetings, listening to really intelligent women discussing subjects that are important to everyone,” said New Castle League Board Member and Treasurer, Barbara Cardone, “not only in our community but around the world.”
Echoing Cardone’s sentiment, Bernson added, “When I moved back to this area in 2006, I joined the League to get to know people and find out about our town. It’s a great way to get to meet impressive, smart women.” And men!
Barth, who is tasked with keeping the League’s presence in the public eye, pondered, “Without the local chapter, where would people in New Castle have gotten non-partisan information for the last 65 years?”
“If people are interested in good government and transparency,” she continued, “they should support organizations like the League, which thinks it’s important for people to know who is funding political campaigns regardless of what side of the aisle–labor unions, George Soros or the Koch Brothers, et al–the money is coming from.”
By now, the “consensus” should be unanimous–the New Castle League serves the public well.
Barbara Gerrard, former Town Supervisor and League member, attributes the success of the New Castle League to its “smart, dedicated and hard working” leadership through the years. “We all benefit from their outstanding efforts.”
Bernson, whose late mother-in-law, Mary Bernson, was the first President of the New Castle League, described it “as a breeding ground for people who go on to do public service.” For example, the late Marion Sinek “went from being the President of the New Castle League to being Supervisor of New Castle and held positions with the State League.”
Perhaps most telling of all is the praise from former Assemblyman Bob Castelli: “I’m a fan of the League! It gives the little guy a chance to be heard and serves a very valuable purpose for all of us. It’s always given me a level playing field and an opportunity to present my case to the people I want to serve.”
Castelli’s endorsement makes a clear and compelling case for why the New Castle League truly deserves everyone’s grateful support. And keep an eye out for your Voter’s Guide.
The League contact information is LWVNC, P.O. Box 364, Chappaqua, NY 10514 or www.lwvnewcastle.org. Annual dues: $65 for an individual, $95 for a family, and $21 for students.
Vicki de Vries, a freelance writer/editor and educator living in Westchester “country,” casts her vote for the LWV of New Castle.