Harbor Style — Harbor Style March 2018
Change Language:
Restore The Voice
Rusty Pray

The Charlotte County chapter of the League of Women Voters lends a strong voice to the conversation.

The League of Women Voters may have its roots in the suffragette movement of 100 years ago, but today it is as much about civil discourse as it is about voting rights.

“This is a way to try to talk civilly about some of the issues, which is so hard to do these days – and maybe get some sense into government,” said Jean Finks, a retired attorney and the vice president of the Charlotte County chapter.

Julie McGillivray, the chapter’s president, nodded.

“Part of the mission of the league is to try to bridge that divide,” she said. “There’s so much partisanship now. We have an opportunity here now to cross over those boundary lines.”

The two women were sitting next to each other at Burg’r Bar in Punta Gorda. They convened with treasurer Janet Dahl and recording secretary Julie Stewart for a little lunch before an executive board meeting. They call themselves the four Js. The session was held about a week before the monthly general membership meeting.

The local chapter goes back to 1965, according to Finks. The national organization traces its origin to 1920 and Carrie Chapman Catt. She founded the League of Women Voters during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, according to the national league’s website.

On August 26, 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting voting rights to women. The fight for women’s voting rights wasn’t easily won. The suffrage movement literally spent 72 years – more than half of the 19th century and the early 20th century – fighting for that right.

Various sources describe Catt as a suffrage political strategist. She was an organizer for the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1890 to 1900, and she followed Susan B. Anthony as its president.

On Valentine’s Day, at the 1920 Suffrage Association Convention – six months before the 19th Amendment went into effect – Catt called for the creation of what’s become the League of Women Voters.

Since its inception, the league has been an “activist, grassroots organization” focused on voters playing a vital role in democracy.

The idea behind the league was to encourage and educate women on their newly acquired right and on issues. Catt and the other founding members agreed the organization should be nonpartisan – a stance the League of Women Voters still takes.

It takes positions on issues such as health-care reform, immigration and the environment. It serves as a watchdog to gerrymandering, money in politics and voters’ rights. It publishes voters’ guides.

The organization’s original purpose was to encourage the newly enfranchised to show up at the polls and educate women on issues. Over the years, the league took on a wider mission, and in doing so took on men as full voting members in 1974. The League of Women Voters organizes hundreds of candidates forums throughout the county before elections. Millions of voters have come to rely on league forums as places where they can interact face-to-face with would-be office-holders – including Charlotte County.

But when it comes to candidates, it has no opinion. The League of Women Voters was born nonpartisan and it’s sticking to its neutral ground. You can be Republican, which most voters are in Charlotte County. According to statistics compiled by the Charlotte County Supervisor of Elections office, 45 percent of the county’s 129,408 registered voters are Republican. Still, you can be a Democrat. You can be an independent. It makes no never mind to the league.

“We welcome people of any party affiliation or no party affiliation to join the discussion and the process,” McGillivray said.

The history of the local chapter does not follow a straight line from the 1960s to today. It came into being with 36 original members and has been “waxing and waning ever since,” Finks said. It waned to a nadir when it lost its official designation as a Florida chapter. It was reborn soon after, and the current incarnation is a continuation of that rebirth.

“The fever has broken, and we are getting well,” McGillivray wrote in an email.

For years, the local League of Women Voters was an animated voice in the Charlotte County conversation. It sponsored voter information seminars at election time and produced the Charlotte Citizens Guide. Its members served as volunteer registrars. It conducted a study of schools. It sponsored trips to monitor the Legislature.

According to published reports, in the mid-1980s it was responsible for the first comprehensive study of water resources in the area. In the late ‘80s, it researched and produced more than a dozen detailed studies that led to Charlotte County’s adoption of its first comprehensive plan. In 1990-91, the league researched the first comprehensive study of the airport, its management and the adjoining industrial park. It reported on commissioners and the school board.

So, it was busy. And it spoke to voters through its work.

But then, it got quiet. It went silent – almost. There were any number of reasons, but according to published reports, one day in 2008 the membership had somehow dwindled to six – three if it was taken into consideration those who had not paid their $50 annual membership dues.

The three who formed what was left of the organization – Paula Hess, Doris Conboy and Ingrid Carroll – had managed to host candidates forums before the November elections that year. But later they told a reporter from the Charlotte Sun, Steve Reilly, it was possible those forums could be the league’s last. There was too much work and not enough people. It was that simple.

Because Charlotte County had only three dues-paying members, it was no longer considered chapter. It was defined as a member-at-large unit.

“We came to the League of Women Voters as retirees, and now we are in our senior years,” Conboy told Reilly at the time. “It’s tough physically to keep up. We don’t have the manpower to recruit new members.”

Carol Eliason, a former president, wrote in the April 21, 1998, Sun: “The death of Charlotte County’s League of Women Voters, following as it has on the heels of the demise of Tax Watch and the Concerned Citizens’ Coalition, leaves the government of Charlotte County free to govern without the restraining force of organized public opinion. We can only hope that it does not lead to unbridled abuse of the public interest.

“Participating in the ‘last rites’ of the league must have been a lot like being in attendance at an assisted suicide of an old friend. She was suffering from old age, dulled sensitivities, loss of mission and organizational anemia. All of her old friends and supporters were dying off and, unfortunately, she had no young people to console her or to carry on with her work.”

But Reilly’s article in the Sun about the three remaining members had caught the eye of Teresa Jenkins. She and friend Cheryl Temple, who had been involved in the league before they moved to Southwest Florida, decided to do something about it. They were joined by Betty Sulfridge and Steve Nelson.

By February 2009, Jenkins was serving as president, Temple as vice president and Nelson as treasurer. They had pumped up the rolls to 10, including themselves, Hess, Conboy and Carroll.

Jenkins, now president of the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library and still a member of the league, remembers those days.

“I had just moved here about 2007, and the Charlotte Sun had a front-page, above-the-fold article on the League of Women Voters no longer being in existence,” Jenkins recalled. “I called Cheryl Temple and said, ‘We can’t let this happen.’ She agreed.

“We met with the three women and said we were interested in making sure the league would still be active in Charlotte County. We hated to see it go away. We became members. We established some programs we thought would be of interest to residents of the county.”

In order to devise those programs of interest, they turned to the Sun’s letters to the editor, Jenkins said. The paper’s letters to the editor are sometimes idiosyncratic and often are controversial, but they always reflect accurately the concerns of Charlotte County residents.

“What we were doing was defining what was of interest to citizens of the county,” Jenkins said. “At the time, phosphate mining was a big local issue. In some instances, people were angry about what was going on.”

The league gave the local fist-shakers a place to, if not vent, then to hear both sides of an issue through hot topic luncheons and other popular programs. Those programs became recruiting tools.

“We went to about 60 when we walked out door” as officers, Jenkins said. “We kind of dug it out of the grave and it’s still going.”

These days, Jenkins serves as an advocate for independent voters in Southwest Florida. “There’s a growing population of citizens not registered with either political party,” she said. That number is continuing to grow. I help them feel like they’re not alone, that there’s a voice here.”

She believes the league needs to nurture relationships with the county commissioners as well as Supervisor of Elections Paul Stamoulis.

“Working with Paul and county commission on issues that the league is interested in, as well as citizens of Charlotte County, will go a long way toward building up to a vibrant organization,” Jenkins said.

Stamoulis did not respond to email queries or phone calls seeking comment.

McGillivray is about that business. “Cinderella has plans to dance between 2018-2020,” is the way she put it in an email.

In the same email, she outlined the plan to fully restore the league’s voice in Charlotte County. The key elements, she wrote, are wider visibility in Charlotte County and better understanding among residents of what the league does. She believes the league needs a more active presence on social media – it has a website, www.wvccfl. org, and a Facebook page.

She wants to “use the Charlotte County League website and Facebook page to explain pending legislation, bills and referendums,” she wrote. That would “provide a free, valuable service to the public.”

One of her concerns had been finding a suitable brick-and-mortar place to hold issue and candidate forums. She recently learned from Charlotte County that the league can use the old courthouse building in Punta Gorda for public forums and town halls.

Chalk one up.

McGillivray also has her eye on the league connecting with “communities of color.” Of the 12 people who attended a recent monthly meeting of the league, 11 were women; all were white; all were older.

McGillivray said the group doubled in size in 2017, the year she and the other members of the executive board were elected. “We have hopes to do so again in 2018,” she wrote. “Interest in the League of Women Voters has piqued since the 2016 election season. Voters want to become informed and involved. The league offers them a starting place to do so.”

Obviously, attracting voters of a younger and more diverse demographic is key to the life of the league. That, of course, would increase membership, and in turn would help bolster finances, another stated goal.

McGillivray ardently wants the league to once again become the “go-to, unbiased arbiter hosting town hall events, community issue forums and candidate debates…This will raise our visibility and relevance in the eyes of the voting public.”

In other words, do what the League of Women Voters does – educate voters and bring to the fore issues in a nonpartisan presentation that invites civil discourse rather than finger-pointing and name-calling.

For instance, McGillivray said that in 2017, the local chapter helped collect signatures for a petition to place a referendum on the 2018 ballot calling for the restoration of felons’ voting rights. Other issues range from “voters’ rights to gun safety, to the environment, to women’s health care and reproductive rights, among others,” she wrote.

Don’t for one minute think the league is shy about taking a stand on an issue. Immigration is one hot-button issue, and the national organization has been outspoken about it.

At the end of January, the League of Women Voters national president, Chris Carson, issued a statement through a press release in response to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban:

“The League of Women Voters is opposed to deportation of non-criminal undocumented immigrants.

“The League supports cities, towns, counties and states that make a decision not to cooperate with federal deportation and enforcement actions that include non-criminal undocumented immigrants. Moreover, the Trump Administration’s orders are of dubious legality.

It is simply wrong, and a perversion of the American system of justice, for the executive branch to refuse to obey federal court orders.”

Closer to home, the league has been watchdogging Rick Scott’s appointments to state Supreme Court as the Republican’s time as Florida governor comes to a close.

“He has been turning down qualified candidates for judgeships around the state until he gets what he considers a suitably, let’s face it, Republican group,” Finks said.

The league will write letters, lobby and litigate to drive its point home.

“We are a reckoning for the Legislature,” Finks said. “They know we have some power.”

That perspective filters down to the local chapters. In turn, grassroots legwork walks up the ladder to the state and national organizations.

“Last year, Jean Finks and I attended our state convention, where we represented our league,” McGillivray wrote. “Jean and I voted, on behalf of our Charlotte County chapter, on various planks and issues, which make up our state consensus platform. All members of our chapter are invited to attend leadership training and our state convention. Only a year ago I attended the leadership training, along with Jean Finks and Julie Stewart. This enabled us to assume a board position after last year’s chapter vote.”

McGillivray said that one of the issues she’d like to see discussed in town halls and issue forums is “that many states are taking a position that if you’re an inactive voter, and you don’t vote for one or two election cycles, that they’re purging your name off the rolls.

“As far as I’m concerned if you don’t show up to vote, you should not be purged from the voting rolls. If you choose not to vote, that’s your constitutional right.”

Any one of those topics – from the national organization’s stance on immigration, to the state league’s view of Scott’s bench appointments, to a local leaguer’s concern for voters’ rights – would make for lively debate in Charlotte County.

Call them hot topic luncheons, citizen forums, gripe sessions – call them what you will. They deserve an airing. They deserve conversation. They deserve points of view presented in an unbiased environment. The League of Women Voters can bring that about.

“Nonpartisan and moderate forces have seemingly fallen out of favor the last few years,” McGillivray wrote. “Our group has been a casualty of this trend. That said, in the midst of a partisan war of words and attrition, no-party-affiliates are becoming the largest voting bloc. In the jungle of fake news and slanted/negative political ads, many voters are searching for balanced, objective sources upon which to base their votes and formulate opinions.

“This is the sweet spot which I intend to lead our group: fair, objective, nonpartisan, and well-sourced.”

Restore the voice, and let it be heard.