How Women on Long Island are changing the Local Political Landscape

By Quari Alleyne

Women were at the forefront of the 2018 midterm election, but regardless of their political affiliation, their political experiences remain similar. Female politicians on Long Island are testaments of this.

Siela A. Bynoe is in her fourth year as Nassau County legislator. She is the only African-American female on the legislature and feels like she has been treated aggressively by her male counterparts. Bynoe, a 40-year resident of Nassau, has long refuted the idea of biting her tongue when dealing with issues she’s passionate about.

“I am always going to assert myself because this is not about me,” Bynoe said. “This is about the people I am in service to and if I have to be uncomfortable or make the room uncomfortable to ensure that my constituents’ concerns are being addressed then I will do so.”

Hempstead town clerk Sylvia Cabana (D) shares some of the same experiences as Bynoe. Cabana, born to immigrant parents from Argentina and Cuba said that microaggressions were something she had to face both as an immigration lawyer and as town clerk.

“When I first became a lawyer, [older men] didn’t think I was the lawyer,” Cabana said. “They thought I was the secretary. They just didn’t believe I was the lawyer.”

Cabana’s parents stressed the importance of education to her from an early age. Her father immigrated to America from Argentina on a work visa over 40 years ago and Cabana said she uses him as her inspiration to serve as a role model to young children, especially young girls, in her community.

“Here in the town of Hempstead, there is a very large population of Hispanic children,” Cabana said. “A lot of them are learning English as a second language and, when they see that I speak English and Spanish, their eyes light up. I want the kids to know that they can do anything.”

As of 2017, women hold 75% of the seats in the Nassau County Executive Branch. The increase of women in local and statewide politics can often lead to an idealistic change that puts an emphasis on family and the people first, Leonie Huddy, co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, said.

“Often times we’ve seen evidence at the state level that when women grow in numbers and get to about 40 percent you can see a shift in agenda towards more family centric kinds of policies,” Huddy said.

Women from both parties agreed that, while in office, they are often driven to enforce policies and ideas that were more family oriented. Many say it is due to their roles as mothers and caretakers.

“I think as women, we are more caretakers and more mommying [sic],” Leslie Kennedy (R), Suffolk County legislator for the 12th District, said. “But we also see the broad picture. Women look at today and think, ‘if I do this action today, in two weeks, what’s the result going to be? In year what’s the result going to be?’”

Legislative aide to Fifth District legislator Kara Hahn (D), Alexandra De Rosa, echoed the same sentiments. De Rosa said that Hahn and other women who have careers in public service positions such as nurses and in Hahn’s case, social workers.

“Most of us come from jobs where we’re working people on a daily basis,” De Rosa said. “A lot of the legislators are teachers, or nurses. It almost serves us better in positions of public service.”

De Rosa also spoke on the importance of female representation in politics, noting that she worked on the State  Senate prior to becoming an aide to Hahn. She said that the growing number of women in the field is not only inspiring, but necessary.

“[Hahn] has these meetings sometimes with certain groups of people that will be men where she’ll constantly feel like she’s being spoken over,” De Rosa said. “She has to repeat herself so many times, but as soon as a man makes the same point, he is heard. But the fact that she doesn’t let it get to her and she’ll still persevere is certainly inspiring.”

Much like Alexandra, Hahn mentioned that the inspiration to enter politics was all about representation and seeing someone who looked like her accomplishing great feats.

“It was about seeing a woman doing it,” Hahn said. “It really does make a difference when you see someone that you can relate to, that is a little bit like you, whether it be your gender or your race. It helps to envision yourself doing it. I never would’ve thought I could it unless I saw it being done. I knew I could do it and I’m glad I did.”

Erin King-Sweeney (R), Hempstead’s 5th District councilwoman, knows the importance of representation all too well. Unlike many of the featured women, her political role model didn’t share her gender, but rather her last name and DNA.

Under the tutelage of her father, Congressman Peter T. King, King-Sweeney grew up with a front row seat to how the world of politics works, but the lessons she learned from him were more about family than policy.

“He’s always said, win or lose an election, it doesn’t matter,” King-Sweeney said. “It’s your family, it’s family’s health, those are the issues that are everything. You can never let an election define you because you can easily lose.”

73 percent of the women in Congress are Democrats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. King-Sweeney, who identifies as a Republican, criticized her party for their lack of female representation.

“I bring a lot more to the table than just my gender,” King-Sweeney said. “That all said, the local Republican party needs to not be afraid of women. We need to encourage women. I applauded the Democratic women in Congress for trying to start the dialogue for a better schedule for Congress. I saw firsthand the affect a congressional schedule can have on a family, let alone a mom or single mom.”

The need for women in politics is at an all-time high, Bynoe said. Especially considering the current political state we’re in and pointed to the special qualities that women possess to a community together.

“When there is significant turmoil in communities [or] in governments, women do have an innate ability to help reconcile and help heal communities,” Bynoe said. “I believe that nurturing with equal complements of being very assertive will yield results and people, at a time such as this, they want results.”

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