League helps cut through campaign rhetoric

In election year, county chapter proves to be useful tool for voters

Informational events such as the League of Women Voters of La Plata County’s Legislative Lowdown on Saturday at the Durango Public Library are among the core functions of the league, which was founded in 1920, six months before the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified. Enlarge photo

Lucas Hess/Durango Herald

Informational events such as the League of Women Voters of La Plata County’s Legislative Lowdown on Saturday at the Durango Public Library are among the core functions of the league, which was founded in 1920, six months before the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was ratified.

Want to hear local candidates face off on the issues? Read a nonpartisan analysis of initiatives on the state ballot? Learn more about foreign-policy issues?

If your answer is yes, learning about the League of Women Voters might be a good first step.

“Nationally, we have two arms – education and advocacy,” former League of Women Voters of La Plata County President Stephanie Huss said. “But in Durango, we work to keep people informed.”

Starting with a handout published with The Durango Herald to teach high school students how a president is elected and running through ballot analyses and candidate forums, league members are particularly busy in presidential election years.

“We always see a big upswing in membership during presidential elections,” Membership Chairwoman Suzanne Becker said. “We have about 83 members now, but in 2008, we were over 100.”

Not just for women

While the name will remain the same to respect its heritage, men have been joining for years. The League of Women Voters of La Plata County currently has 17 men as members.

“One of our criteria when we were looking to move was ‘Did they have a League of Women Voters?’” former chapter President Sally Bellerue said.

The league celebrated its 92nd birthday on Valentine’s Day – founded in 1920, six months before the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified.

Membership is open to anyone 18 and older. The local chapter doesn’t have any student members, and the average age is around 50, Becker said.

“Most of us are older,” LWV President Trish Pegram said. “That’s probably a function of so many women working. We want members to be invested and active, which is hard with a family and a job.”

Huss, who joined in 2000, agreed.

“I joined when my kids were old enough to feed themselves,” she said.

Huss said someone had recently asked her if the league was still viable.

“I said, for a community this size, we are so relevant,” she said. “We learn about state and national issues, get voters registered, help voters get to know the candidates. I was at the doctor’s office, and he was asking me about some public-policy issues because he saw in the paper that I’m a leaguer.”

Meeting the candidates

Candidate forums for races from Bayfield trustee to the U.S. House of Representatives are among the league’s best-known activities.

“I’ve already booked venues in Ignacio and Bayfield for their town trustee elections,” current LWV President Trish Pegram said. “But we don’t know yet if there will actually be races until we see who declares.”

The group also provides some training for potential candidates.

“One year we gave a seminar for potential school board candidates about what to expect if they were elected,” Huss said. “Afterward, they all decided not to run. Maybe we shouldn’t have let them know what they were getting into.”

Reaching a consensus

“Leaguers,” as they call themselves, work on matters of public policy. Coming up in the next few months is the final gathering of this year’s Great Decisions discussion group, which considers issues of foreign policy, the kickoff of a state LWV study on hydraulic fracturing, and a presentation on the national study of the privatization of services such as water and prisons.

“We are officially and actually nonpartisan when it comes to individual candidates and political parties,” Pegram said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not political. We do advocate for and speak out on matters of public policy.”

Before the League of Women Voters takes a stand on a policy, whether it’s at the local, state or national level, members undertake a study. Studies include getting a good understanding of a topic, whether it’s air quality, affordable housing or federal involvement in education, then creating a set of “consensus questions” for local leagues to consider.

“It’s not a majority vote,” Pegram said. “It’s the entire group talking the issues through. On some questions, there’s no consensus on anything, and that’s what we report. Only when there’s a consensus across the nation will a policy be adopted at the national convention.”

Bellerue, a leaguer since 1973 and a member of the local chapter since 1997, recently was selected co-chairwoman of a state study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“Five years ago, no one knew what fracking was,” she said. “Now, they know it’s out there, but they’re not quite sure what it is. They know it has something to do about water, and they’re a little worried. We want to help the public make educated decisions.”

abutler@durangoherald.com

The League of Women Voters of La Plata County, which accepts men, is nonpartisan on individual candidates and the political parties, but it often takes positions on public-policy issues if a national consensus emerges among the group’s many chapters. Among its members is Deanna Collins. Enlarge photo

LUCAS HESS/Durango Herald

The League of Women Voters of La Plata County, which accepts men, is nonpartisan on individual candidates and the political parties, but it often takes positions on public-policy issues if a national consensus emerges among the group’s many chapters. Among its members is Deanna Collins.

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