Reality Check: 16 women on Buffalo's Common Council since 1832

Nov 5, 2019

A record number of women ran for office in 2018, with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leading the way in 2016. The trend has continued for 2020, with a record six candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. In Buffalo, however, the glass ceiling seems thicker and less penetrable than elsewhere.

A 2018 study by the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women found women comprise 52% of the county's population, 49.5% of the labor force and 53% of registered voters. However, two-thirds of elected offices are held by men, compared to only a third by women - and most of them are in the suburbs. For nearly six years, women have held 0.0% of elected positions in Buffalo's political hub, the Common Council.

WBFO obtained a list of all Common Council members since the city's incorporation in 1832. The total number of members has changed over the years, but here is how they break down overall:

  • 16: Total female members since 1832
  • 1957-1961: First female member, Cora Maloney, represented the Masten District until her death
  • Late 1990s-early 2000s: Most active period for female members; multiples at one time
  • 2000-2001: Women made up the majority of members
  • 2004-2014: Bonnie Russell, representing the University District, was the last female member to serve and the only female that decade
  • 2014-Present: No female member

Several women were endorsed by minor parties this year, but their petitions were disqualified. Outgoing Fillmore District Common Councilmember David Franczyk said candidates need to do their homework.

"New York State election laws are really pretty liberal. If you don't get on the ballot, that's kind of ridiculous. Read it, understand it, show it to an attorney, show it to other people," Franczyk said. "A couple of women that ran didn't know what the rules were. They got thrown off the ballot, so the fault was theirs, really when you come right down to it."

He said everyone should be encouraged to run.

"Men, women, anybody, but it's up to them. You can't force people to run," he said, "so if they don't want to run, there must be some reason."

Bonnie Russell was not successful her first time running for Common Council. It took two tries.

"I didn't have any major endorsements at all. I had eight people," she said.

All eight of those working on her campaign were women except one, but they were all determined.

"A group of community leaders came together. They had a meeting. They said we want you to run again and they guaranteed they would support me and, believe me, they did. They kept their word," said Russell, now secretary to Family Court Judge Mary Carney. "It was grassroots."

And once she got into office....

Cora Maloney was the first women elected to the Common Council in 1957.
Credit Uncrowned Queens Institute

"It was wonderful being the only woman all that time. It was really great. No one individually treated me different because I was female. I had a district with over 30,000 people to run and no time to play games," she said. "Maybe because I didn't look at myself as being different. I looked like I was as equal as they were. It was my job to get for my district, just like it was their job." 

Russell is married to City Court Judge Robert Russell, but has not remained active in politics herself since leaving the Council. She recommended someone to take her seat, but a former chief of staff for Council was chosen instead.

Her advice to any candidate deciding what kind of person you are and sticking to it.

"Am I going to get in there so I can become important? Do I want to get there so I can rub shoulders with other high-class people? You know, if that's what you're thinking, don't do it," she said. "You have to have passion for the job. You have to be committed to the cause. And you really have to have tough skin."

"It's shocking and appalling," said Kartika Carr, integrated voter engagement and fundraising lead organizer for VOICE-Buffalo. "I was not even aware that there were only 16 women since 1832. That number sounds absurd. If you would have told me 16 women since 2000, that number would have made more sense to me. That's alarming."

VOICE-Buffalo recently expanded into making people aware of opportunities for civic engagement, elected offices and their roles, the importance of voting and the like. Carr sees the lack of female representation on the Common Council as a social justice issue.

"It's important to have representation across all public offices, across all different roles, including all the people that work in City Hall and all the roles that support people in power, so that Buffalo can be the community it needs to be as we continue to grow, so we'll all have a seat at the table and be represented equally," she said.

And it is not just to elect a woman for a woman's sake, or push a woman's agenda for some affirmative action quota, she said.

Hillary Clinton's run for president in 2016 energized female candidates for office, but was it a just a blip?
Credit Eileen Elibol / WNED I WBFO

"We believe that inclusion across party lines, across racial identities, gender orientations, all those things are important, so that we have a well-rounded view and can come up with collective solutions," Carr said. "Whether it's men, women, black, white, latinx, immigrant, disabilities, whatever. Our community needs to do a better job making sure our people are represented."

"Buffalo has always been sort of a parochial town and it's been tough for women to break in through that glass ceiling here, and so those numbers regarding the Common Council are not surprising to me at all," said said Diana Cihak. "I think it's part of the challenge we face, both getting women to run and helping them win."

Cihak is founder and president of Women Elect, a four-month program started in 2010 by WEPac that helps women get ready to run for elected office in Buffalo, Rochester and Auburn.

"I can tell you that it's been dramatically easier for women who have graduated from the program in other areas to be accepted into the party structure and be supported when they run," she said. "That has not been the case here in Buffalo."

"In the suburbs they might feel like they can make a bigger impact because it's a smaller community and maybe Buffalo feels like a bigger fish to fry," Cihak said, "but I do have a number of women who have wanted to run for Common Council and for a number of reasons, have not been able to make the ballot."

"We need to have conversations about how to support women in executive positions and that is something that we have not done a great job at doing as a community," said Carr, "and we really have to start having intentional conversations on how we're going to change the demographic if it does not equally represent everybody that falls within the city."

Carr said Western New York has been behind on "a lot of these issues."

"But we're currently at a moment when we actually starting to identify what those barriers are and how we can better support each other, and we're entering a moment when we're starting to be more collaborative and less divisive, which is important," she said, "but I still think we have a lot of work to do in the near future."

"It's demonstrated in study after study," said Cihak. "When you bring women into positions of leadership, they perform differently than men do, so making sure you have parity, you have a balance of all those voices, is going to lead to better outcomes, both for economic growth in the community, but for quality of life issues."