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A half-century of civic engagement: League of Women Voters has long history in Woodbury

The League of Women Voters Woodbury, Cottage Grove counts hosting candidate forums among its most important activities. Pictured are candidates in a 2016 Washington County Board race during a forum in Woodbury. RiverTown Multimedia file photo

For as long as Woodbury has been a city it's been home to women interested in organized civic engagement.

As the city celebrates 50 years, the League of Women Voters Woodbury, Cottage Grove chapter is preparing to mark its own 50th anniversary next year.

With membership at about 60 people and a full agenda of public policy discussions and voter registration and informational efforts, the chapter has grown in size and scope since it was founded. The main goal remains the same, though: to "promote political responsibility through informed and active participation of citizens in government."

The chapter does that through hosting elected officials and civic leaders, sponsoring and moderating candidate forums, discussing and taking positions on certain policy issues and helping to register people to vote.

"There's a lot going on all at once," observed Rebecca Fuller, the current chapter president.

Call 'neighbor women'

The Woodbury chapter started with the involvement of just a handful of women. Those early members included Phyllis Letendre, Mary Jane Rohde, Kay Banitt and Shirley Walker. Rohde would become president after the first president's resignation, and she led the League through its formal recognition process.

Letendre moved to Woodbury in 1967 from New Jersey, where she had been a League of Women Voters member for a couple of years.

Phyllis Letendre"The first thing I did was to call the state to find out where the Woodbury League was meeting," she recalled. Letendre was told there was no Woodbury chapter and she and two other women were told to join a chapter in Ramsey County or another in Stillwater.

Ramsey County was different, and Stillwater "seemed so far away," she said.

So they asked about creating a chapter in Woodbury.

"We started immediately calling neighbor women and seeing if anybody was interested," Letendre said. "We called people and got a lot of response."

They planned the group's formation over coffee parties and with about 40 dues-paying members the chapter was established. Their effort started in fall 1967 and the chapter was recognized by fall 1970. A Cottage Grove chapter later merged with Woodbury.

Early meetings were held during the day, when women were available. That changed over time.

"We found that we were losing members because they were going back to work," Letendre remembered. Broader cultural changes affected the chapter. They scheduled day and night meetings, but finally decided to just hold night meetings.

They've studied a range of topics, from watershed issues involving Battle Creek in St. Paul to water quality quality throughout the east metro, and from school class sizes to a new initiative called "aging with dignity," a review of what services are needed for an aging population in Woodbury. After an extensive review process they also have taken positions on certain issues, and they hope to shine a bright spotlight on the congressional and legislative redistricting process.

"We want them to understand that it does have implications for you, even if you might not think so," Fuller said of redistricting. "If districts are drawn according to a (political) party, then that isn't necessarily a favorable right to vote representation for everybody."

The League also is involved in voter registration, said Jodi Ritacca, a League member. Volunteers staff voter registration drives at area high schools and civic buildings. Voter registration is at the core of the League of Women Voters organization, which traces its origins to the women's suffrage movement.

'Hugely popular' forums

For some citizens, their only engagement with the League may come through attending League-sponsored candidate forums in election years. The chapter has always held forums for local and state offices such as city council, school board and the Legislature.

"That's always been a hugely popular aspect of what the League does," Fuller said.

They are sticklers for forum rules. The moderator always is someone from a different chapter. They use a format that includes timed answers and an orderly process. They prepare their own questions and take some from the audience. Members in attendance look for any disruptive audience members, and they have strict rules against observers recording a forum.

The goal is to inform the public.

"One of the things I like about those is they're not debates," Fuller said. Candidates can discuss issues in detail without it turning into a shallower back-and-forth that draws attention away from policy details.

The League touts its status as a nonpartisan organization. Still, they sometimes are viewed as a liberal-leaning organization, by members of the public and some candidates.

"I think it's a carryover from a long time ago, but mostly it's a carryover from not knowing," Fuller said. "They think we're a bunch of liberal women."

"A lot of it is just ignorance of who we are and what we are," she added, stressing members may be from all political stripes.

Local chapters interact with the state organization, and it's possible the Woodbury, Cottage Grove chapter will have an even closer bond with the state chapter for the foreseeable future. Michelle Witte, a League member and District 833 School Board member, recently was hired as executive director of the Minnesota League of Women Voters.

The League will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an annual meeting May 8, 2018, and a larger celebration is planned for Sept. 22.

Meetings of the League of Women Voters Woodbury, Cottage Grove typically are held the third Monday of the month at 7 p.m. at Woodbury City Hall Birch Room, 8301 Valley Creek Road. For more information, go to https://www.lwvmn.org/local-leagues/woodbury-cottage-grove.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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