More than 150 women are running for a seat on the City Council, vying to change a longstanding gender imbalance: The 51-member body currently counts just 13 female members.
While it’ll be months until winners of the upcoming June primaries are determined, female candidates are currently ahead in the fundraising race, treasurer reports filed with the city Campaign Finance Board for a March 15 deadline show. And women of color are among the top fundraisers.
Female candidates have collected on average 17% more money than their male counterparts: $98,045 compared to $84,035 among candidates who have reported any contributions, THE CITY’s analysis of the latest available campaign finance data shows.
Those figures include matching funds awarded by the Campaign Finance Board, which provides $8 for every $1 raised for contributions by most New York City residents of up to $175 for Council candidates.
Women make up 42% of gender-binary candidates, but are winning the fundraising race in 52% of districts, thanks to small donations and the public matching program. Overall, female candidates have pulled in 46% of the $33 million raised so far — including 45% of $22 million in public matching funds.
‘A Grassroots Level’
Seven of the top ten female fundraisers are women of color, THE CITY’s analysis found. In the first three slots are Crystal Hudson of Brooklyn and Sandra Ung and Tiffany Cabán, both of Queens.
Hudson, a former deputy public advocate running to succeed term-limited Laurie Cumbo in downtown Brooklyn and Crown Heights, leads women candidates with $262,000 reported so far. Only Manhattan’s Erik Bottcher, previously Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s chief of staff, has raised more — $300,000 — out of over 360 Council hopefuls.
“People don’t believe that somebody who looks like me or holds my intersectional identities can raise more money than most other people,” said Hudson, 37, who would be the first openly gay Black woman to serve in City Council. “We are here and we deserve to be represented.”
THE CITY identified genders of 361 candidates using campaign literature and photos. These classifications may not be consistent in every case with the candidate’s own gender identity. A nonbinary candidate, Marti Allen-Cummings, is running to succeed Mark Levine on the Upper West Side, raising $240,540 so far.
People working to boost women seeking elected office say that unlike some candidates who prevailed in the past, those in the running often come from modest means, without the elite connections that traditionally power political fundraising.
“For the most part, a lot of the women, especially the ones that we’re seeing now, don’t come from money,” said Amelia Adams, chair of the executive board for 21 in 21, a grassroots organization helping women run for Council.
“They are very on a grassroots level.”
Matching Funds and Confidence Boost
Multiple candidates told THE CITY that a new increase to the CFB’s matching funds formula, from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1, proved a key factor in encouraging them to run.
Voters approved program changes in a pair of City Charter referendums in 2018 and 2019.
Getting even a $10 donation from a district resident is “amazing,” said Ung — turning into $90 she can use for staff, mailers and more. That allows her to spend less time phoning people for donations, she said, and more time campaigning and getting her message out to voters.
“It gave me the courage, honestly,” Ung said of her decision to run. “You don’t have to raise an unlimited amount of money. You are not under the pressure of always constantly raising money.”
Campaign Finance Board Executive Director Amy Loprest said that the city’s program “fundamentally changes how New Yorkers run for city office.”
Small, local donations are behind the female candidates’ surge, THE CITY’s analysis found.
Political action committees have made larger contributions to male candidates, but local donors gave more to female candidates. On average, campaigns with female candidates received $64,373 in matching funds, compared to $56,086 to male candidates.
Meanwhile, political action committees sponsored by labor unions and business groups have given more of their money to male candidates than female candidates so far, CFB records show.
Among the successful female fundraisers for 2021 are candidates who’ve lost in the past, like Amanda Farias and Lynn Schulman.
Farias, 31, last ran in 2017 for The Bronx seat won by Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr., who is not seeking reelection. The biggest “learning curve” for her four years ago, she says, was just getting accustomed to feeling comfortable being the hub of a frenzy of attention and activity. It’s still difficult for her today.
“I think as women of color, we tend to lean away from taking up too much space or not being the center of attention,” Farias said. “To be a candidate you are basically the center of everyone’s world around you, because everyone is trying to get you to win.”
Although women make up a 52% majority of the city’s population, they have yet to take a majority in the Council.
At a high point in 2009, the 51-member Council counted 18 female members, according to a 2017 study by the Council’s Women’s Caucus. Two women have served as City Council speaker since the job was last redefined in the City Charter in 1989: Christine Quinn and Melissa Mark-Viverito.
The report investigated the continued lack of representation of women in government. It looked at how structural barriers like traditional gender roles and a lack of support from stakeholders and incumbents created a “political ambition gap” — despite research showing that men and women win elections at equal rates.
Yvette Buckner, vice chair of 21 in 21’s executive board, said that “women typically have to be asked three to five times to run before they run.” She also noted the practice of elected officials often selecting and shaping their successors, who are usually men.
“There’s several different districts right now that have never seen a woman up in that leadership position,” she added.
Ung, a frontrunner and the top fundraiser in the race to succeed term-limited Councilmember Peter Koo, said that she never thought she’d have the opportunity to be a contender.
“I always thought in order to run for public office, you have to come from a family that knew somebody, never for average people,” said Ung, 45. “I honestly wasn’t sure I had the personality or the connections to ask people for money.”
Seeing other women run and win resoundingly, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-The Bronx/Queens), encouraged her, she said. If Ung wins, she’ll be the first Asian-American woman to represent Flushing and Murray Hill, which has a predominantly Asian population.
Councilmember Carlina Rivera of Lower Manhattan, who is seeking reelection this year and may run for City Council speaker, has endorsed a slate of 13 female candidates whom she said embody “the diversity in representation that we need in the Council.”
“I thought it was important to make a point on how difficult it already is being a woman in the current cycle to break through. Because of all the things we face as we run: sexism, double standards, asking for us to have certain experience and then discrediting it, questioning our electability,” Rivera said.
“I feel that people are waiting at any moment to discredit.”
Why Female Representation Matters
Policy makers and experts say more female representation leads to a greater focus on issues that primarily affect women, such as childcare, maternal mortality and reproductive justice.
When U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn), now 75, first ran in 1982 to represent a Manhattan City Council district, she said that “most elected officials, politicians, candidates didn’t look at me, or didn’t look like me.” In 1986, she became the first Council member to give birth while in office.
“I remember when my first child was born, I went to the personnel office to ask about leave,” Maloney said. “They said, ‘Leave? You don’t have leave, you just quit.’”
Councilmember Helen Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), who co-led the 2017 report, said that “without a doubt” she believed her two terms would’ve been different if more women had been elected. Female members also wouldn’t have to join so many of the Council’s 36 committees in order to guarantee they have representation on them.
Two committees — one focusing on Fire and Emergency Management and the other on Technology — consist entirely of men.
“Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t need a Committee on Women and Gender Equity?” Rosenthal asked. “The truth is it’s really hard to get there.” Three of that committee’s five members are currently men.
Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, said more women running for and winning Council seats would create a pipeline of politicians for state and federal legislative offices.
Female representation at the local level also matters in immediate ways, Greer said.
“City Council members deliver goods and services that families critically need quickly,” said Greer. “Whether it’s ‘My landlord turned off my heat’ or ‘My water isn’t working,’ that’s the granular, local process that the City Council members are supposed to help you with.”
Rivera said that greater representation in the Council is critical because women can see how issues “most starkly affect” women, particularly women of color. In a special election set for March 23, it’s possible that The Bronx’s District 15 will elect Elisa Crespo, who would be the first trans woman Council member.
Tiffany Cabán, who identifies as queer and running in Astoria to succeed term-limited Costa Constantinides, sees a “a mass movement across the city to get more women, women of color, queer women, women at the intersection of all the identities,” in the Council.
“I think what we’re seeing is sort of the fruits of our community organizing efforts and a deeper investment in the electoral process as a strategy to build power within our communities,” said Cabán.