Tuesday’s election has brought the Bangor City Council its first female majority in history.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that women started getting elected to the nine-person council, and never have more than four women served at the same time, according to city records.
That will change next week, when Angela Okafor and Susan Hawes are both sworn onto the council after they each received more than 1,600 votes on Tuesday. They will join current Chairperson Sarah Nichols and councilors Clare Davitt, Gretchen Schaefer and Laura Supica, bringing the total number of women on the panel to six.
That’s a big turnaround from Nichols’ first two years on the council, between 2015 and 2017, when she was the only woman in the group.
“I just thought, ‘How far we have come in four years,’” Nichols said Wednesday.
Although the Queen City had a roughly even split of men and women in the last U.S. Census count, it wasn’t until last year that women made up more than a third of city councilors.
Now, the City Council has reached the milestone of having a majority of women after three male councilors didn’t run for re-election this fall. Out of a large field of 11 candidates, two men and two women were elected to the four seats that were up for grabs — Okafor, Hawes, Rick Fournier and incumbent Councilor Dan Tremble.
Research has demonstrated the benefits of sending more women into elected office. Besides resulting in more policy proposals that directly advance women’s rights — such as paid leave and programs targeting violence against women — it has also been associated with gains in population health, according to the World Economic Forum. Elected women also tend to be more collaborative and consensus-building than men, according to studies.
Nichols, 29, said that she has tried to elevate issues such as public transit during her time on the council, but that it was hard to be vocal when she first joined the group because she felt isolated by the combination of her gender and young age.
Since then, more women have joined the Bangor City Council. That’s in part due to statewide programs such as Emerge Maine, which trains women from the Democratic Party to run for elected office. In Bangor, Nichols, Davitt and Supica all have received training from Emerge Maine, according to Nichols. The Maine Republican Party also runs a similar program called She Leads.
Now that Bangor voters have elected several other women to the council, Nichols said she expects the group to find more compromise and agreement as it tries to improve the Community Connector bus system, implement a new trash collection program next year and consider other proposals.
She said that it’s not just the gender of the new councilors that will help improve the tenor of the group’s discussions, but the other types of diversity and experience that they bring to the table. Okafor, for example, is a 36-year-old attorney and entrepreneur who just became a U.S. citizen this year after emigrating from Nigeria more than a decade ago. Hawes, 63, is a dean at Beal College who has previously served multiple terms served on the City Council.
While the council has had “tense moments” in recent years, Nichols said, “I don’t foresee that being an issue in this coming year. When it comes to divides, I think we’ll be in unison even if we disagree. There are times when Laura, Clare and I don’t agree, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to hate on each other or anything.”
At the same time, Nichols said that voters here and elsewhere can learn something from the support that Bangor has given to women and minorities.
“They should be proud that more people can be included in municipal government,” Nichols said. “That sends a positive message to outside communities about how we treat people who live here.”