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On the Campaign TrailHistory Prof. Rebecca Edwards Runs for Office

After the presidential election last fall, History Prof. Rebecca Edwards decided it was time to get more involved in politics. A few days after the inauguration, Edwards went to a meeting of the Dutchess Democratic Women’s Caucus and asked those assembled there what they needed. “‘Candidates!’ they screamed at me,” Edwards recalls.

Professor of History Rebecca Edwards (center) with her campaign team, Janet Gray, Professor Emerita of Psychological Science (left) and Sarah Mamlet ’20

This summer, Edwards and a campaign team that includes a Vassar student and a recently retired faculty member are hard at work helping her secure the Democratic nomination for a seat on the Dutchess County Legislature. Edwards’ first task: going door-to-door to obtain the requisite number of signatures from qualified voters in her district in Poughkeepsie to get her on the ballot.

So far, Edwards says, she’s enjoying her first try for elective office. “I see it as a form of service, much like teaching,” she says, adding it’s often easier to make a positive contribution as a local politician than it is at the national level. “Instead of just complaining about climate change, I can work to get solar panels put on our county government buildings,” she says. “And I may not be able to re-shape the entire economy, but I can work to get county funding for summer jobs for our young people.”

“Instead of just complaining about climate change, I can work to get solar panels put on our county government buildings. And I may not be able to re-shape the entire economy, but I can work to get county funding for summer jobs for our young people.”

Edwards says she’s just beginning to engage in discussions with people in her district about their priorities, but her major concerns include the opioid epidemic, affordable housing, proposed cuts in public transportation, and a recent change in the county tax system that she says is draining revenues from municipalities. “I’ll be holding a series of meetings with community residents to ask them what’s most important to them, so I may be adding some things to this list,” she says.

One of Edwards’ former students, Sarah Mamlet ’20, of Acton, MA, is spending the summer in Poughkeepsie to help on the campaign. Mamlet will be overseeing the candidate’s social media sites, helping out with fundraising, and handling other chores that arise. “I took Rebecca’s six-week course on the presidential election last fall, and I come from a politically active family,” she says. “Working on a local political campaign is a good way to get to know more about the community, get outside the Vassar bubble, and learn what’s important to people here.”

Gathering signatures to run for a seat in the Dutchess County Legislature

When Vassar students return to campus in the fall, Mamlet plans to recruit some of them to work on Edwards’ campaign. She and Edwards say they’ll also work with the non-partisan Vassar org Democracy Matters to encourage students to register to vote. Edwards’ legislative district includes about one-third of the campus, including the townhouses and three residence houses, Cushing, Ferry, and Noyes.

Edwards has enlisted Janet Gray, who retired this year as a professor of psychological science, as her campaign manager. Gray certainly has the requisite experience in local politics. Her husband, retired physics prof. James Challey, served on the municipal governing bodies, first in the City of Poughkeepsie and then in the Town of Poughkeepsie. He is currently chair of the town Zoning Board of Appeals. Gray said Edwards knew she had helped Challey run his campaigns, so she and Gray sat down recently to talk about her decision to run for a seat on the County Legislature. “At the end of the meeting,” Gray says, “Rebecca asked me to run her campaign.”

“It’s dawned on people that you have to pay attention to local politics to develop a bench of people who can move on to the next level.”

Gray says Edwards isn’t the only political newcomer who decided to run for local office. “Rebecca is part of a large slate of candidates who are running this year,” she says. “It’s encouraging to see this renewed energy among Democrats. It’s something I haven’t seen in a long time.”

Mary Williams, president of the Dutchess Democratic Women’s Caucus, says she remembers meeting Edwards at that meeting last January. “I’m really happy Rebecca decided to run – she’s an ideal candidate, well organized and enthusiastic,” she says.

The next goal, Williams says, is to win some of these local elections to sustain this renewed energy. “Winning local elections is critical, and I’m optimistic,” she says. “We’ve never had so many people involved since the DDWC was founded 12 years ago, and there’s a lot of money coming in for the candidates. It’s dawned on people that you have to pay attention to local politics to develop a bench of people who can move on to the next level.”