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Practicing What She PreachesHistory Professor Rebecca Edwards Wins Local Seat

History Prof. Rebecca Edwards likes to tell her students, “If we believe in democracy, we have to practice democracy.” Before she teaches her first class in the spring semester, Edwards will be practicing what she preaches. In early January, she’ll take her seat as one of 25 members of the Dutchess County Legislature, representing a district in Poughkeepsie that includes part of the Vassar campus.

Edwards, a Democrat, received more than 53 percent of the vote in a district that had been represented by a Republican for the past 10 years. She credits renewed energy among Democrats with helping to propel her to victory, noting voter turnout was considerably higher than normal for an off-year election in her own race and in many others across the country. “We all got a big boost on Election Night when the Virginia gubernatorial results came in (Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Edward Gillespie),” she says. “And a couple of hours later, we gathered to watch Democrats in contested races for the county legislature cross the finish line.” Edwards also ran on the Working Families, Green, Women’s Equality and Reform party lines on the ballot.

Edwards’ campaign manager, Psychology Prof. Emeritus Janet Gray, says she wasn’t at all surprised by the result. “By Election Day, I was fully confident, especially when we saw how good the turnout was,” Gray says. “It was amazing to watch Rebecca carrying out all her duties as a full-time faculty member and still having the energy and drive to run this amazing campaign.”

Edwards confesses she had some Election Day jitters as she waited for the votes to be counted. “It’s a helpless feeling waiting for the results,” she says. “I just kept thinking, ‘Was there something I could have done that I didn’t do?’”

“There’s a new phrase—‘The New Blu’—and I was a part of that. We had more than 100 new people involved in campaigns in Dutchess County this year, and many of them were women.”

There probably wasn’t. Joined by Vassar students and faculty and other close friends, Edwards and her team canvassed neighborhoods, mailed more than 2,500 pieces of campaign literature (much of it hand-signed by Edwards), and spoke at numerous community events. She says her success was due in part to the energy created by other first-time Democratic candidates and their supporters. “There’s a new phrase—‘The New Blue,’” Edwards says, “and I was a part of that. We had more than 100 new people involved in campaigns in Dutchess County this year, and many of them were women.”

Edwards knocked on more than 1,000 doors in her district but notes there was one she failed to reach. “I was chased out of a yard one day by an angry white poodle,” she says. “He was one serious dog.”

Vassar student Sarah Mamlet ’20, who spent the summer in Poughkeepsie working on Edwards’ campaign, says she never considered the possibility that one of her favorite professors would lose the election. “I guess I was naïve to think that, but Rebecca was so organized and so driven I never once thought she’d lose,” Mamlet says. “I was in my dorm when I heard the results, and I felt so proud to have been a part of the campaign,” she says. “Rebecca is amazing; if someone needed a ride to the polls, she’d get right on it and find someone. If one of her campaign signs was vandalized, she’d be out there replacing it.”

Lizzie Chadbourne ’18, president of the Vassar Democrats, says she has admired Edwards since she took a history class with her after she transferred to Vassar from New York University as a sophomore. “I was captivated by her energy then and was captivated again during this campaign,” says Chadbourne, a political science major from Sausalito, CA. “She’s totally engaging, and she knows so much—I call her a fiery encyclopedia.”

Chadbourne says she and other members of Vassar Democrats worked with members of another Vassar org, Democracy Matters, to help students register for the local election.

Edwards says she decided to get involved in politics in part because of the shock and gloom she shared with many of her friends on Election Day 2016. She says she’s encouraged by the renewed political energy she witnessed this year and is optimistic that many American citizens will continue to “practice democracy.”

“I don’t think this is a one-time thing,” Edwards says. “I’m seeing a generational shift. I think most people will stay involved.”