Date: April 1st, 2003
Mayor Ruth Garner is rarely challenged in an election and when she is, she wins convincingly. She is practically an institution in Potsdam, N.Y., the town she has called home all her life. And at a time when politicians are often viewed with suspicion, the village of Potsdam will stick with its outspoken mayor, thank you very much.
"She's pretty darned candid," said Michael Weil, village administrator. "If you're afraid of what she is going to say, don't ask."
At 87, Garner doesn't see a need to sugar-coat anything. But the truth is, she never really has. She is now serving her seventh two-year term, her fifth consecutive term in this "era," as she describes it. Her first two terms were in the 70s - a challenging time for women in politics.
In her small community nearly 30 years ago, city officials and residents were reluctant to adapt to the changing times. Some tried to discourage her from running for office. Even once she was elected to the village board, others on the board failed to take her seriously. One such official said to her, "Now. What are we going to do with you?"
These days, she holds no grudges and instead shrugs such comments off. "I don't blame them," she says. "It was difficult for them."
"Doing the right thing for people no matter who they are"
Despite whatever problems others may have had with her presence, Garner never used her gender as an excuse to stay detached. "I found a lot of women didn't realize they had the power to change things," she said. "I told them, 'you'd better be involved, because someone somewhere is making decisions about how your life is going to be from when you're born until you die.'"
Garner clearly loves Potsdam, describing it in lavish detail as a virtual utopia surrounded by mountains and rivers, a little Camelot. Even before running for office with the encouragement of friends and acquaintances, she stayed visible in her cherished community, serving on committees and boards for the hospital, library, schools, and church.
"She's not a radical in the sense that she's out there burning bras," Weil said. "She's a radical in that 'I'm doing the right thing for people no matter who they are.'" In addition to her work as mayor, Garner is an activist for causes that are close to her heart. She lost a son to AIDS during a time when little was known about the disease.
She has since become actively involved in helping parents understand and cope with their grief - a grief that is compounded by the stigma that still surrounds the disease. She speaks to area classes about "how parents have to cope with something where bias plays such a part. There's no other illness where you have to justify why your child is sick and dying," she said.
An ability to get things done
Garner's father, an Irish union man, had raised all of his children to take an interest in public affairs, discussing current events with his family at the dinner table each evening. He encouraged the children to have opinions and ideas. But success in local politics is about more than speaking your mind. Garner is also celebrated for her political savvy and ability to get things done.
Once she was working for the community officially, it didn't take long to teach her detractors that she was fully up to the job. Potsdam was in the middle of a phase of what Garner describes as "disastrous" urban renewal. A traffic snarl downtown was creating controversy. A bridge was needed to divert some through-traffic from a congested two-block area, but officials could not agree on a solution. As a candidate, she promised to make the bridge happen.
Shortly after she was elected, she and a small delegation went to Albany and obtained authorization for their bridge from the state department of transportation. Despite the squabbling at the time ("you start something and you wonder why," Garner said), village residents now question how they ever lived without it.
While she was educating others about her own capabilities, Garner was in for her own education about the political process. "Things are not done the same in government," she said. "When you go in, you think you're going to cut a big swath. Thank God someone came before us and put a system in place so you couldn't do that."