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Working to empower, educate voters

The issues the Willmar Area League of Women Voters study and talk about are decided at the grass-roots level, according to Suzanne Napgezek of Willmar, and Claire Juhnke, of rural Willmar, who is co-president of the league with Andrea Carruthers.

The goal of the league is to empower citizens to shape better communities worldwide. They believe in respect for individuals, the value of diversity, the empowerment of the grass roots, both within the league and in communities, and the power of collective decisionmaking for the common good.

This nonprofit organization encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. It does not support political parties or candidates.

Napgezek has been a member of the league for about 36 years and Juhnke about 15 years. Napgezek said when they first moved to Willmar there were a number of organizations that contacted her that she was interested in joining, but she chose to make a commitment to the League of Women Voters because it was a great way to meet women who wanted to talk about ideas and issues. “I found I was starting to talk like Sesame Street with three little kids at home, and it was a great introduction to meet really nice people in the community and establish some relationships.”

Juhnke said when she first joined the league, it started out mostly as a social outlet. She also wanted to meet adults. She had young kids at home, and her husband was gone several months out of the year. “I thought this was a good chance to meet some intelligent, mature women and be able to have a social time, as well as learn about important things in my community. I was fairly new to Willmar, and this was a good opportunity for me to know the goings on in this town.”

When you belong to the league you do so at three levels, the local, the state and national. “It’s encouraging to think that the issues the League of Women Voters study and talk about are decided at the grass-roots level, said Napgezek, going on to explain they have a planning meeting every year where they talk about the important things that are going on and what they’d like to learn about and maybe help make a difference about. She said they study and discuss that information, take positions on it and that helps decide what they can lobby about. “We have to decide as an organization what we are concerned about, and we’re an issue organization. We don’t ever take a position for a particular candidate or a political party, its only issues that we study and, as a group, we’ve taken a position on.” Those things they can lobby about, she said, and the people who speak about those issues are the officers, their presidents at whatever level it is.

Juhnke said the number one issue is always voting, because the birth of the organization revolved around women’s suffrage, getting the right to vote and making sure everybody has that right to vote.

“That is clearly not a partisan issue because when you think about the millions of dollars spent each election year just trying to encourage people to get out and vote for their conscience, their choice of candidate and the issues that are important to them, that’s our primary issue.”

When they talk about properly run government and a good functioning government, any issue that’s connected to that, is an important one for the league.

Napgezek said the sister issue to being able to vote and wanting to vote, is knowing the issues you’re voting for or against.

“There’s an education component to it. We like to work hard to get people registered to vote, and we encourage people to vote, but we also encourage them to get informed about the issues, so they can vote intelligently and vote for their own interests.” She went on to say it amazes her how sometimes people will vote totally against what’s good for them because either they don’t have the opportunity or they don’t take the time to learn about what the issues are. “We hope for ourselves to get more educated and to provide the opportunity for everyone to hear about what other people stand for when they run for office and learn about what the big issues are to date, like education or finance for government.”

All their meetings are open to the public. They’re held at Bethel Lutheran Church in Willmar the second Monday of the month at 7 p.m. A lot of times they precede that with a board of officers meeting. Right now they have 40 dues-paying members, but they’d like to grow that because many hands make light work. That work includes things like running the organization. Just having people to fulfill the functions of any organization is part of it, Juhnke said, plus they have the Voter’s Service, all the voter registration, and they run candidate forums.

The only fundraiser the league has is its annual book sale. Juhnke said when you join the league you don’t join to raise money for the organization, like so many groups seem to do, you’re actually joining to raise political awareness in your community, state and federal government and to get people to vote. “You’re going to be participating hopefully in going to public meetings. You have opportunities to write letters to the editor, to become more educated on issues that concern us all as a community or society that we would want to have a consensus about.” And in this time when we have such a divide in our politics, she said, this is one organization that tries to bring people together to build a consensus.

Napgezek said they really have a strong emphasis on civility in their discussions. “We believe that people who are part of the discussion on issues have a right to be heard no matter what their positions are, and treated with respect. So when we have public forums we generally have very little problems with people calling each other names or getting angry.” She said they try to set the stage and say everyone has the right to an opinion and to be treated with respect, and they try to give everyone an equal chance to participate.

Juhnke said they can’t build a consensus unless they have all of the opinions. “If someone goes home without sharing their concerns then we’re all the poorer for it.”

Napgezek said the League of Women Voters is not just business oriented where they have a goal to get out more voters. “It is that, of course, but it really is lots of fun. You laugh a lot, and you make friends, and over the years, it has become a real source of enjoyment in our lives as well as something we think is worthwhile.”

As to the questions they ask at the public forums, a lot of them come from the community, either through email or by telephone. “Ideally we’ll use all of those, but again, the state league will provide us with some sample questions we can fill in with if there are gaps in the calls, or if we don’t have enough local input.” And sometimes the questions come from the leaguers too. “Sometimes when we study those issues we have questions,” said  Napgezek, “and we do monitor the questions that come in so there’s nothing inappropriate.”

If 10 or so questions come in around one issue, they’re consolidated so the entire public forum isn’t on one subject, so other things get talked about. “If you don’t hear your question it’s probably because we combined it with two or three other questions to cover the subject,” said Juhnke.

The candidates do not get the questions beforehand, but they can largely anticipate the questions. “If you’re a good candidate you’ve been thinking about these issues,” said Napgezek.

They do a school board forum, local and state elections, and sometimes they hold debates at the public television station in Appleton. Juhnke said they help the station with the timing and answer calls as they come in. “It’s a good opportunity for candidates for any office to express their positions and their interest in political issues in a safe format,” said Juhnke, “It’s a place where nobody is trying to get those ‘got you’ questions out there. We’re not trying to surprise or startle any of the candidates and get them to speak off the cuff on things they should not have been prepared to discuss.”

Napgezek said it’s enjoyable seeing someone who has the urge to participate in a public forum run for office. “That’s a brave thing to do. It is not an easy job, and sometimes they’re the very first candidate meeting of a person who goes on to give a lot of service and go up into the ranks of more powerful political positions.”

Juhnke said they want people to be very prepared for the office they’re about to take. And this is another opportunity for people to understand exactly what they’re volunteering for when they choose to run for political office. “It’s not easy, sometimes as citizens we underestimate the amount of knowledge and work that is involved in becoming a public servant. You have to know at least a little bit about a lot, you have to be an expert on a lot of issues and that takes time to build that knowledge base up in your mind and be able to express it in a thoughtful way.”

It’s not like the public forums attract a big crowd, Napgezek said, because they’re either on radio or television. Juhnke said they want to give the people an opportunity to hear the candidates – it’s entirely up to the community how much participation they want to have. We just make sure we get it out there. We get it on the local television stations, newspaper coverage if we can, we might be producing brochures from time to time with either league positions or to compare and contrast candidates, but the important thing for us is to disseminate information, to help people who choose to become involved to get unbiased information.”

Napgezek said every major election year a major business grants the League of Women Voters funds to publish a little newspaper, which lists all the major candidates in the state and their positions on key issues. “It’s totally nonpartisan. It’s published by the League of Women Voters. That’s a really valuable piece of information.”

Juhnke said a lot of people say “‘How do you know who to believe? How do you know what to believe?’” Almost everything you hear in an election season comes from the candidate’s staff or the candidates themselves from their supporters, so it’s really nice when you can see something or hear something that shows the candidates in a back and forth or side by side what they’re saying.” Napgezek agreed. “Other people can put spins on what they say, and there is always the danger of getting something partially quoted from a candidate, so if you get their own words in a reasonably sized quote you can feel sure about what they actually stand for.”

Officers of the league can’t have a lawn sign or a bumper sticker, they can’t engage in any campaign activities for any particular issue not endorsed by the league or the candidate because that might show political bias. But the other members can.

To learn more about League of Women Voters in Willmar, contact Claire at 320-231-2812 or email

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