NEW YORK NURSE: January/February 2010
by Mark Genovese
Linda Witte is a registered nurse, a doula, and now the first woman to be elected mayor of the City of Olean.
Upsetting the incumbent in a nail-biter, Witte led by 185 votes on the night of Nov. 3, 2009. “I felt confident,” Witte said. “We had great support and voters wanted a change – more openness, more working together between the mayor and the Common Council.” Yet, she was nervous because more than 300 absentee ballots were outstanding, and victory couldn’t be certain until they were counted a week later. In the end, Witte won by just under 200 votes.
Witte has been actively involved in NYSNA, serving as floor delegate on the maternity unit at Olean General Hospital. She’s also been active with the Cattaraugus County Labor Council.
Witte became interested in nursing during her senior year of high school when she met Sister Redempta, the head of LPN nursing school at St. Francis Hospital in Olean. “Sister Redempta made me feel that nursing was the profession for me.” Witte has enjoyed caring for young people and their families, working with new moms, and the fast pace of the ER and ICU. “But the area I felt most comfortable in was obstetrics. This is why I became a certified doula.”
As a doula, Witte met with expectant couples to develop a plan for their birth experience. When they arrived at Olean General, she would be there for support during labor. “Many still keep in touch – sharing pictures or their next birth,” Witte said. “There’s no greater feeling then sharing in something so amazing as the birth of a baby!”
Nursing became Witte’s avenue into politics. She attended a public meeting on Olean General’s expansion plan, which called for tearing down nearby homes.
“Not everyone supported this project. We were most angered when we were told: ‘Yes, it’s a public meeting. But no, you can’t speak.’ I care about my community. When I feel strongly about something, I’m not afraid to speak up.” After the meeting, Witte asked board members how they could run a public meeting in such a manner. “On my way out, a woman asked me if I would run for alderman. At the time I had no idea what an alderman was.”
Witte ran and won, and started on a career of serving the public in a different role. She sat on the City Council for two years, then won a seat on the Cattaraugus County Legislature. There, she served for six years on the Human Services and Senior Services committees.
“I feel my background as a nurse – my skills in working with the public and being an advocate for patients – helped not only me, but also my fellow legislators with understanding the ways in which the county delivers services to families and senior citizens,” Witte said.
Witte will be busy during the next several months dealing with new challenges such as developing the city budget and overseeing capital projects. To prepare, she’s been attending council meetings, and has met with the outgoing mayor and city department heads and contractors. She also plans to hold meetings with neighboring communities to figure out ways to share services and expenses.
Even though being mayor is a full-time job, Witte will still make time to work per-diem as an OB nurse, one weekend per month and two holidays per year.
She’ll also continue to make time for another of her favorite activities – volunteering to fix houses. She is part of an organization called “Rebuilding Together” that paints and rehabilitates homes for senior citizens, the disabled, and low-income families. Each year, about 300 volunteers, young and old, hold a “blitz day,” in which they rebuild between 10 and 20 houses.
“At the end of the day, it’s great to see this home looking totally changed and the tears of joy in the homeowners’ eyes,” Witte said. “They couldn’t believe people cared and helped a total stranger to make their life a little brighter. I believe when you do something good for someone, you are thanked many times over. That’s just part of life.”