When Meyera Oberndorf was a girl growing up in Newport News, Virginia, her mother thought that a woman going into politics wasn’t feminine. “When I initially told her I was thinking about running for public office she told me to bite my tongue,” said Oberndorf, 62, now the mayor of Virginia Beach. “She said that the women who went into politics were not her idea of what a lady should be. I always wanted her approval, so if she had lived I probably would never have run.”
Fortunately, she did. Oberndorf has served four consecutive terms as mayor of the largest city in Virginia. She is the first woman—and the first Jew—to hold that position, and she was elected with no party affiliation. Among her accomplishments; securing the city its own water supply, and dealing with civil unrest in the late 1980s. For her work with the city of nearly 500,000, Oberndorf was cited by Newsweek as one of the 25 most dynamic mayors in America. Her 15-year stint as mayor is the culmination of a career spent in public service that began when a group of women in her neighborhood began to complain about the local school. Then only 22 and a new bride, Oberndorf took it upon herself to invite school officials to her home along with all the “ladies” in the neighborhood to discuss their concerns. Ever a Southerner, Oberndorf’s mother helped her prepare for the meeting by bringing over all of her best silver.
The silver was impressive, but when the school board and the ladies gathered, Oberndorf was stunned that not one of the women who had been so vocal in their complaints to her as a neighbor would dare speak out in front of all the men. So the future mayor opened her mouth to speak up for the needs of others. She hasn’t shut it since.
Oberndorf served in a number of appointed and elected positions before she ran for mayor. “When I decided to run I was told mostly by men, that there were three reasons I would never win,” Oberndorf recalled. “First, I was a woman; second, I was Jewish; and third, I was short.” Since she knew there was no hiding the fact that she was female, she decided to be equally open about being a Jew.
At community functions during her run for office, she was direct. “I would get up and say, I’m here to discuss my visions and concerns for this city and see what we have in common. If you would like to discuss any personal issues with me, such as my religion— which is Judaism—I will be happy to talk to you afterwards,'” said Oberndorf As for the issue of her height, the 5′ 1″ mayor said her solution is simple; “I make sure to get my campaign pictures taken from the shoulders up.”
“I am conscious that I’m the first woman to hold this job and the first Jew,” admits Oberndorf “I try to be as careful as possible because I want to make sure I don’t make any mistakes that could be pinned on the next woman or Jew to hold this office.”
“Meyera”—her name is pronounced My-YAIR-ah—”is the most popular person ever to hold the position of mayor,” said Dennis Hartig, an editor at the Virginian Pilot. “Everyone calls her Meyera, and it’s a pretty big city to have a first-name relationship with. She’s pretty charming, and she rose to popularity in part because she insists on very high ethical standards. She would show up for baby showers if you invited her. Her personal touch has really won people over.”
“I am very accessible,” she confirms. “I drive myself everywhere and people always wave to me from their cars and come up and talk to me when I’m at the market. I love it. For someone who grew up as an only child, it makes me feel like I have a huge family.”
In fact, Oberndorf is a grandmother. She has been married for over 40 years, and is the mother of two daughters.
Oberndorf’s career in city hall has not been without controversy. Her critics have portrayed her as the archetypal “Jewish mother” in editorial cartoons. One cartoon depicted her in a kitchen, saying she should stay there, be a good Jewish mother and make matzoh ball soup. “That ticked me off,” she said. “I thought, boy, you said the wrong thing to me. Now I want to stay in office even more!”