California’s Political Women Are Ready for Prime Time

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CA Senator Dianne Feinstein

Los Angeles promises to be very different from Philadelphia. The Democratic Convention beginning August 14 in the media capital of the world claims its television broadcasts will reflect political reality and show the actual positions and racial, ethnic, gender composition of the party leadership.

A big part of that reality, women with clout, will be front and center.

California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco and Barbara Boxer of Los Angeles, will preside over the convention in the nation’s most populous state with the demographic shifts–whites are now a minority–that may prefigure national trends and grassroots movement that range from socialism to the religious right.

“This is first time two women have served as co-chairs of the convention,” Feinstein said. “This truly demonstrates the openness of the party to women.”

And candidate Al Gore has a woman on his short list of vice presidential possibilities: popular New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

The convention’s opening night will be a tribute to women elected officials, including Boxer, Feinstein, First Lady and New York Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and two Hispanic representatives from Southern California: Loretta Sanchez, co-chair of the Democratic National Committee and Lucille Roybal-Allard, co-chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The Candidate’s wife, too, will speak, as convention protocol dictates. Tipper Gore, the vice president’s ardent campaigner and advisor, will take the spotlight that she would rather shun. Like the retiring Laura Bush, the out-going Tipper Gore will be called upon to speak thoughtfully about her husband and her own issues: mental health, homelessness, gay rights, women’s economic opportunity and reproductive rights.

Until she was tapped for the campaign trail, Gore used to mingle with the homeless in Washington, D.C., urging them to accept health care and shelter. Best known for her war against violent and obscene song lyrics — now a fashionable and politically correct topic — she plays drums, dances at Bruce Springsteen concerts and Rollerblades — but probably not for this well-scripted show.

Both California senators, along with the four other Democratic women senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Pat Murray of Washington, will address the delegates. None of the Republican women senators or elected officials had similar opportunities in Philadelphia.

Feinstein has broken barriers since 1969 when she was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She hit the national spotlight 10 years later when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated along with gay rights leader Harvey Milk. Feinstein was appointed to replace Moscone and she presided over the city’s economic resurgence in the 1980s.

Since she was elected to the Senate in 1990, Feinstein has become best know for defeating the National Rifle Association to secure a federal ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of military-style assault weapons.

She also has fought off numerous, well-financed Republican efforts to bring her down and this year holds a commanding 26-point lead over her challenger, moderate Tom Campbell of Northern California.

It may well be that very lead, that very power that makes some Democratic Party strategists reluctant to tap so formidable a woman to be Al Gore’s running mate.

Senator Barbara Boxer of CaliforniaSen. Boxer won re-election in 1998 with the largest margin in any senatorial race in 20 years. Ten years ago, during Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, then-representative Boxer helped the women of Congress storm the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings where Hill was being subjected to offensive questioning.

Boxer has been a pioneer on many issues, first in the House and now in the Senate. Taking on the religious right as fiercely as Feinstein challenges the gun lobby, Boxer led the floor fight for the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act, which requires anti-abortion protesters to keep a fixed distance away from patients and staff.

Hillary Clinton will have her prime time moment, just as Laura Bush did, but rather than limit her remarks to praising her husband or candidate Gore, Hillary Clinton is expected to discuss issues related to her own campaign as well, however subtly. Don’t expect any direct reference to her opponent, but the trained trial lawyer is likely to make her points clear without ever uttering the word Lazio (as in Representative Rick.).

Rep. Maxine Waters of Los AngelesRep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, also will be featured as a major player on the political stage.

“The Democratic National Convention will allow women around the country to see that women are not only participants, but leaders of the Democratic Party,” Sanchez said, “The convention will also provide a tremendous opportunity for Vice President Al Gore to showcase his commitment to issues women care about–issues like healthcare, education, the environment and protecting a women’s right to choose.”

Loretta SanchezSanchez gained national prominence in 1996, when she rose from the grassroots to defeat longtime Republican hawk and anti-feminist, Bob Dornan of Orange County, then thought to be a bastion of ultra-conservatism.

“I was a Head Start child, a public school kid, someone who went to college with a Pell Grant, a union scholarship and school loans,” Sanchez has said of her commitment to the Democratic Party.

Sanchez, however, has offended many admirers and feminists by her decision to host a fundraiser during the Democratic Convention on behalf of Hispanic Unity. Vice President Gore declined to attend because of the venue: The Playboy Mansion.

Roybal-Allard is the first Mexican-American woman elected to the House. She represents a Los Angeles district that her father represented for nearly 30 years. Today she is co-chair of the Democratic Congressional Delegation.

Hilda Solis will join these next year in Congress. She launched a primary challenge in the region east of Los Angeles to incumbent Matthew G. Martinez, now a Republican, and defeated him 69 percent to 30 percent. Oakland’s Rep. Barbara Lee replaced her former boss, Ron Dellums, after he retired from a 27-year career in Congress. Lee plays as active a role as Dellums did on the House Armed Services Committee.

“America needs to be more like California,” said the Beth A. Kanter, political director of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “It’s exciting to see so many women of color in leadership.”

In addition to the California women, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee are also among the influential women who will be visible at the convention.

And the mention of Gov. Shaheen of New Hampshire as a possible running mate for Gore has greatly encouraged women.

The National Women’s Political Caucus may be partially responsible for Shaheen making the cut. “Women outnumber male registered voters by nine million,” the caucus said in a recent letter to Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state who now is coordinating the vice presidential selection process. “We are fortunate to have many qualified, well-positioned women within the political system prepared to be the next vice president.”

When Shaheen name appeared publicly on the short list, Kanter of the women’s political caucus responded: “We are very heartened by the fact that Gore and Warren Christopher are taking a serious look at a woman candidate for the vice presidential nod.” She added, “Although Shaheen says she is not interested, there are many more like her who are qualified.”

New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, co-chair of the House committee on women’s issues, contrasted what she expected from her party’s convention with what she saw broadcast from the Republican convention last week.

“We watched the rhetoric, we watched the show,” Maloney said. “I am here to tell you that the woman across American are not buying it. We are smart consumers, smart buyers and smart voters. We don’t vote for pretty pictures. We vote for a candidate who stands behind us on issues important to us, like crime and safety, education and reproductive rights.”

On the issue of racial diversity, Maloney reacted to the relatively large number of African Americans given prime-time exposure during the Republican convention.

“Inclusivity is not a photo opportunity or stunt,” she said, “it’s a way of life.” Maloney added that her party has “always been defined by the diversity of its membership” and pointed out that Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile, is an African American with deep roots in black electoral politics and was the first executive director of the National Political Congress of Black Women.

“That is not a stage show,” Maloney said, “that is reality.”

Chris Lombardi is a free-lance writer recently based in California and covering women’s issues and human rights.

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