LOS ANGELES--The first state to elect two women to the U.S. Senate in 1992 could be critical in Democrat's efforts to regain control of the House and in pro-choice advocates' to reduce the influence of anti-choice representatives.
Democrats need to add seven seats to regain the House; three new pro-choice women and two pro-choice men are in the running in close races.
While Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco maintains a comfortable 20-point lead in the polls against her Republican challenger, the focus here for the Nov. 7 election is largely on the Congressional races, in which three Democratic women are challenging Republican incumbents. (The state's other U.S. Sen., Barbara Boxer of Los Angeles, is not up for re-election this year.)
Congressional contenders are San Diego state Assemblywoman Susan Davis, Long Beach health care activist Gerrie Schipske and Jane Harman, the former congresswoman from Torrance who is trying to win back the seat she left in 1998 to run for governor. Right now, 13 of California's 52 Congressional seats are held by women.
Two other Democratic challengers are state Sen. Adam Schiff of Burbank and San Jose Assemblyman Mike Honda. These candidates are all pro-choice.
Some House Republicans also support abortion rights; however, the party's platform is explicitly anti-choice, and a Democratic majority in the House could help safeguard a woman's right to choose, said Gary Segura, associate professor of American politics at the Claremont Graduate University.
"What's at stake is the future of relatively easy access to abortion," he said. "Given the closeness of the Presidential race, this is a more shaky time than in the past because of the ages of the Supreme Court justices. You could have three to four retire in the next few years."
The Supreme Court currently supports abortion rights by a 5-4 margin. If Republican candidate Gov. George W. Bush of Texas wins, he is likely to appoint justices who would impose restrictions on a woman's right to choose or even overturn Roe vs. Wade, Segura said.
California voters favor Vice President Al Gore by a 50-30 margin, with two-thirds of women saying they will likely vote for the vice president, according to this month's Field Poll.
Among Latino voters, who make up one-third of the state's population, Gore leads by more than 30 points. But national polls reflect a much tighter race.
Other critical issues in this state are adequate funding for public education, health care and welfare. These are of particular interest to Latinos, a growing political force throughout the state.
Of the three California Congressional races in which women are running, state Assemblywoman Susan Davis of San Diego and her opponent, San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray, hold the most divergent views.
Susan Davis Has 100 Percent Pro-Choice Record, Male Rival Just 49 Percent
Davis has a 100 percent voting record for supporting the pro-choice agenda in the California legislature, according to Planned Parenthood. She is responsible for 1998 legislation allowing women direct access to reproductive health care without having to first consult primary care physicians--a legal model for other states.
Davis also successfully introduced legislation allowing California patients of health maintenance organizations to seek a second opinion, which, along with other health care legislation, has been used as a model in drafting the federal Patient's Bill of Rights.
Bilbray describes himself pro-choice, yet received only a 49 percent approval rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. The organization rated members of Congress on their voting records on 13 abortion-related issues, from abortion rights for women in prison to third-trimester abortions. Bilbray opposes Medicaid funding of abortions for low-income women and federal funding of abortions for U.S. servicewomen.
"Government should stay out of it ... except for rape and incest," he said.
The candidates also differ on education issues. Davis opposes school vouchers in general and specifically the California ballot initiative, which calls for universal vouchers for all students. Bilbray supports the state initiative, saying it would create choices for poor families.
A September poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 55 percent of the state's women oppose the voucher measure, Proposition 38, while only 34 percent support it.
And a 1995 study by the California Educational Research Cooperative at the University of California at Riverside, which looked at voucher programs nationwide, found low-income families tended to not take advantage of the voucher program because they lacked resources such as transportation.
In Long Beach, both Gerrie Schipske and her opponent, veteran Republican Congressman Steve Horn, support key women's issues, although they have very different agendas. Horn is a pro-choice moderate Republican who received a 100 percent rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. In this close race, both he and Schipske oppose the state's universal school voucher initiative, but he has supported other voucher bills.
Lawyer, Nurse, Activist, Lesbian Challenging 100 Percent Pro-Choice GOP Congressman
Horn, the former president of California State University at Long Beach and a congressman for eight years, has the distinction of representing "the most Democratic district in the state of California held by a Republican," said his son and campaign manager Steve Horn, Jr. That's because the congressman is in touch with his constituents and reflects their views, says his campaign, but Segura of Claremont Graduate University believes Horn's tenure is the result of one weak Democratic challenger after another.
"The guy's just ripe for picking," the political scientist said. In a Democratic district with a high Latino population and a majority of working-class families, a strong Democrat could prevail in this election, Segura said.
The only public office Gerrie Schipske has held is as a member of the Long Beach Community College Board of Trustees. However, she has strong community ties: Schipske, a community activist, nurse, lawyer and lesbian and 1998 appointee to Janet Reno's National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women, will do more for women in poverty than her opponent.
"I have a different idea of what needs to be done," said Schipske, who has championed the plight of low-income and single mothers by starting such programs as the "Community Baby Shower" to raise awareness of the importance of prenatal care and to distribute diapers and other supplies. Her work with the Long Beach Police Department to curb violence against women has contributed to increased arrests of assailants and abusers. Schipske also started a mentoring program in the public schools for education students at the community college.
In the far less liberal neighboring district of Torrance, another close battle is being fought by Jane Harmon, the moderate Democrat trying to win back the seat she held for six years, and moderate Republican Steven T. Kuykendall.
Harman, a former corporate lawyer, went to Congress in 1992. She left in 1998 to run for governor, she said, because she believed the Republican candidate would win "unless a moderate woman candidate with bipartisan support ran." It was her pro-choice platform that got her elected to Congress in the first place, Harmon maintains.
Now she is challenging a former businessman, who has an 83 percent rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. The two candidates' agendas have many similarities. Both oppose school vouchers and support the Patient's Bill of Rights, which would, among other things, give patients the right to sue their HMOs.
Jane Harmon Says Male Rival is Okay But Issue is More Women in House
Kuykendall served two terms in the state Assembly before being elected to Congress in 1998 and introduced the federal Security Lock Box legislation to forbid the government from borrowing from Social Security funds to pay for other programs.
Harman, whose mother died of lung cancer, has been active in efforts to curb teen smoking. She is a board member of Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles.
Though she concedes her opponent has been a good congressman, Harman says, "This election is about House management."
A House with a majority of Democrats, including as many women as possible, should help preserve basic liberties and the right of all women to receive a safe abortion.
Elizabeth S. Zwerling is a journalist based in Southern California who specializes in education and business, as well as women's issues.