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Paula Hawkins dies at 82; Senator backed family issues but bucked women's caucus

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Paula Hawkins, who in 1980 became the first woman elected to a full Senate term without a family political connection, has died. She was 82.

Hawkins died Friday at a hospital in Orlando, Fla., surrounded by her family, said Rep. John Mica, a close friend. Hawkins had been in poor health recently after a stroke and a fall.

During her six-year term in the U.S. Senate, Hawkins positioned herself as a media-savvy champion of children and working mothers and an enemy of drug dealers. She lost her bid for a second term in 1986 to then-Gov. Bob Graham.

Hawkins, who was born in Salt Lake City on Jan. 24, 1927, was an obscure GOP committeewoman until she began a populist-style campaign for the Florida Public Service Commission in 1972.

She was the first woman senator elected from the South and the first woman from any state elected to a full Senate term who was not the wife or daughter of a politician.

Hawkins backed legislation that helped homemakers enter the job market after being divorced or widowed. She supported equalizing pension benefits for women by taking into account their years spent at home raising children. She fought to get day care for the children of Senate employees and pushed for tax breaks on child-care expenses.

Hawkins helped pass the Missing Children Act of 1982, which established a national clearinghouse for information about missing children.

But there were slights. At one of her first news conferences in Washington, a television reporter asked who was going to do her laundry while she was busy working in the Senate.

"I kept saying, 'This is 1980 and I can't believe that anybody is asking me this, especially a grown man from a national network,' " Hawkins recalled in 1997.

Hawkins opposed the Equal Rights Amendment. She refused to join what was then the Congresswoman's Caucus because she thought child care, pension equity and other matters were "family issues" and not just of concern to women.

Hawkins lost her first Senate bid in 1976 and a 1978 campaign for lieutenant governor of Florida. But in 1980, Hawkins was part of a wave of conservatives who came to Washington as part of the Ronald Reagan landslide.

She ran a bargain-basement campaign by today's standards. Dick Morris, a Fox News pundit and former Bill Clinton strategist who served as her campaign pollster, recalled not being able to afford a teleprompter for a campaign ad. Instead, aides copied the script onto a roll of paper towels and unrolled it as she spoke.

During a TV taping in 1982 a backdrop fell, striking Hawkins on the head and neck and knocking her unconscious.

The accident aggravated back injuries from an earlier car crash and led to years of crippling pain.

In 1984, she startled her Senate colleagues, friends and relatives by disclosing during a congressional hearing that she had been sexually molested as a child. Her admission was greeted with widespread public sympathy.

Hawkins had back surgery during her 1986 reelection campaign. Mica, her aide at the time, said she tried to hide her pain from voters as they drove across the state campaigning.

Hawkins stayed active in politics even after a severe stroke left her partially paralyzed in 1998.

Hawkins is survived by her husband, Gene, three children and 11 grandchildren.

news.obits@latimes.com

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