State’s Panel on Women Faces Critics From Within
In the 20 years since the Legislature created it, the state Commission on the Status of Women has fended off a number of outside critics, but now it faces threats from within.
In the past, some legislators vainly tried to abolish the agency because, they said, the practice of using taxpayers’ money to promote sometimes controversial issues affecting women was unfair and improper.
Last year, the commission won a 1976 legal challenge that accused it of overstepping its bounds by promoting “radical feminism” through support of the Equal Rights Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling allowing the commission to lobby its viewpoint before the Legislature.
Now the commission is reeling from a blow leveled by one of its own members, feisty liberal Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). Waters refuses to elaborate upon the commission’s latest troubles, but other members say the agency is virtually deadlocked in a deep-seated, partisan rift.
Waters last week orchestrated a slashing of the commission’s proposed $700,000 budget by her Ways and Means subcommittee, leaving it with what she called a “nonbudget.”
Her Assembly panel reduced the commission’s 11-member staff to four and eliminated the travel and lodging expenses that enable commissioners to attend meetings. The cuts, which require further legislative action, would consume an estimated two-thirds of the commission’s budget.
‘A State of Disarray’
In a blunt legislative hearing, the commission’s executive director, Margaret Almada, responded “yes” when Waters asked if commissioners were “in a state of disarray.”
“Do you feel comfortable as executive director with the commission being bogged down?” Waters asked.
“No, I do not,” Almada answered.
“Do you feel the body is able to direct the staff given its state of affairs?” Waters asked.
“To be honest, no,” was Almada’s response.
Details of the commission’s difficulties were not discussed at the hearing, but sources say they are at least partly rooted in a lingering divisiveness between the Democrat-controlled Legislature and the conservative Republican governor.
Appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian and Republican legislators on the commission fear the agency could become a source of political embarrassment to the governor by supporting legislation he opposes, a commission source said.
The cost-conscious governor, for instance, last year vetoed a $30-million bill supported by the commission that would have expanded available care for children of working parents.
Deukmejian appointed four of the commission’s 17 members. The terms of three others appointed by former Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. will expire next year, and Deukmejian will name their replacements.
Four liberal Democratic legislators and two Republican legislators also sit on the agency.
Two public members were appointed by the Legislature. The remaining two members are state schools chief Bill Honig and the state’s chief of labor standards enforcement.
Commissioner Phyllis Cheng, a Republican appointed by Deukmejian, said the mix of appointees, coupled with longstanding internal staff squabbles, has created a virtual impasse.
She said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles: “When you have legislators on a commission who always work in a very politically volatile environment, and you have a Democratic Assembly and Senate and a Republican governor, you have a real adversarial relationship.
Different Power Sources
“People are aligned with different sources of power and they bring that all into play and it really screws everything up.
“There are positions on women which the governor has taken that even I don’t agree with. None of us are Phyllis Schlaflys but, even so, we are branded because the governor appointed us. I guess it’s a very difficult situation.”
Cheng added: “I think this is worse than anything that ever happened in the history of the commission. Before, we were able to vanquish our enemies from outside, but now we’re having civil war within the commission from people who are supposed to support women’s issues.”
Some GOP members accuse Democrats of promoting the partisanship.
Democrat Dorothy Jonas, a Brown appointee who is commission chairwoman, last week scheduled a Capitol meeting to consider ousting Republican Almada, then failed to convene it after members arrived at public expense.
She conceded in a telephone interview that there have been “efforts to politicize” the commission by some members.
“Some Democrats and Republicans are fully committed to the cause of women. If efforts to change that kind of commitment have caused conflict, my duty is to remind them we have only one purpose in being there,” she said.
Waters says the agency’s budget can be restored if it can find a way out of its troubles.
“What is it they say? The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings,” she said, laughing. “The fat lady hasn’t sung yet.”