Tables Turn as GOP Fights to Save Funds for Women’s Panel
Members of the state Commission on the Status of Women were lobbying hard Wednesday against proposed cuts in the agency’s budget, which is not an altogether unusual development in the history of the often-troubled agency.
Attempts have been made at various times in the past to put the 20-year-old commission, responsible for disseminating information of interest to women and advocating women’s rights, out of business.
What is unusual this time is that the lobbying was being done by Republican women and that the sponsors of the budget cuts are two Democratic women legislators who have fought hard over the years to keep the commission alive.
At the heart of the bitter dispute, Republican commission members say, is the growing GOP influence on the commission. Historically, it has been dominated by Democrats. With GOP Gov. George Deukmejian making appointments to the 17-member panel, however, Republicans are playing an increasingly important role.
“We’re used to losing. They’re not. It’s very painful for them,” said one of the GOP commission members, Verna D. Dauterive, a Los Angeles elementary school principal.
Democrats still control the commission, but Deukmejian has already made four appointments and will replace three more commissioners appointed by former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. next year. The seven Deukmejian appointees, with two GOP legislators who already sit on the commission, would give control to the Republicans.
The Deukmejian commissioners, already making their presence felt, were instrumental in fighting off efforts by Democratic commissioners to fire the board’s executive director, Margaret Almada, a Republican, in the most serious flare-up.
Democrats responded by backing a proposed budget cut that would eliminate Almada’s job, along with most other positions on the 10-member staff, plus travel and expense allowances for commissioners.
The budget cut was introduced by Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), a member of the commission, and it won support of the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
Watson Is Angry
The budget reduction is supported by Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), also a commissioner. Watson said she is so angry that she would go even further and deny the governor any appointments on the commission by transferring responsibility to Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), although she conceded that there is little support for such a proposal.
Both Waters and Watson claim that the proposed cut is caused by their feeling that the agency has lost its effectiveness in advocating women’s issues, that its staff is demoralized and that a reorganization is in order.
Watson said political differences also are a factor.
“We are so polarized now we hardly talk to each other,” she said. “Let’s face it, Republicans have not been the strongest supporters of women’s issues.”
Phyllis W. Cheng, one of Deukmejian’s appointees to the commission, strongly disputed such characterizations, although she admitted hearing them often.
“People always ask, ‘How can you be a Republican and a feminist, too?’ ” said Cheng, former executive director of the Commission for Sex Equity for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
She said she has been associated with the women’s movement for seven years, the last five of which she has been active in the National Organization for Women. “I have worked with just about every women’s group in the state. I have very few substantive disagreements with other members of the commission. They (critics) don’t recognize that. All they care about are party affiliations,” she said.
Cheng was one of the three Republicans lobbying here Wednesday to keep the commission’s budget at the $700,000 level proposed by Deukmejian.
Cheng’s lobbying mission was timed to the start of an Assembly-Senate conference committee on the budget, which will decide the issue next week.
Neither Watson nor Waters, who sits on the conference committee, is backing down.
But Watson, when she tried to get Waters’ proposal adopted by the full Senate, saw it fail by a wide margin.
At this point, neither side is talking to the other.
Cheng and other GOP commissioners say Watson and Waters will not accept their phone calls or schedule a fence-mending session.
Dorothy Jonas, the commission chairwoman, said that GOP commissioners have not called her and that she considers such a call more appropriate than Republicans meeting individually with the legislators.
A key issue is Almada. Democrats claim that after a year on the job, she has been unable to give the commission direction or bring a badly splintered staff together.
Cheng and Republican members defend Almada, saying that she was given no clear job responsibilities and that she has not been given time to prove herself.
Cheng, who admitted that the commission has not been accomplishing much lately, refused to blame it on Almada. “It’s patently unfair to dismiss someone who has never been told what is expected of her,” she said.
Cheng is proposing a compromise that would require the commission to spell out exactly what it expects from the executive director, then give her 90 days to prove herself.