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Women in Senate Races Share Ideas

Times Staff Writer

The campaign button that Janice Graham of Laguna Hills wears says it all: “Don’t call me Honey, Baby, Lady or Girl, call me Senator.”

Graham said that although many male voters eagerly support women candidates, there is still a patronizing attitude among some male politicians, and that is one of the reasons she and four other women have joined to help each other get elected. The women, all Democrats running for the state Senate in districts from Glendale to San Diego, meet weekly to share campaign strategy, swap campaign tips and figure out how to raise money.

Double Your Power is the official name because their election would double the number of women in the Senate. But informally, the group calls itself the Gang of Five.

Louise Gelber, an attorney who is running in the 21st Senate District against Sen. Newton Russell (R-Glendale), sponsored the group at her home in Arcadia this week and reminded them that political prospects for women have improved since she first ran for office 20 years ago.

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Pioneering Effort

“You’re so much better off,” Gelber said. “When I ran in 1968, if I would have been elected, I would have been the first woman in the state Senate. And when I went to visit the Senate, I was told they did not have a woman’s bathroom and, if I was elected, they would have to go to a big expense and put one in.”

Now, there are four women in the Senate. One of them, Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) is being opposed by one of the Gang of Five, Pat McCabe, a Huntington Beach accountant. The other four women in the group are seeking offices held by Republican men.

In addition to Graham, who is running against Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), the others are Sandy Hester of Claremont, who is running against Assemblyman William Leonard of Redlands for the seat held by retiring Sen. H. L. (Bill) Richardson (R-Glendora), and Benita Berkson, a San Diego real estate broker, who is running against Assemblyman Larry Stirling of La Mesa for the seat held by retiring Sen. Jim Ellis (D-El Cajon).

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“The constituents I speak to are shocked when they hear there are 40 state senators and only four are women,” Hester said.

Graham said one of her best applause lines is: “Women are under-represented in almost every facet of our society, except poverty and low-paying jobs.”

The women said that when they campaign door-to-door, they not only get a good reception, they probably have doors opened that would remain closed if there was a male candidate on the doorstep. But, they said, there is still resistance to women candidates from male politicians, especially the older generation.

Hester said that when she went to Sacramento looking for support from Democratic legislators, she was welcomed by the younger officeholders, who were genuinely interested in what she had to say. But, she said, “the more senior legislators seemed to have a more patronizing approach, and were condescending in many ways. . . . I’m sure they felt they were being gracious (but) I didn’t feel I was taken seriously.”

Double Your Power has written letters to more than 100 women’s organizations asking for their help in soliciting campaign funds from incumbent Democratic legislators who have more money than they need for their own elections.

The candidates also have been sharing strategy and campaign tips. Graham, for example, suggested that the others emulate her practice of going to movie theaters on weekends and talking to people in line. “In one night, you can reach 500 or 600 people,” she said.

Some Disagreements

The women don’t agree on everything. At this week’s meeting, for example, Hester said incumbent Democratic legislators are not giving them enough campaign support, and Berkson strongly disagreed, saying that the legislators are helping them a lot. Gelber said the women are “not militant feminists,” but Graham quickly disputed that statement. “I’m a militant feminist,” Graham said, adding that she means that she supports such things as equal pay for equal work and the equal rights amendment.

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The women agree that some men feel threatened by women in politics. “Men have a difficult time with powerful women,” Berkson said. “They have not been raised in how to treat them . . . they feel off-base.”

But, she added, “men are coming to understand that a strong woman can represent them and it has nothing to do with emasculating them. Men and women can work together. That’s what the whole (women’s) movement has always been about.”

Graham cautioned her fellow candidates against being too critical of men. “Remember, men vote,” Graham said. Besides, she added, she has met men while campaigning who tell her that, given a choice, they always vote for a woman candidate.

She said one man recently told her: “If there were more women in charge in government, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.”


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