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ELECTIONS : Key Testing Ground for the ‘Year of the Woman’ : Politics: In several races, female candidates have the potential to storm the predominantly male bastions in Sacramento and Washington.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fiona Reeves recently offered her mother, Catherine O’Neill, a 7-year-old’s perspective on the state Senate race in the 23rd District.

“You know, Mom, I think you may have a better chance now than 20 years ago,” said Fiona.

Fiona’s assessment, as related by her mother, is a child’s view of the progress women have made since O’Neill was narrowly defeated in a 1972 state Senate campaign after being attacked for her pro-abortion views.

Or as Fiona put it, “More women are firefighters and police officers now.”

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Her optimism is generally shared by political analysts across the country in the much ballyhooed “year of the woman in politics” that has captured significant media and voter attention this spring. The question is: Will the hoopla translate into the election of more women to state legislatures and Congress this year?

Already, two major upsets by women in U.S. Senate races in Illinois and Pennsylvania are being viewed as omens of nationwide opportunity for women. Democrat Lynn Yeakel will face one of Anita Hill’s inquisitors, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, in November. Carol Moseley Braun upset incumbent Alan Dixon in the Illinois Democratic Senate primary.

California could make or break the trend, beginning with Rep. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein who are fighting for the Democratic nomination in their respective U.S. Senate contests.

“California is a testing ground the likes of which we have not had,” said Harriett Woods, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

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Some of that testing will take place on the Westside. Long a national political fund-raising mecca, the progressive Westside would seem to be a natural for female candidates. There are several races where women have the backing to be serious contenders, and the potential to storm the mostly male bastions in Sacramento and Washington.

The 23rd Senate District is one of them. O’Neill, a public relations consultant with three children and two master’s degrees, made it clear that she would not be a contender without the help of other women.

“Women have made this a credible, viable campaign,” she said. “If I win, they’re like my political machine.”

She is in a hotly-contested race against two formidable male opponents, state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who have strong political organizations of their own--and far more money than O’Neill.

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Hayden has tacitly acknowledged that O’Neill is a threat by launching mail attacks against her, including a late blitz targeting the tendency of women to vote for a woman.

One piece has a photo of Professor Anita Hill on the cover with the headline, “Not in California,” and goes on to express Hayden’s outrage at Hill’s treatment during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Both he and Rosenthal have good voting records on women’s issues--but for some women this year, that is not good enough.

“Women in the Westside have not been represented by a woman,” said Jane Hafler Henick, vice president of the National Political Women’s Caucus of California and an O’Neill supporter. “It’s the first opportunity they have.”

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For women, and for political outsiders in general, 1992 is indeed a year of opportunity. Reapportionment has made a tossed salad out of once-safe incumbent districts, and anti-incumbent fervor is high.

Many women, especially liberal women, have been galvanized by the growing threat to abortion rights and by their displeasure over what they regarded as a male locker-room quality to the Thomas confirmation hearings.

“All of us understand in a different way how few women there are in Congress,” said Ellen Malcolm, the founder of EMILY’s List, a group that coordinates funds for congressional and U.S. Senate candidates.

More important, women are opening their checkbooks. Membership in EMILY’s List has skyrocketed since the Thomas hearings. (The acronym stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast--it makes the dough rise). Donations are up accordingly, Malcolm said.

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Polls show women are viewed as an instrument of change, leading Woods to conclude that women can’t be hurt this year by being branded as outsiders.

“Upstart is not a bad word in the Ross Perot era,” Woods said last week as she prepared for a trip to California for a last-minute fund-raising and media blitz for female candidates, including O’Neill. “People want something different.”

Although the election results in Illinois and Pennsylvania and the candidacies of Feinstein and Boxer have tended to focus much of the “year of the woman” media attention on Democrats, there also is impact among Republicans.

In the Westside-Valley 41st Assembly District, former Santa Monica City Councilwoman Christine Reed, a moderate pro-abortion Republican, is the perceived front-runner and only woman in a field of five GOP primary candidates. Reed said her candidacy has been boosted because it’s a good year for women to seek office.

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She has financial backing from the Women’s Campaign Fund and the California Republicans for Choice.

Reed’s male opponents gang up on her for not being conservative enough, but she said she believes the vehemence of the attacks can be partly explained by her gender.

“They are attacking me as hard and stridently as they are because I am a front-running woman,” Reed said. “If I was just a liberal Republican male, they wouldn’t be attacking me the same way.”

In the coastal 36th Congressional District, stretching from Venice to San Pedro, Maureen Reagan and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores are the best-known candidates in the fight for the Republican nomination.

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The former President’s daughter has long been associated with women’s rights activism, including abortion rights, and is making a point in her campaign of spotlighting Flores’ anti-abortion views.

Refusing to concede the Republican-leaning district to the GOP, abortion rights advocate Jane Harman is mounting a serious campaign on the Democratic side.

“Women are my base,” Harman said at a recent fund-raising breakfast featuring Malcolm of EMILY’s list as the speaker.

A Harvard-educated lawyer and the mother of four, Harman brings years of activism on women’s issues to bear on her candidacy. Her first involvement was as a volunteer attorney for the Women’s Defense Fund in an appeal in a child custody case in 1971 in which a woman was deemed an unfit mother because she worked full time. The ruling was overturned.

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Since moving back to her home base in California, Harman has sought out--and even organized--South Bay women’s groups as part of her natural constituency. She has mail targeted to female voters, signed by California Treasurer Kathleen Brown.

Harman has been selected as an EMILY’s List candidate, which in the two weeks since the national mailer has gone out has brought in $14,000 from throughout the country. She also reports about $8,000 from other women’s groups, as well as contributions from individual women.

O’Neill’s most recent campaign finance reporting statement contains page after page of contributions from professional women and such feminist stars as Betty Friedan, Peg Yorkin and Gail Sheehy.

She has received about $13,000 from organized women’s groups, and the local chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus is providing a phone bank for her.

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In some cases, the husbands of O’Neill contributors are supporting her opponents.

Former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp has endorsed Hayden, while his wife, Andrea Van de Kamp, contributed to O’Neill’s campaign. Psychiatrist Marjorie Braude is featured in O’Neill mailers and on her contribution lists; Braude’s husband, Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, has endorsed Rosenthal. Former TV news reporter Heidi Schulman is also backing O’Neill; her husband, attorney Mickey Kantor, a key adviser to Bill Clinton, has endorsed Rosenthal.

Although abortion rights are a hot topic, candidates insist it is their positions and emphasis on child care, health care and education that gives them the broad political base needed to appeal to those who want someone new.

“I think every issue is turning into a women’s issue this year because it’s turning into an issue of who can solve the problem, not an issue of who can assert the most force,” said Woods.

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From her precinct-walking, Reed reports anecdotes of male support and hears frequently that more women are needed in government. One young man in the Valley told her, “Men have done such a terrible job, I’m going to find as many women as I can to vote for this year. I’m a guy myself and I can’t defend us anymore.”


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