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Rose Ann Vuich; First Woman in the State Senate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rose Ann Vuich, a conservative Democrat from the Central Valley who built a reputation for unswerving honesty as the first woman in the state Senate, died Thursday at her home in Dinuba. She was 74.

The cause of death was complications of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Vuich integrated the all-male preserve of the Senate in 1977 and was a forceful advocate for Central Valley agriculture for the next 16 years.

“What’s in it for Dinuba?"--referring to the farm town southeast of Fresno--became her signature line, as she pored over colleagues’ bills, questioning the numbers, the motives and what, if any, good her vote might bring to her constituents.

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But her penchant for detail--nitpicking, her male colleagues often grumbled--got the attention of the other senators, who knew soon after she arrived that business as usual would no longer cut it in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

First, there was the matter of the women’s restroom: There was none. Vuich not only got one built--fast--but had it named after her.

No one dared call her a feminist; she made it clear to anyone who asked that she was “not a part of the women’s liberation movement.” But whenever a male colleague rose to address the “gentlemen of the Senate,” she reminded him of her presence--with a cowbell.

“She was enormously respected,” said former Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti. “It was a men’s club, but she knew how to be pleasantly assertive. . . . She let them know there was a new gal in town.”

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The daughter of a Serbian-born farmer, Vuich had no intention of making history when she decided to run for the Senate in 1976. She was an accountant by training and ran her family’s 180 acres of citrus, olive and fruit trees with her brother, Bill.

It wasn’t until two weeks after the farmer and accountant filed her papers that she learned there had never been a female state senator in California. Of the four women running in state Senate races that year, the no-nonsense, schoolmarmish Vuich was the one pols thought was least likely to win.

But the other three women lost while Vuich squeaked to victory, defeating a Republican assemblyman from Fresno who had better name recognition and outspent her 2 to 1.

“I drove up in front of the Capitol building, and I just sat there a long time, looking up at the dome,” Vuich, then 50, said of the morning she arrived in Sacramento to be sworn in. “And then I took a deep breath and said to myself, ‘Well, old girl, here you are. Give it all you’ve got, because that’s what you promised the people back home.’ ”

The male senators called her “Rosie” or “our little lady.” She gave them fruit from her farm, and served them tea and coffee. But Vuich won a seat on the important Agriculture and Water Resources Committee. And she felt no hesitation standing up in the Senate and lecturing the other 39 members about how little they knew of farm issues.

She delighted in keeping both Republicans and Democrats off balance. She never let anyone know how she would vote until it was time for the roll call. In 1988, then-Gov. George Deukmejian, who had once praised her independence when he was in the Senate, considered her too independent when she surprised the upper chamber by voting no on the governor’s nomination of then-Rep. Dan Lungren as state treasurer. Lungren lost by a one-vote margin. Deukmejian was so angry that he threatened, through aides, to veto legislation Vuich authored.

Vuich also had a knack for spotting the flaws in bills.

“She was always able to pinpoint what wasn’t right with a bill,” said a former colleague, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles). “She watched the dollars and cents. It blew the guys’ minds. She knew numbers--and they hoped she didn’t. It frustrated them so.”

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Her nose for “what wasn’t right” earned her acclaim during the political corruption scandals in Sacramento in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A phony special-interest bill was floated by several legislators who did not know they were part of an FBI sting operation. Vuich would not touch it. In a conversation tape-recorded by the FBI--and later widely publicized during the subsequent trials--a legislator’s aide said the bill should not go to Vuich’s Senate Banking Committee because she was “so very strait-laced” and doesn’t “play ball.”

“They wanted her out of the room when the vote was taken on the sting bill,” recalled Marilyn Haawes, a former Vuich aide.

“She was impeccably honest,” said Roberti, noting that other senators regarded her as a big sister as much a colleague.

Vuich won reelection by impressive margins--72% in 1980 and 76% in 1984. In 1988, her final election, she was unopposed.

By 1991, it was obvious to fellow senators and aides that “something wasn’t right with Rose Ann.” Her attention wandered. She couldn’t be counted on to drive herself. When she announced that she would not seek a fifth term, she said it was because reapportionment had made it impossible for her to win and because she had to care for her ailing brother. She was, however, in the grip of Alzheimer’s.

“It was very painful to see,” Haawes said. And not what those who knew Vuich most like to remember.

After her election, the Senate hastily constructed a women’s restroom off the floor of its temporary chambers during a Capitol restoration. But the door just said “restroom,” which meant that men kept walking into it when she was there, and vice versa. One day, someone came up with a solution. A decoupage rose was affixed to the door. The problems ceased. It was from that day known as “The Rose Room.”

When the Senate prepared to move back into its original chambers after the restoration was complete, Vuich, who had since been joined by Watson, discovered that the plans did not include their restroom.

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“The two of us marched in to see the architect,” Watson said. “He was so embarrassed. He said, ‘What color tile would you like?’ We said, ‘Pink, of course.’ Then I said, ‘What are you going to do about the mirrors?’ I’m very tall and I hate looking at [just] my midsection in the mirror. He said, ‘We’ll put in a tall mirror.’ I said, ‘No, it’s going to cover the wall from floor to ceiling.’

“Then we said we’d like a cosmetic closet,” she recalled. “And how about turning one of the stalls into a shower, just like the guys have? Then we asked for a clothes closet . . . and a coffee and tea room and wet bar.

“We got everything,” Watson said. “We used to receive guests in there, it was so beautiful.

The other Rose story that her friends like to tell is about the bell. Vuich took it to the Senate some months after taking office and placed it on her desk. Every time she heard a member say “Now, gentlemen” or “Gentlemen of the Senate,” she picked up that bell and rang it. She even rang it once when comedian Red Skelton came to speak. It didn’t take long, Roberti recalled, for the word “gentlemen” to lose its elegance.

The bell now resides in the Senate archive. Vuich rang it until she retired.

Vuich, who never married, is survived by several cousins.

Funeral services are pending.


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