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California chapter of NOW struggling with shrinking influence

California chapter of NOW struggling with shrinking influence
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at the Rosie the Riveter National Monument to sign the equal pay act into law. The feminist organization California NOW didn't support the bill. (Kristopher Skinner / Tribune News Service)

The signing of California's new equal pay measure — the toughest in the country — this year was a feel-good moment for feminism, hailed by women's groups nationwide.

But the California National Organization for Women, the state chapter of the flagship feminist organization, didn't share in the celebration. The group had opposed the measure, demanding additional worker protections — a stance, its leaders said, that was in line with its progressive mission.

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Former and current members, however, say the pugnacious stance is symptomatic of deeper troubles at the organization. Behind the scenes, California NOW faces precarious finances and shrinking political influence in the Capitol.

For myriad reasons — among them internal tensions and a recession-caused cash decline — one of California's storied names in feminist advocacy now finds itself with diminished clout, increasingly at odds with liberal allies and female lawmakers.

"As a longtime member, I've just seen decisions that puzzle me," said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), the author of the equal pay bill.

Patty Bellasalma, who served eight years as president of the organization until stepping down in July, disputed any characterization that the group is in disarray, describing it as an organization powered by "dynamic women."

NOW was formed in 1966 by prominent feminists including Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," with the aim of promoting women's equality. The California chapter was formed five years later and operates more or less independently.

In addition to advocating for gender equity and abortion rights, the state chapter made its mark in California by pushing for strong protections for domestic violence and rape victims, said Ange-Marie Hancock, a professor of gender studies at USC.

Hancock said California NOW "was very, very instrumental" in crafting some of the state's "more progressive sexual assualt, rape and domestic violence legislation." That includes a 2002 law that allowed victims of gender-related violence to seek damages from their abuser.

By the early 2000s, the group had a robust Sacramento presence, with as many as eight full-time employees and ample grass-roots programs, backed by a fundraising campaign that brought in more than $1 million annually, according to its tax returns.

But California NOW's finances withered, in part because of the recession, and its operations were dramatically scaled back. Tax returns show that between 2007 and 2013, revenues plunged by 80%.

The organization shed most of its full-time employees and closed its Sacramento office. It went from regularly spending more than $100,000 on lobbying to spending zero over the last decade.

Bellasalma said the group had to be flexible in how it operated. It moved its base to Southern California and took on local issues such as the campaign in Los Angeles for a $15 minimum wage.

That change has yielded some grass-roots growth, like the work of Cheryl Branch, who founded a Los Angeles chapter last year, Califia NOW, and has helped launch two other local chapters; members have lobbied on state legislation and plan on holding a financial literacy class next year. She sees these as complementing the statewide organization.

"We need a presence at the state and we need a presence in local chapters," Branch said. "It's not either/or. It's the capacity to do both. I think that's what we're building."

But without a presence in Sacramento, the group has surrendered the ability to help steer statewide policy, former members say.

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"That physical presence is lost," said Jodi Hicks, a former lobbyist for the organization who recalled a time when it was common to head to the Capitol at a moment's notice to meet with lawmakers or cultivate relationships with staff.

Longtime supporters of the group say its influence has waned through its leaders' unwillingness to compromise, which hindered work with fellow advocates and lawmakers.

"California NOW should have tried to move their policy agenda forward by developing strong working relationships with state legislators, so they'd have a seat at the table when important bills on women's rights were being crafted," said Lori Vandermeir, a former communications director of the state organization.

The group's exacting standards, Bellasalma said, are in line with its mission to advocate for all women.

"We're not afraid to make the right statement for the right reason," she said.

Tensions go beyond differing political approaches. Critics, who include current and former members, allege numerous violations of the group's bylaws: from not informing members of officer elections to paying a salary to a vice president whose position is designated as unpaid. The net result, they say, is an organization no longer representing its members.

"One of the greatest strengths of California NOW was that members set and drove the agenda," said Janice Rocco, a member who served on the chapter's board from 1992 until 2009. "For the last few years, the members have been shut out of the decision-making and the organization is far less effective as a result."

Bellasalma said no bylaws had been violated. She said the compensation for the vice president was for work performed outside of her function as a board member and that there had been proper notification of all meetings and elections.

Jerilyn Stapleton, California NOW's president, said she did not see a decline in the group's influence and predicted an active year in 2016.

"We certainly want to see more feminist people get elected into office," she said.

Recent candidate endorsements have put the group at odds with female legislators and other women's groups. California NOW has backed state Sen. Isadore Hall III (D-Compton) in his South Los Angeles congressional race against Nanette Barragán, who has been endorsed by Emily's List and the National Women's Political Caucus.

In August, the chapter excoriated a Pasadena candidate for the state Senate, Phlunte' Riddle, calling her support for abortion rights "not reliable." Five days later, the California Legislative Women's Caucus endorsed Riddle, praising her pro-choice bona fides.

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For the Record

10:45 a.m., Dec. 14: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to Riddle as a candidate from the San Fernando Valley.

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But the most visible break with other feminist groups came during debate on the equal pay law, which will broaden the state's prohibition on paying women less than men when it takes effect on Jan. 1.

California NOW initially opposed the bill, saying it should ban wage discrimination based not just on gender but also race, ethnicity, sexuality and disability.

"What's the harm in having California NOW saying there's still work to do?" Bellasalma said.

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Jackson, the bill's author, said the group's stance didn't take into account the fragile negotiations needed to get the legislation through the Capitol.

The bill ultimately won the support of the California Chamber of Commerce, lawmakers from both parties and even NOW's national umbrella organization — but not the state organization; absent the amendment it was seeking, the group remained opposed.

For Jackson, who chairs the Legislative Women's Caucus, the episode underscored the changes she'd seen in the state chapter.

"It really hasn't had the presence and the leadership in the Legislature that it had had previously," she said. "Frankly, it has left a vacuum in the overall pursuit of women's issues."

Twitter: @melmason

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