LONG BEACH — Eastside neighborhood leader Patricia J. Towner, who 13 years ago found herself a divorced mother with no job training, has been chosen executive director of the state Commission on the Status of Women.
Towner, 46, a recent law school graduate, was selected 11 to 0 by the commission Friday and charged with restoring unity to an agency that has been badly split by partisan politics.
In assuming the $46,000-a-year position on Wednesday, Towner culminated an effort to educate herself and provide for her four children that began in the early 1970s, when her first marriage began to fall apart, she said.
"This is for me a dream of a lifetime," said Towner, who is known locally as a past president of the College Park Homeowners Assn. and a former member of other community boards.
Several of her new bosses said Towner's resilience and determination--along with her administrative experience over the last decade, academic research on job opportunities for women, and personal warmth--led to her appointment.
"We figured Pat's life experience was representative of a lot of women we are trying to reach to and work with," said Commissioner Arlene Merino Nielsen, a San Francisco attorney. "She raised four children, she was a single mother, she was a re-entry woman, and now she has a law degree . . . that impressed us a lot."
Commissioner Jan Hall, who is also a Long Beach City Council member and Towner's next-door neighbor, said her friend was the clear choice of the commission because of her maturity and, in part, because of her organizational experience as the marketing director of savings and loan associations from 1979 to 1983.
"One of the weaknesses of the commission has been keeping its own house in order," said Hall.
The commission was created 20 years ago to advocate women's rights and disseminate information through a network of women's groups statewide. It has been controversial from the start, with critics saying public money should not be used to promote politicized issues such as the equal rights amendment.
Towner says one of her first goals will be to help mend the split between Republicans and Democrats on the 17-member commission.
"I'm hoping to be able to bring the unity together again," she said. "I'm going to work very hard, regardless of the side, to get this commission going forward again. I think my hiring (on a unanimous vote) shows a sense of unity," said Towner.
Amid partisan squabbles, the Legislature in May, 1985, cut the commission's budget from $700,000 to $460,000.
Democrats said that as Republican appointments were made by Gov. George Deukmejian, the commission lost its effectiveness in advocating women's issues and its staff became demoralized. In turn, Republicans said Democrats were angry because they were close to losing their majority on a board they had controlled since its inception.
But after what some commission members of both parties said was a period of fence mending, most of that budget was restored this year.
(Of the 17 commission members, nine are selected from the public, six are state legislators and two represent the state superintendent of schools and the director of the state Division of Labor Standards. Seven of the nine public members are Republicans, two Democrats. Five of the six legislators are Democrats.)
Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, a commission member and a sharp critic in the 1985 budget squabble, said this week that commission members now seem less concerned about partisan politics and more concerned about working for the equality of women.
Shireen Miles, California coordinator for the National Organization for Women, said the commission was particularly effective this year at the Legislature. For example, she said, commission-backed bills were passed that require judges to consider homemaker contributions in divorce actions and that enable spouses to continue to receive deceased mates' pensions.
But even as Towner was preparing to start her new job, one commissioner, a member of the Personnel Committee, said she was "very disturbed" because Hall had not told her that Towner is a close friend.
Two other members of the five-person Personnel Committee that recommended Towner's appointment also said Hall did not make clear the closeness of her relationship with Towner. But they said they were not concerned by that and think Towner is an outstanding choice.
In addition to being neighbors and friends, Towner was coordinator of the phone bank in Hall's campaign for reelection to the Long Beach City Council last spring.
"I did not know of this close relationship," said Gloria Godell of Los Angeles in an interview Tuesday.
"My main concern had been that there not be this special relationship between any commissioner and the director, so we could all work equally with her.
Godell is a Democrat, Hall a Republican. Towner is a Democrat, though commission members said her party affiliation is irrelevant.