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New Kid on the Bloc : Freshman Assemblywoman Bowen Balances Getting Ahead, Getting Along

May 09, 1993|JAMIE SIMONS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SACRAMENTO — Debra Bowen's personal life has been shot to pieces. Even the cat feels left out.

As a new member of the state Assembly, she's hardly home anymore, having swapped the comfortable house near the beach in Venice where her husband and cat reside for a Sacramento apartment decorated with cardboard-box tables and beach-towel tablecloths.

Her professional life has been a bit rocky too, because learning the ropes in the Capitol is an enormous undertaking. The legislative session for freshmen started in January with orientation meetings on policy and ethics, but nobody shared information as basic as the combination for the women's restroom.

"I didn't even know the proper way to use my key for voting," Bowen said. "My seatmate, Richard Katz, had to tell me."

As a freshman this year, however, Bowen at least has lots of company. The 27 new legislators constitute the largest contingent of first-termers in the Legislature's 80-member lower house. As a group, they appear unusually determined to make a difference quickly, having been elected in a year of voter outrage toward government. And they are the first group to enter the Legislature knowing at the outset that they are subject to term limits; they have six years to get something done, then they must give up their seats.

Since taking office in January, Bowen's life from Monday through Thursday has revolved around the State Capitol, with its committee hearings, floor sessions, constituent visits, receptions, political intrigues and coalition-building breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

Meetings with constituents get highest priority; everything else is up for grabs. Attending receptions is, after all, not what Bowen's being paid to do. What she \o7 is \f7 paid to do (at $52,500 a year) is create legislation that, in theory, reflects the desires and needs of the California public--and particularly, the needs of her district.

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Close attention to home-district concerns is expected of freshmen legislators, but even within this group, Bowen is something of a special case. She needs to make friends quickly if she is to serve more than one two-year term. She is a Democrat, but her 53rd Assembly District, which stretches along the coast from Venice to the base of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, has definite Republican leanings. Last year, she drew a weak GOP opponent, but she's not likely to be so lucky in 1994.

This session, Bowen is the author of about 25 bills, average for a freshman Assembly member. Most of them deal with her main areas of interest: the environment, housing, and conversion of defense industry jobs to other uses, all of which are big issues within her district. But despite the common wisdom that freshmen should stay away from anything controversial, she and first-term Republican Jan Goldsmith of San Diego have co-authored a bill on campaign finance reform.

The bill would put limits on campaign contributions to candidates and PACs, or political action committees, ban transfers of funds between candidates and committees in excess of contribution limits and ban virtually all off-year fund raising. It's nothing particularly new; California voters approved similar provisions in two 1988 ballot measures, but one was overturned on constitutional grounds, and the other is still being challenged in court.

It is one of half a dozen campaign reform bills this year, none of which are assured of passage. As Bowen noted, campaign reform is always much more popular with voters than with elected officials.

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Indeed, the Bowen bill attacks the very heart of the Assembly leadership's power. Democratic Speaker Willie Brown, as well as senior Republicans, his theoretical enemies, preside over a complicated campaign-finance system in which money is often transferred from well-heeled incumbents, who in many elections do not face serious opposition, to candidates in competitive races. And at the leaders' request, innumerable special interest groups and PACs can weigh in with thousands of dollars of additional contributions in key races.

It is a system that Brown uses with great effect to reward, punish and put members in his debt. Bowen herself received a huge infusion of party and special interest money late in her campaign last fall; it is a safe bet that some of it came her way because Brown and others concluded that the 53rd District race had become winnable for her.

Bowen credits several factors with her willingness to take on an issue that is likely to bring her into conflict with Brown. This is her first time in public office, but public service has always been a high priority for her, she said. As a lawyer before she was elected, much of her work was for nonprofit organizations.

Bowen also has been influenced by the fact that she was 25 when her mother died in an automobile crash. "Her death gave me an understanding that life is unpredictable. You have to move ahead in spite of risks."

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