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Los Angeles Times Interview : Anita Perez Ferguson : On Bringing Women-- and the Personal--into Public Office

July 14, 1996|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is author of "From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know About Women's History in America" (Plume, 1995). She interviewed Anita Perez Ferguson in her Washington office

WASHINGTON — More women now serve in the U.S. Congress than ever before, but the bigger story may be how much stronger women are at the state legislative level. "That's where our critical mass is sitting," says Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, which has helped train many of those women. Where women comprise 10% of the U.S. Congress, they are 21% of state legislators--with California right at that national average. If Congress shifts more government functions to the states, women will have more impact, Ferguson said, adding that those state offices are often stepping stones to Congress.

The caucus, founded 25 years ago as a major political arm of the women's movement, supports Democrats and Republicans who are pro-choice and agree on other key women's issues. This year it has endorsed 25 congressional challengers who have won their primaries and 27 of the incumbent female House members. With endorsement comes more training, publicity and, at times, financial support. "There's a huge number of open seats," said Ferguson. "We wish we could have fielded a woman candidate for all the open seats because that's the best opportunity."

Ferguson, 47, elected caucus president last August, grew up amid a large extended Latino family in Montebello. She attended East Los Angeles Community College, received her B.A. from Westmont College in Montecito and has master's degrees in counseling psychology and management. She and her husband, Bill Ferguson, taught in Nairobi, Kenya, and worked with refugees in Somalia in the early 1980s. He's now assistant director of the National Assn. of Conflict Mediation in Washington. Seeing her country from the outside and how its decisions affect people around the world rekindled an interest in politics begun during East L.A. student demonstrations in the late 1960s.

Personal experience figures in the training Ferguson gives candidates. In 1990, she challenged a 16-year incumbent, Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Santa Barbara), losing but receiving 45% of the vote. In 1992, redistricting pitted her against Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), in a more conservative district. She lost again, but was able to raise $750,000 for her campaign.

In 1990, many parents introduced their daughters to candidate Ferguson, telling them, "Someday you could be running for Congress." They called her "mijita Anita"--"my little daughter Anita"--as though she were a member of the family. Someone even made "Mijita Anita" bumper stickers. "I still see them around the district." Ferguson says.

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Question: Has the drumbeat of criticism directed at Hillary Rodham Clinton, although she's not an elected official, affected your ability to recruit candidates?

Answer: It certainly registers with potential candidates. The level of criticism directed against the first lady and the venom or the depths to which people feel free to criticize is a concern to women considering public office.

Q: Are they thinking, "If she has to deal with this, what's going to happen to me?"

A: Exactly . . . . There is a level of candidate, or public-figure, abuse which seems heightened today. It does not escape the notice of women considering running for public office.

Most of them are still willing to consider running, but need to have the issues talked through in their own life. Frequently, I find that the concerns that our potential candidates have about their private lives, their children's or husband's lives, are not as devastating as they might think. So many families encounter personal concerns--whether they be economic or a run-in with the law or a divorce--that we actually talk about how those can help you identify with the public more than fearing that there would be some revelation.

Q: With many prominent women in Congress leaving--for example, Rep. Patricia Schroeder and Sen. Nancy Landen Kassebaum--how do you convince women they should run?

A: The number of women leaving is small in proportion to their numbers in Congress and far below the number of men that are leaving--so that is not a significant area for us. For each woman who is going out, other women are stepping up to bat.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro [D-Conn.] has already taken over a good amount of the leadership on the Democratic side. She has a good, strong voice and a clear vision and a similar style to what we've seen from Schroeder--a pretty much out-front, honest, shoot-from-the-hip style which is both refreshing and keeps issues moving along. In the Senate, with Kassebaum, we see Sen. Olympia Snowe [R-Maine] with very similar views.

Q: What advantages do you think female candidates still have?

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