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Bakersfield: Even as state presence shrinks, a local league chapter becomes more active.


BAKERSFIELD — To say it's blazing hot here on a sunny Saturday is to mince words.

Visitors to the cluster of antique stores in the drowsy downtown clutch cold drinks and drift, squinty-eyed, through the streets. Over on Chester Avenue, where dozens of bail bondsmen ply their trade, aging cars idle with windows wide open to catch any breeze. For paying guests at the swanky Holiday Inn next to the city's convention center, it's all about the deep end of the pool.

But Lois Chaney didn't seem to feel the heat. It was 96 degrees in the shade on the grounds of the Kern County Museum, and Chaney, president of the Bakersfield chapter of the League of Women Voters, looked as if she had been sipping iced tea on the veranda, rather than winding up a long afternoon's work.

Hundreds of teachers, students and parents who had spent the afternoon at the museum walked wearily to their cars. Chaney, a red-white-and-blue sequined visor holding back her short auburn hair, called greetings and reminders. It had been a small event--she had staffed a league booth at someone else's function--but to Chaney, it all matters. A lot.

"We registered about 12 new voters--not too bad," Chaney said. "What we really did today was show that the League of Women Voters has a presence here in town."

In fact, the Bakersfield chapter of the League of Women Voters has a presence throughout the state. While participation in other California chapters of the venerable organization has remained flat or dropped, the Bakersfield league has tripled its membership. Its ranks have swelled from 60 members in 1996 to 185. In addition, the group has placed Measure K, a Kern County campaign finance reform proposal, on the November ballot.

Chaney said the increase in membership is the result of growing concern among the county's 661,000 residents over what they consider to be unchecked development. But local and state leaders in the league said activism in Bakersfield can be directly traced to Chaney.

"She's dynamic and she's dedicated--a lot of that chapter's growth comes from her efforts," said Barbara Inatsugu, president of the state League of Women Voters. "The Bakersfield chapter has taken some very big steps in the last few years, and to actually put out a ballot measure is quite significant."

The League of Women Voters, founded in 1920 as an outgrowth of the women's suffrage movement, was designed to help female voters carry out their new responsibilities. The nonpartisan group's mission is twofold--to educate voters, and to support public policy issues and debate. The California league has 11,219 members, down slightly from previous years.

"Leagues around the state seem to go for either voter education or advocacy," Inatsugu said. "We're learning that leagues who have been involved in issues that catch their community's attention and engage the community in action are the ones that seem to be growing."

In Kern County, where cheap land and sparse regulations combine to give developers great freedom, the league's objective became controlled growth. Chaney focused attention on the thousands of acres of Kern County farmland being lost each year to housing and commerce. Residents rallied, and soon public debates and forums on the topic drew interest throughout the community.

"Developers have had it all their own way here for a long time," Chaney said. A lifelong resident of the region, she has watched the Central Valley grow from a rural farming community to a budding urban center, complete with traffic, air pollution and crime.

"But now, with the cheap housing drawing new people to the area, we're getting residents who think differently," Chaney said. "Many of them don't want so much uncontrolled growth."

Once the alarm was raised, Chaney's next step was to help forge policy that could put control of growth into the hands of local lawmakers. To ensure that no single contributor could influence a candidate, she targeted campaign finance reform.

"We had one supervisor who collected $600,000 for his campaign, and then spent $20,000 more than that, all for an $80,000-a-year job," said one Bakersfield resident, Lois Watson, a retired schoolteacher who is likely to take the reins when Chaney's term ends in April.

The Bakersfield League of Women Voters spent months researching various campaign finance reform measures throughout the state. It used a similar ballot measure in Orange County to craft Measure K, which will appear on the November ballot. Measure K would limit how much campaign money Kern County supervisors could accept and from whom it could come.

Not all new members were drawn to the league on the slow-growth platform.

Jesus Garcia, the first Latino male member of the Bakersfield league and a candidate for the local school board, said he wants to make sure a diverse range of residents gets a voice in the county's political debate.

Garcia said he admired Chaney's devotion to the cause of public debate. "Lois is the League of Women Voters here in town. She's making it a group that's representative of the area. That's important."

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