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Ex-Feminist Icon Seeks Office

Ginny Foat, a former head of the state NOW organization, is running for City Council in Palm Springs.

October 09, 2003|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

PALM SPRINGS — As the first paid president of the California chapter of the National Organization for Women and an emerging force in the Democratic Party, Ginny Foat was a success symbol for feminists.

That is, until her arrest in 1983 in connection with the tire-iron bludgeoning death of an Argentine businessman. She was acquitted two years later, but the headline-grabbing case cleaved the feminist movement into pro-Foat and anti-Foat factions.

Now, after two decades of quietly working as a consultant in women's and gay and lesbian organizations, Foat is stepping back into the political spotlight by running for a seat on the Palm Springs City Council.

Sipping a berry smoothie in a cafe on Palm Canyon Drive, Foat sighed and said, "If people ask about my past, I'll tell them the truth: I was a victim of circumstance, I did nothing wrong and I have no criminal record. But I'd rather talk about how we can make this city a better place to live."

Foat is one of 13 candidates running for two available seats on the City Council and the mayor's position. Several of those candidates are gay, underscoring a demographic shift here. Homosexuals, who are estimated to make up about a third of Palm Springs' population of 44,000, are an increasingly influential political force.

Some political observers predict that Palm Springs might see its first gay mayor -- and first majority of gays and lesbians on the City Council -- after the Nov. 4 election.

"I believe the issues in Palm Springs are common to everyone: public safety, the city budget, a desire for fewer empty storefronts," said political consultant Sheila Grattan, who is assisting heterosexual John Stiles in his campaign for a City Council seat. "I also think there's a good chance we may see a majority of gays and lesbians."

"The old guard is somewhat fearful of that," said Jack Newby, director of public policy at the Desert AIDS Project in Palm Springs. "What we're seeing unfold here is a classic case of a new group moving in and meeting some resistance. But in this case, it's a misunderstood group, and one that is an easy target."

Homosexuals began flocking to Palm Springs in the 1950s. By the 1990s, the city's once-deteriorating downtown village of tourist shops and restaurants had become a gentrified hub of Coachella Valley and a venue for such exclusively gay events as the White Party, one of the nation's most popular destinations in the gay dance circuit.

In recent years, middle-aged gay and lesbian couples without children, but with combined incomes and a desire for slower lifestyles, have been cashing in on their equity in such places as Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego and moving to Palm Springs, where property values are significantly lower.

A year ago, Foat co-founded a downtown gay pride center where new residents can obtain information on local social services and programs ranging from creative-writing classes to "drag lessons."

Foat, who worked closely with the AFL-CIO when she led NOW's California chapter, is the only candidate for the City Council who has won endorsements from both the Democratic Party Central Committee in Riverside County and the AFL-CIO. Their support will give her an edge in waging door-to-door efforts and distributing political mailers in a campaign that could cost about $50,000.

In the meantime, her political opponents have been gathering information about her controversial past. No sooner had she announced her candidacy Aug. 6 than a local conservative political activist, Jim Stuart, said he had received a phone call from a friend who had asked, "Do you know anything about Ginny Foat? She's running for City Council."

"I immediately plugged her name into an Internet search engine," he said. "When I saw what came up, I started laughing out loud. This woman is running for City Council?

"I have no problem with gays or lesbians whatsoever," said Stuart, a real estate agent. "But if someone has a criminal background, I want to know about it. I think that should be brought out during the campaign.

"Even though O.J. Simpson was acquitted, I wouldn't vote for him," he added. "There would always be the question."

That kind of talk rankles Foat's supporters. "How long does a person have to pay for being acquitted?" Newby asked.

But Foat, 62, who likes to say, "My life is an open book, figuratively and literally," has been directing those curious about her past to the Palm Springs Library, where two books about her are on file. One is her autobiography, "Never Guilty, Never Free." The other, Ellen Hawkes' "Feminism on Trial," deals with Foat's case and its effect on feminism.

"I'm not afraid of skeletons coming out of my closet, because they've all been written about," she said.

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