Did you know that Debra Bowen, California’s incoming secretary of state, got her first taste of politics while living in Venice?
Initially it was quality of life issues that made Debra get involved with a Neighborhood Watch and the Venice Town Council.
“It wasn’t about politics at all, although it turned out to be,” she says. “It was about getting a stoplight at the corner; it was about not having a regional shopping mall at the corner of Washington and Lincoln.
“Then it became broader. It was about the Santa Monica Bay. It was about affordable housing in Venice. I discovered a whole host of other issues because of my concern about my community.”
Venice politics haven’t changed much in the last 20 years.
“Venice is wonderful,” says Debra. “It has what I think a little downtown daily once called a ‘collection of severe individualists’, which makes it really fun, because there are so many strong personalities with interesting points of view, and if you want to get something done, well, it’s a challenge.”
Asked why she decided to run for public office, Debra replied quickly and honestly, “I thought I could do a better job than the people who were there.”
She turned out to be right.
There had been a redistricting after 1990 and Debra worked with a group of people, city and countywide, who were trying to keep communities of interest together. In the first cut of that redistricting Venice had been split right along Venice Boulevard — everything north of Venice Boulevard in one county supervisor’s district, everything south in another.
“So, I began to understand how important the drawing of the districts was,” says Debra. “The court order in the 1992 redistricting opened an Assembly seat that had no incumbent and I was too na‘ve to know that I couldn’t just run and win.
“That was the traditional wisdom. You couldn’t just run for an Assembly seat as your first attempt at elected office and win — particularly not at that point. The registration was 43 percent Republican and 41 percent Democrat. I had not been working on partisan issues, so I didn’t know that made it a Republican-leaning seat.”
Bringing her knowledge and skill to the State Senate made sense to Debra after she was termed out in the Assembly.
“There was an opening and it was natural to continue the work I was already doing,” she says.
Debra is a true politician for the people. One of her goals has been to open up government to the public. While in the Assembly and the State Senate, Debra made her district office a place where people could go to cut red tape and to get information on how to be involved.
“That reflects my grass-roots beginnings of working at the local level,” she says. “I started in politics because I cared about what was happening in my neighborhood and my community. It never occurred to me in college or in law school that I might, quote, ‘go into politics’.”
Debra was the first California lawmaker to become accessible through her own state e-mail address, the first to put up her own government Web page and the first to put her campaign finances on the Web.
In addition, Debra established a no-gifts policy when she took office in 1992.
“I think it sends the wrong message when elected officials report a long list of basketball tickets and trips and other things that are paid for by special interests,” she says.
Women’s advocacy has been an important item on Debra’s agenda too.
“In California, the administration of our domestic violence program has really been a mess, so we’ve had to work hard to make that more coherent,” she says. “As chair of the Women’s Caucus, I fought for increased funding for children’s care, which is really a family issue, not a women’s issue, but in the legislature it is women who pressed for additional childcare as a priority.
“The final thing is just to make sure, that as younger women get interested in politics and running for office, I’m there to guide them. I think it’s very important to keep a great mix of people interested in coming up the ladder.”
Debra chose to run for secretary of state because “it is a perfect mix of two things that have been at the core of my work in the legislature,” she says. “One is a strong belief in democracy and a desire to open government and processes up and limit the influence of money.
“The second is an interest in how technology has just brought tremendous change into our world and, of course, the voting machine controversy is where the change in government and the ramifications of the changes in technology really come together. I’m passionate about both things.”
It was a very close race. Debra was able to beat out an appointed Republican incumbent.
Asked how she thought she was able to do it, she replied, “There has been a huge concern about the reliability and accuracy of electronic voting machines and the processes of democracy. I worked with people who shared these concerns, not on a partisan basis, but as a matter of the survival of our democracy.
“If we don’t have a democracy, we won’t have those things to worry about. That’s the only way you give people the power to change their own lives. That grass-roots movement is what carried me both through the primary and the general elections.”
There was a quote in the November 11th issue of the Los Angeles Times that stated that Debra is “one of only six women in California history to capture a statewide post.” Debra disputes this figure.
“I was actually surprised when I read that,” she says. “I think that refers to statewide constitutional office, so if you count [U.S.] Senators Boxer and Feinstein it’s eight. But it’s still an extremely small number of women who served statewide throughout California’s history.
“I believe that came in part because I am really a good fit for this post. It also requires people of both parties — people of all parties — to have confidence that I will carry out my duties in a way that’s fair and nonpartisan, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in the legislature.”
At this point Debra isn’t looking any further than January 8th, when she will be sworn into office.
“I have my work cut out for me,” she says. “It’s going to be a huge challenge and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Debra thanks Venice for getting her going.
“I can’t imagine another more interesting, challenging place to get started than Venice,” she says. “I’m fortunate to have my roots come from there, even if it made people in Torrance a little nervous, and it did,” she says laughing.
Dell Chumley Morgan, a longtime friend of Bowen who hasn’t lived in Venice for the last 15 years, went to a recent fundraiser and talked to Debra’s parents. Her stepmother said they had asked her how much she was going to make if she won the election.
“Debbie didn’t know,” says Dell. “That just wasn’t what she was interested in. She bought me my first computer for $100 from a company that was going out of business. I’m sure she got $100 worth of use out of it because she got it for me so I could do more community work.
“When we first met at a Venice Town Council meeting, she was a woman with vision, idealism, creativity and a good sense of humor. She has a balance of being concerned about the public and having the legal training and experience and also, she started as a ‘techie’ early on and I think that’s extremely valuable.”
Linda Lucks remembers meeting Debra at Figtree’s CafÈ to discuss her representation of the Venice Town Council in a legal matter.
“It was obvious to me that she was very smart and a strategic thinker,” says Linda. “She represented COAST (Coastal Area Support Team), a community organization fighting a planned massive high-rise development on the former property housing the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Organization Committee, where a Costco is now located.
“The property is located in Culver City and the residents in the nearby neighborhoods rightly feared the traffic a large scale development would bring (it came anyway).”
“Debra effectively represented community groups and developed a wide network,” Linda continues. “She will make an outstanding secretary of state, as she has focused on technical, policy issues as a state representative and, since her first election, authoring and co-sponsoring legislation to protect us from unwanted telephone calls and Internet abuses.”
Carol Tantau remembers when the Abbot Kinney District Association was having severe financial problems and was in danger of going bankrupt. “Debra stepped up to the plate and negotiated with the creditors and we were able to keep the organization afloat,” she says. “She did a spectacular job.”
Terry Connor remembers that, when Debra thought about running for Assembly, the district “was 40-some odd years in Republican hands. So it was almost a joke when it was suggested that she was going to pursue this.
“The district, the state, the nation is better off as a result of what she’s done. She is so far ahead of the rest of the pack. I am so thrilled. She is one of a very limited number of women that have been elected statewide in the entire history of the state.
“There are 35 million people here. So it’s a real achievement. She has been a leader in so many important areas. She is one of the spokespeople for HAVA (Help America Vote Act), where the feds give the secretary of state hundreds of millions of dollars — then the secretary of state has to give it to all 58 registrar recorders around the state to make sure every one has good equipment.
“It was the legal act that the feds passed after the vote debacle to get rid of dangling chads. That’s what led to the electronic machine. Now at least paper trails are available on those machines principally because of the hounding that Debra was doing.”