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Carmen Warschaw Remembered as California Political “Powerhouse”

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe
Senior Fellow at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California

Crossposted on Prop Zero

Editor’s Note: In the 1990s, I served with Carmen Warschaw on the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Budget Task Force working to improve the County’s financial condition. Despite political differences, we worked well together toward that goal.

Long before “feminism” became a potent political movement in the U.S., Carmen Warschaw cracked glass ceiling after glass ceiling.

She served on California’s first coastal commission and was the first female chair of the State’s Fair Employment Practices Commission, established in 1959 to enforce California civil rights laws regarding discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

The long-time doyenne of the California Democratic Party attended her first national party convention in 1948 and was a California delegate to just about all of them from then on. She served on her party’s National Committee, representing the Golden State, and as Southern California Democratic Party chair.

Carmen remained a “powerhouse” in California’s Democratic politics for more than half a century. Author and political columnist Bill Boyarsky labeled her “one of the indomitable forces in California political life.” Her adversaries nicknamed her “The Dragon Lady” — a sobriquet she gleefully embraced.

“Don’t get mad; get even,” was Warschaw’s political mantra.

And get even she almost always did. Here’s just one brief anecdote:

According to a 1966 article in the Harvard Crimson, Carmen “was odds-on favorite to win the Democratic state chairmanship at the state convention in August. [Governor Edmund G. 'Pat'] Brown’s aides quietly worked for Assemblyman Charles Warren, her chief opponent, and Brown himself, despite previous promises to Mrs. Warschaw, refused to endorse her publicly.” She had been “muttering under her breath about Brown’s treachery ever since her narrow defeat, and …withheld her considerable resources from his campaign.”

Ultimately, Carmen invited Ronald Reagan, the Republican candidate for governor against incumbent Brown, over to her home for a well-publicized photo-op.

A valued mentor to generations of young political activists (she even shepherded a California political newbie — moi — through the tribulations of selecting a wedding gown), in her later years, Carmen endowed — along with her late husband, the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Chair in Practical Politics at their alma mater, USC.

The Warschaws aimed their endowment at bringing to students an understanding of, and participation in, civic life and a positive connection to political and governmental practitioners.

Warschaw was also instrumental in breathing life into USC’s Institute of Politics — named for her powerful political partner (and fellow Trojan), the late Jesse Unruh.

For the past four years, visitors to her home were greeted by life-sized cut-outs of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Carmen, who had worked hard to elect Obama our country’s first African-American president, passed away on Nov. 6, 2012 — Election Day.

In true Carmen Warschaw fashion, however, she had cast her absentee ballot a week earlier.

One more time, she made sure her vote counted.

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