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Valerie Brown's gender may prove a nonissue

By Greg Cahill

Three weeks after the election of Valerie Brown to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, it is unclear what effect the first woman to hold that position in more than a decade will have on local women's issues.

The Board has been criticized for being insensitive to a wide range of women's issues, including sexual harassment, domestic violence, and employment discrimination within county departments.

In recent years, female challengers have been unable to unseat incumbent males. In 1995 gay rights advocate Maddy Hirchfield failed in her supervisorial bid. In his past two reelection campaigns, Supervisor Tim Smith has held off two women challengers, Noreen Evans and Maureen Casey. Veteran supervisor Mike Cale--who retired in August, leading Governor Gray Davis to appoint Brown to his seat--defeated Dawn Mittleman two years ago, and Supervisor Mike Kerns of Petaluma defeated former Petaluma City Councilwoman Jane Hamilton in 1998 to win his first term.

Coincidentally, the last woman to serve on the board, Janet Nicolas, also was a Sonoma Valley resident. She held the seat from 1985 to 1991. During the 1970s and 1980s, the board had at least two women supervisors at any given time: in addition to Nicolas, Santa Rosa's Helen Rudee served from 1976 until 1989, and Petaluma's Helen Putnam served from 1978 to 1984.

So the election of a woman to the board has been highly anticipated in some quarters as the Holy Grail of county politics. That anticipation heightened in the late '90s after the county sheriff's department and district attorney's office were rocked with allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment in a series of highly publicized cases that resulted in millions of dollars in settlements paid out of county coffers.

Earlier this year, a federal court in San Francisco awarded a $1 million settlement in a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the sheriff's department to the family of Maria Teresa Macias, a Sonoma Valley housekeeper slain in 1996 by her estranged husband. Macias had contacted sheriff's deputies at least 20 times seeking help in the domestic violence case. Her death led to a shakeup in the county ranks and resulted in widespread organizational restructuring and reforms of the processes for filing a restraining order.

The settlement also marked the first time a California law enforcement agency has been ordered to make a monetary award for failing to protect a domestic-violence victim.

But local women's rights advocates appear to be taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the newly elected woman supervisor. Local firebrand Tanya Brannan, head of the Guerneville-based Purple Berets women's advocacy group and a highly vocal critic of the formerly all-male board, declined to comment about her expectations of Brown.

Still, Brown's track record may speak for itself. During her seven-year tenure as a liberal Democrat in the state Assembly, she supported increased spending on domestic violence programs and often championed other women's issues. Brown, who termed out of the Assembly in 1999, was appointed later that year by the state legislature to the California Medical Assistance Commission, a decision that didn't sit well with antiabortion forces. In commenting on the appointment at the time, the Los Angeles Lay Catholic Mission newsletter criticized Brown for her pro-choice background and quoted one Republican operative who assailed the former state lawmaker for her "militant pro-abortion voting record."

In addition to what the newsletter called "her rigid pro-abortion stance," Brown infuriated some state Catholics when she carried the state bill that makes clergymen, including Catholic priests, mandated child-abuse reporters.

Brown's male counterparts on the board also are downplaying their colleague's gender. In a published report, Supervisor Kerns recently said that Brown's greatest asset may be her Sacramento connections, who can help county officials navigate the labyrinth of bureaucratic red tape.

"I think Supervisor Brown will fit into the Board as a moderate, and could be a progressive on some select issues, hopefully on environmental issues," said Supervisor Mike Reilly of Sebastopol, the board's lone progressive. "Supervisor Brown is an experienced, pragmatic problem solver who I believe will seek to balance competing interests in her decisions. While I think she will be strong on women's issues, the board already has established a strong direction on domestic violence and other issues of importance to women."

For her part, Brown--who won the endorsement of the North Bay Council, a business and development group--has said she will focus first on increasing problems related to growth in the rural Sonoma Valley.

"The key to Sonoma County politics is always growth and development," says Reilly. "We will have to wait and see what track record Supervisor Brown establishes on these issues."

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From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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