California’s First Woman & First Latino Lt. Governor Could Blaze Trail for Minorities and Civil Liberties
By Dr Lisette B. Poole

Pleasanton, CA: California State Senator Liz Figueroa, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor, promises to champion civil liberties for all, embrace marriage equality, improve health care quality and access, protect consumers and their privacy, and promote a business climate that is profitable for workers and business owners alike.
All these are social justice issues to which she remains committed with the same passion that drew her to public service 30 years ago. At least four of the bills she sponsored are blueprints for the rest of the states. In an exclusive interview she says she wants to do more, so now this Democrat is on a mission to become the first woman and the first Latina Lieutenant Governor of California. Some 45 men have served in that position. Elections are nine months away -- June 2006.
Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Figueroa, 55, a petite brown-eyed blond, is known for blazing her own path by taking on unpopular social and political issues with a smile, determination and a fierce sense of fairness. Her El Salvadoran heritage also makes her sensitive to the plight of immigrants.
She waves off critics who say she travels abroad too often. “How in the world can members of Congress or the Senate make decisions regarding international relations when they have never visited or talked to people in other countries?
Some “163 languages are spoken in the Fremont” area of her constituency, she says. “I feel so great to say I visited China, Japan, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, South America Mexico, Central America, Canada, Australia…when my constituents come to me they know that there is a connection. I can’t wait to visit Afghanistan, India and Pakistan…
“There was a time when people thought they needed to know only what went on in their backyards. But I think the world has changed. “If you want to take care of your hometown you had better know what is going on in the rest of the world, right now young men and women, from these little hometowns, are risking their lives for something they have no knowledge of, and that is shameful.” Figueroa opposes the occupation of Iraq.
Humorously she adds, “We all know that if you have had a meal with someone, or, maybe a glass of champagne, there is actually very little chance that you will bomb him or her the next day.” Senator Figueroa can often be seen on weekends in her district—Alameda, and Santa Clara counties—shopping, walking or enjoying a casual meal with friends or family. She likes to wear a sari or other ethnic clothes on these days. Sometimes Andrew and Cameron, her grandchildren, join too.
With equal ease she has taken on the strongest and most powerful special interest lobbyists in the name of equality, and justice; colleagues and constituents agree.
For example, in the wake of September 11, when the country was enveloped in anti-terrorist frenzy, she did not shrink back from a request by the California Civil Rights Coalition, to document the PATRIOT Act’s impact on California’s Muslim communities. The Senate Office of Research undertook the study, she said. “We found that there had been enormous abuses … it finally came to the forefront of people’s attention: if you are white or Caucasian, average looking, you do not get approached. But if you look a little bit different and you live in certain communities you are a number one target.”
She remains very involved in the issue and encourages citizen awareness. Recently she spearheaded a state resolution asking members of Congress to shorten the Act’s sunset provisions, giving police sweeping powers to search private records.
“My background is civil rights and civil justice,” she said, “many of us have a great deal of difficulty with sections of the PATRIOT Act.” Almost 400 cities and states have censored the Act for its commonly known “sneak and peak” provisions.
“We don’t know if we have enough congressional members who understand how many freedoms have been infringed upon (since the September 11 attacks). At the same time, I don’t think that there are enough people, who complain. I don’t think people speak up. They say to themselves: ‘With all that is happening I don’t want to make any noise.’ But they should let their legislators know. I don’t think people realize how hurtful it is for some families.”
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) using its expanded authority under the Act, demanded library records from a Connecticut institution as part of an intelligence investigation. The demand is the first confirmed instance in which the FBI used the law in this way, the ACLU said. “To think that in this country your library records are going to be searched …under the terms of the PATRIOT Act!” exclaimed the Senator shaking her head in disbelief.

It was similar outrage that led her to tackle Google, a popular search engine and current darling of Silicon Valley, to set protocols respecting the privacy of its users. In April 2004, Google, based in Santa Clara County, offered an entire Gigabyte of free e-mail storage—some 250 times more than basic e-mail services-- in return for automated scanning of the content of incoming messages so they would serve content-targeted ads. Critics worried that there were not enough legal safeguards. Sen. Figueroa took to the battle station. “No one wanted to take them on. I did!” she grinned.
She told the media she was drafting legislation to prohibit the scanning of e-mail in order to serve ads. Her reaction resonated on many levels. The San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley's paper of record, mused in an editorial, "If Google ogles your mail, can (Attorney General John) Ashcroft be far behind?" Two leading privacy groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC, and London-based Privacy International, denounced Gmail as an intrusion that must not be permitted to exist.
She pressed on with Legislation SB7, prohibiting “the provider of an electronic communication service from developing personally identifiable profiles of persons from the contents of electronic communication, or extracting electronic mail address or other personally identifiable information from the electronic communication.”
In 2002, she authored into law SB1289, to help Californians obtain free credit reports in an effort to curb identity theft. A federal law is being enacted to guarantee identical rights. “I noticed that credit reporting agencies were making it difficult for consumers to see what was going onto their records. So I acted on their behalf,” she said.
It was respect of privacy that led her to stare down the powerful telemarketing industry. In 2001 she authored SB 771 that created California’s ‘Do Not Call List’ empowering citizens to block telemarketer calls. A federal bill went into effect in 2003 thanks to which citizens across the nation can enjoy a quite meal. Telemarketer operators typically called during the evening hours to promote their business.
She renewed faith in a popular belief that California leads the nation in forward-thinking when she led three charges against medical entities demanding that new mothers be allowed a longer stay in hospital, protecting privacy of medical records, and allowing consumers to hold their HMO accountable for wrongdoing. The first two, AB 1841, of 1996, and SB 19 of 1999, respectively, are mirrored in federal legislation.

She is now campaigning up and down the state for the seat of Lt. Governor, a position elected separately from the Governor. She would chair or sit on the board of several critical commissions, including agriculture, education, disaster relief, combating intolerance, trade and economy and environment.
Two other democrats are vying for the seat: Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, and state Insurance Commissioner, John Garamendi. Speier, representing San Mateo and San Francisco counties is better known for her highly publicized victory forcing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to cancel his multimillion-dollar deal with two muscle magazines.
Figueroa, who attended UC Berkley, is a former business owner. For 17 years her employment agency helped injured workers re-train and re-enter the job market. She hopes this will also be an asset during the general election. “I know first hand how much hard work goes into meeting your payroll, deadlines, insurance. I will help make things better and simpler. Small businesses, small farms, are an important part of our economy. I will work harder than anyone to get the job done and be the best ambassador of the people that I can be,” she says emphatically. (Lisette B. Poole, a San Francisco Bay Area freelance journalist also lectures at California State University, East Bay.)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.