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