Only black female on legislature leaving this month

By Jennifer Kerr Associated Press Writer
Monday November 13, 2000

SACRAMENTO – When state Sen. Teresa Hughes’ final term ends this month, she will leave behind a California Legislature that has no black women for the first time in a quarter-century. 

The Los Angeles Democrat also takes with her a record — the longest tenure by a woman, 25 years — that will probably never be broken because of the term limits that are causing her departure. 

The number of women has steadily increased during her 17 years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. The new Legislature elected Tuesday has a record 35 women among its 120 members. They will be white, Latina and Asian — but not black. 

“There’s going to be a big void in our community,” said Alice Huffman, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 

While the current and newly elected Legislatures have six black men, no new black female lawmakers have been elected since 1992. Huffman ran unsuccessfully for an Assembly seat in 1998 and said more recruitment of black women candidates by the political parties and legislative leadership is needed. 

Eight of the 30 black lawmakers elected since 1918 have been women, but most have gone to higher office. 

Three are currently in Congress — Reps. Maxine Waters and Juanita Millender-McDonald, both Los Angeles Democrats, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and one is a Los Angeles County supervisor — Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. 

Hughes arrived at the Capitol after winning a July 1975 special Assembly election. She was one of three women in the 120-member Legislature and one of seven blacks. She was the 16th woman and second black woman ever elected to the Legislature. 

“It was just a good old boys’ club and we were on the outside,” recalls Leona Egeland Siadek, one of the other two female lawmakers that year. “We broke a lot of ground.” 

When Hughes was chosen chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, a Sacramento newspaper mistakenly ran a photo of Siadek, who is white. 

“We decided they must think all women politicians look alike,” said Siadek, who now handles government relations for The Doctors Co. of Napa. 

Hughes says she was used to such treatment at previous jobs as an assistant to the school superintendent in Queens, N.Y., and an education professor at California State University, Los Angeles. 

“I had always worked in situations in professional offices where the majority of them were ’old boys,”’ she said. “It didn’t feel any different for me.” 

Hughes, 68, said things have improved for women during her tenure. Not only are there more women, but male legislators “are learning to respect women as equals,” she said. 

“Most leaders of both houses realize they have to have women in significant leadership spots because their constituents demand it,” Hughes said. 

During her tenure, she has served as chairwoman of several committees, including the Assembly Education Committee in 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education released the “A Nation At Risk” report condemning the state of U.S. public education. 

She co-authored a major education bill that year that set state graduation standards, lengthened the school day and year, raised teacher salaries and standards and required prospective teachers to pass a basic skills test. 

Senate leader John Burton, D-San Francisco, named her as the first black member of the powerful Rules Committee, which decides whether the governor’s appointees should be confirmed. 

Burton said she always made the appointees explain “what they were doing in their departments for the treatment of women and people of color and sexual harassment.” 

Other lawmakers describe her as a warm, yet exacting mother figure, who has mentored new lawmakers by telling them they were asking good, probing questions, then imparting subtle advice. 

“She has a unique way of advising you. When she walks away, you have to say, ’Did she just tell me I screwed up?”’ Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-San Fernando, said during a tribute to Hughes at the end of the session. 

Hughes said she is “very, very concerned” that the new Legislature will have no black women and would like to see party officials encourage more women to run. 

What will her life be like without long days of legislative hearings? 

She plans to watch the Legislature on cable television and write critical “love notes” to her former colleagues. 

She and her husband of 20 years, Oakland urologist Frank Staggers, have always had a “commuter marriage,” as she spent time in Sacramento and her Los Angeles district. 

“Now it’s like I’m a brand new bride. We have to learn to live together,” she said.