By: Cory Bilicko
An oral-history event the Historical Society of Long Beach (HSLB) presented Wednesday night was a spirited and often humorous conversation between two local Democratic leaders whose political scope has reached far beyond Long Beach.
Congressmember Alan Lowenthal, who currently represents California’s 47th District, interviewed former State Assemblymember Betty Karnette during the almost two-hour talk at Keesal, Young & Logan law firm in downtown Long Beach.
The two were clearly quite comfortable with each other, and, in between jokes and mutual teasing, Karnette shared stories of having always been a leader (“because no one else wanted to do it”), her brief involvement with Scientology and even her penchant for fist-fighting with boys– as a little girl. She even asked the audience for a show of hands of who else liked to fight.
That scrappiness, coupled with an upbringing that promoted listening to and understanding others, is what appears to have characterized Karnette’s political career, which has seen its successes– authoring legislation requiring that voters be able to review the political contributions received by candidates for public office and legislation allowing the use of “battered woman syndrome” to be used in defense of those convicted of killing abusive spouses– as well as challenges– being one of only a few women in the State Assembly and being narrowly defeated by Steven T. Kuykendall in 1994 after having already served a term. That defeat did not dim her enthusiasm for holding public office, as she was elected to the California State Senate to serve from 1996 until she was termed out in 2004.
During Wednesday night’s interview, Lowenthal first asked Karnette about her early life growing up in Paducah, Kentucky.
Karnette explained that segregation prevailed and, after she witnessed children from the African-American community attending schools separate from those of white kids, she joined the NAACP in junior college.
“I was one of four white people that would let their names be used,” she said. “But there were more people that were sympathetic.”
Lowenthal also emphasized Karnette’s teaching career and how she was instrumental in shaping the teacher’s union in Los Angeles.
“You played a major role in the changing of a major union in this country,” Lowenthal said to Karnette, explaining that she was elected to the state legislature in 1992, a time when that governmental body was dominated by men.
“Most of the women, when they got there, realized that nobody was listening to them,” Lowenthal said. “That’s what the rules were, that’s what the game was. Betty broke the rules, by just being Betty. She didn’t know she wasn’t ‘supposed’ to be in that meeting. It was great. So, I just want to know how that developed. Were you an activist as a teacher too?”
Karnette said she has always been an activist and that her drive to get things accomplished was modeled after her grandmother.
“My grandmother worked in a shoe factory, and [she] really ran things,” she said. “I really loved my grandmother. She never really got mad at people. She just did [what needed to be done], and I copied her.”
She said her grandmother’s spirit continued to influence her in her political life.
“In getting elected to office, people would ask me if I’d run, and I’d say, ‘Oh, well, if noboby else wants to,’” Karnette said. “But I took it seriously and tried to win. But I never felt like I was winning for me as much as for the people who wanted me to run.”
Karnette said she thinks the terms to which state legislators are limited are not long enough.
“It takes a while to learn what to do,” she said. “And then, once you learn, you’ve got to have some influence or you can’t help your district and the people that you represent. If somebody wanted to extend the terms, I’d support it– that’s for sure.”
Throughout the conversation, Karnette stressed how being friendly and open to others is key to success.
“I think just being pleasant human beings has a lot to do with getting things done,” Karnette said. “And not everything is quote ‘political.’ People may think it is, but it’s not.”