Piedmont’s League of Women Voters going strong after nearly 75 years
By Lou Fancher
Before results of the national election in 2016 put U.S. politics on a steep, slippery incline characterized by an increasingly partisan atmosphere, Lorrel Plimier lived much like an average middle-class American. That is, the 10-year Piedmont resident, patent attorney and data scientist with a strong interest in fact-based knowledge and education, homeowner and mother of two young sons assumed government worked properly and according to evidence-based policies. Above all, she assumed democracy was meant to enforce equal access for its citizens to opportunity, liberty, essential resources, education and security.
“After the November 2016 general election, I realized things in our government were not what I had thought,” Plimier says. “I had assumed other people had politics handled. I’m a patent attorney and science-involved. Politics was someone else’s game … until it hit home for me that it could impact my life.”
Plimier followed a friend’s suggestion to get involved and joined the League of Women Voters of Piedmont, a local chapter of the California and national leagues. The national League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that since 1920 has worked to increase understanding of major public policy issues. The LWV seeks to influence public policy through education and advocacy and, though political in focus, never endorses or opposes particular candidates or parties The grassroots organization grounds itself in a mission to make democracy work for all Americans and activities that encourage civic engagement on local, state and national levels.
“I signed up to be webmaster and do the newsletter in 2017,” Plimier says. “In May 2020, I agreed to be the next president.”
Piedmont’s league was founded in 1947, when Mrs. Lawrence Fletcher (then the temporary chair) and two study groups formed shortly thereafter launched themselves into examining the role of citizens in government. In the 21st century, the local league has participated in the Million Mom March, registered high school voters, studied voting systems and energy issues, joined with the Piedmont Anti-Racism & Diversity Committee (formerly the Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee) and the Piedmont Asian American Club to present the PADC’s Diversity Film Series and more. In 2021, national focus is directed to water policy, education and criminal justice. Locally, Plimier says housing equity is in the forefront.
“We have 182 members and a broad community who are not members who come to our events,” she says. Asked to portray public perception — without her usual preferred data gathering — about the LWVP, she says, “We’re in a fairly liberal bubble but also an area with a conservative element. People watch our content from the policies we are in favor of as well as that of the state and the national site. They see we support human rights, fighting climate change, eliminating exclusionary housing, things like that.”
When it comes to water policy, one bill pending in the state Legislature, AB252, addresses water and California’s land use and is supported by the California LWV.
“We had a conversation on drought and the “new normal” in December 2020 with Ashley Boren, the executive director of Sustainable Conservation,” says Plimier. “It’s on our YouTube channel (youtu.be/fIhS2B-svvQ). There are a lot of factors balancing water issues. If you have a limited supply, you have to have it for farmers to grow food, but you also have safe tap water to supply to houses. I’m not a water expert, but I gained knowledge about the complicated infrastructures you need to deliver water. It’s something most people take for granted, and maybe we shouldn’t.”
Education that includes funding for high-quality universal preschool accessible to all Californians is another critical issue. Plimier notes that, with the cost of private preschool close if not equal to college tuition, wealthy families can afford it, but most Americans cannot. To establish a trained and ready workforce, strong family structures and bolster community mental and physical health, early education is essential, she says.
“Providing universal preschool will expose children to positive learning and allow parents freedom to earn a living,” Plimier says. “If your kids are young and you have to leave them with a sibling because you have no other options … it all ties into supporting a more engaged society that includes more than just the middle class.”
A number of virtual programs that the LWVP held shortly after George Floyd’s death in 2020 and during the pandemic sought to inform the community about what Plimier says are “inequities baked into our criminal justice system.” Piedmont Police Chief Jeremy Bowers and California Supervising Deputy Attorney General Nancy Beninati (who is also an LWVP board director) led a discussion centered on police reform. Anne Janks, an organizer with the Coalition for Police Accountability group, explained new models in one of the programs for responding to low-level conflicts — misdemeanors, not violent crimes or felonies.
“These are really mental health issues, and people need help, understanding, resources and not to be arrested,” says Plimier.
Also, the state LWV Criminal Justice Committee presented an online screening of the film, “Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem,” in April 2021.
“It’s powerful and talks about the system, intentional or not, that favors white people and not minorities. People of color are stopped and arrested for doing things that are not a huge harm to society: you can’t make bail, and you end up in jail, lose your job, and it snowballs from there. We’ve had people appear who talk about what needs to change in our social justice system. We’re planning to revisit the topic,” Plimier says.
Other issues moving forward revolve around LWVP’s central goal: to empower voters to make educated, fact-based decisions. With the state LWV taking the lead in the Sept. 14 California gubernatorial recall election, Plimier suggest people investigate Voter’s Edge (votersedge.org/ca) to gain access to “a fabulous tool for educating voters” about ballots and bills in upcoming elections.
Piedmont’s next eight-year Housing Element cycle approaches in 2023, which has LWVP asking, “How can we help the community be informed?” Plimier says Piedmont is not the only community with a clear history of redlining.
“Pockets in Oakland and other cities also set precedents like that of Sidney Dearing, a Black man who in 1924 had to have his mother-in-law purchase his Piedmont home and then was run out of town. People need to know that it’s factual and that hiding a racist past isn’t going to further community development.”
Looking to the 2022 elections, she is aware that voters highly engaged in 2020 have grown weary.
“Democracy requires everybody to be involved, so we want to use our newsletter and programs to keep people interested. We’ve found a sliver lining in the pandemic. Prior, maybe 20 people would show up to hear someone talk in someone’s living room. Now, we have a YouTube library, and, being virtual, we get more information out to the community. Before the pandemic, I remember being nervous before having the first annual meeting on Zoom, but everyone has been forced to be comfortable with Zoom now. We’re still hoping to have our annual luncheon meeting in-person, but even that we will now record so it’s available for ongoing viewing.”