The daughter of working–class immigrants, Democrat Lynn Schenk won a hotly contested election in a majority Republican district to become the first woman to represent San Diego, California, in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her brief service, Schenk attempted to balance a policy of environmental protection, which she forged as a local politician with the business interests and booming biotechnical industry in her district. The Congresswoman eventually succumbed to the GOP resurgence in the 1994 election.
Lynn Schenk was born in the Bronx, New York, on January 5, 1945, to Hungarian immigrants. Her parents, Sidney and Elsa Schenk, survived the Nazi Holocaust and fled to the United States before 1945. She and her one brother, Fred, were raised in a working–class household; Sidney Schenk worked as a tailor, and Elsa Schenk was a manicurist. Lynn Schenk attended the Beth Jacobs School for Girls of the East Bronx. When she was14, her family moved to California. In 1962, she graduated from Hamilton High School, in Los Angeles. Schenk earned a B.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1967. Three years later, she received her J.D. from the University of San Diego Law School. Schenk confronted a male–dominated institution and, with the support of fellow female students, pressed the law school into building female restroom facilities in convenient locations. In 1970, she pursued postgraduate studies in international law at the London School of Economics. In 1972, Lynn Schenk married a University of San Diego law professor, C. Hugh Friedman, becoming the stepmother to his three children. Schenk became the deputy attorney general in the criminal division of the California attorney general’s office. From 1972 to 1976, she worked as an attorney for the San Diego Gas and Electric Company. She cofounded the Lawyers Club of San Diego, which supported female attorneys in 1972. Schenk also founded the first California bank owned and operated by women in 1973.
Schenk dove into politics when she received a prestigious position as a White House Fellow in 1976. She subsequently worked as a special assistant to Vice Presidents Nelson A. Rockefeller and Walter F. Mondale. The White House experience landed her a place in California Governor Jerry Brown’s cabinet. She held the position of deputy secretary for the California department of business, transportation, and housing from 1977 until 1980. In 1980, Lynn Schenk became the first woman secretary of that department, serving for three years. After an unsuccessful campaign for San Diego County supervisor in 1984, she returned to private law practice. Schenk worked as the California co–chair for the presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis in 1988. From 1990 to 1993, she served as a commissioner and vice chair of the San Diego unified port district. In her role as commissioner she was responsible for overseeing San Diego Bay, where she spearheaded environmental protection programs.
Following California reapportionment in 1992, Schenk ran for a newly created U.S. House seat. The new district, which stretched along the coast from La Jolla to the Mexican border and encompassed downtown San Diego, retained some of retiring six–term Republican Representative Bill Lowery’s constituency which had elected him for 12 years. Though the new district maintained its Republican majority, the new boundaries brought in more independent voters.1 Schenk swept through the five–way Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote. She was one of 18 women among a record–breaking 35 female candidates to win a U.S. House primary in California.2 She faced another woman in the general election: political novice and San Diego nurse Judy Jarvis. Despite her inexperience, Jarvis gained momentum with her upset victory in a crowded Republican primary; she took a 21 percent plurality against nine opponents.3 Schenk was inspired by the sheer number of female candidates, “There’s no question that, finally, being a woman [is] a positive rather than a negative in politics,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “For decades, women had to be better just to get up to the starting line. But this year, the presumptions of confidence and effectiveness shifted to women.”4 The race between Jarvis and Schenk moved quickly into the spotlight as the two candidates battled to be the first woman to represent San Diego in Congress. Jarvis emphasized her role as a political outsider who was free from bureaucratic entanglements, arguing that Schenk saw Congress as “a position … for her resume.”5 Schenk pointed to her long record of public service, challenging her opponent to demonstrate a comparable record of commitment to the community. “[Jarvis] is trying to turn standing on the sidelines into a virtue,” Schenk charged.6 In her own defense, Schenk further emphasized her success as a women’s rights activist as well as in her environmental pursuits as port commissioner. Schenk came out on top of the tight race with 51 percent to Jarvis’s 43 percent. Two third–party candidates took an additional six percent.7
Upon her entrance in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), Schenk’s background in environmental protection won her seats on the Energy and Commerce and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries committees. Congresswoman Schenk focused much of her congressional career on balancing her interest in protecting the environment with tending to the business interests of her constituents. She supported strong enforcement of the Clean Air Act, pushed for greater pollution control, and supported establishing wildlife refuges in her district. However, she also supported business interests by encouraging development through tax incentives. She voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in an effort to maintain San Diego area jobs. In addition, she helped block part of President William J. Clinton’s health care plan, which proposed creating an advisory council to regulate drug pricing and limit “price gouging” on prescription drugs. Many voters in Schenk’s district, which boasted a growing biotechnical industry, opposed this policy.
In her bid for re–election, Schenk found herself among many nationwide incumbents in a close race to retain her seat. Most damaging to the Congresswoman’s campaign was her vote in favor of President Clinton’s five–year budget plan, which sought to lower the federal deficit by cutting spending and raising taxes for wealthy Americans. Schenk defended her vote as an act of solidarity with the Democratic President; however, many San Diego area residents were among those who saw increased taxes. The Clinton budget cost them an estimated $500 million dollars. Schenk’s Republican opponent, former Imperial Beach mayor and San Diego County supervisor Brian Bilbray, capitalized on Schenk’s unpopular position by running television ads highlighting her vote. “She came in on the Clinton tide and will go out with the Clinton tide,” noted the challenger, using a metaphor familiar to oceanside San Diego residents.8 Schenk spent much of the campaign on the defensive, attempting to distance herself from the President, pointing to her legislative achievements, and fighting a GOP tide that eventually produced a Republican majority for the first time in 40 years. Bilbray’s similar strong stance on environmental issues diluted the incumbent’s message. Schenk lost a close race by three percentage points, 49 to 46, with third party candidates splitting the remainder.9
Upon her departure from Washington, Lynn Schenk did not stray from the political arena. She eventually became the chief of staff to California Governor Gray Davis. In 1998, she made an unsuccessful bid for attorney general of California. After the campaign, she served as an educational advisor and on the board of directors for a California biotechnical company.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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