I first met Carmen Warschaw when I became a political writer for the Associated Press in the mid 1960s. I thought she was one of the most interesting, challenging people I'd met on my new beat, an opinion that has not changed over the years.
Carmen and her husband Lou -- they were teenage sweethearts -- became active in the Democratic party in their youth. It was a time when the Democratic party was taking control of the state, led by Governor Edmund G. Brown and Assemblyman Jesse M. Unruh, on his way to becoming speaker of the Assembly with power rivaling that of the governor. Before they became rivals, they created the California with nationally famous universities, great public high schools and community colleges, a freeway system and a water plan essential to the state's growth. By then a leader of the state Democratic Party, Carmen was an important figure in all this. She was a terrific tactician, a generous donor to politicians she supported, a steadfast friend to Unruh and those aligned with him -- and a fearsome enemy to her foes, usually those who double-crossed her. In my biography of Unruh, I wrote of Carmen and of a cruise she and Lou took with Unruh and his friend, Chris, who was to become his wife. Unruh was dying of cancer:
"Their (Carmen and Lou's) yacht was named The Dragon Lady, the nickname given Carmen by her opponents in he many Democratic Party fights she waged as an Unruh ally -- against the party's liberal wing, against the Democratic governor, Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr., as well as against foes by then gone from the memories of all but a few like Carmen and Unruh, neither of whom ever forgot or forgave a double cross. She wore the name "Dragon Lady" with such pride that she affixed it to the family yacht."
She became a leader in the creation of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, her alma mater and that of Unruh. She helped guide its program of teaching young people the practical side of politics. At meetings of the Institute advisory committee at her home, she carefully watched over whether the institution was educating young people in politics so they would become hard-headed people committed to doing good.
My wife, Nancy, and I enjoyed being invited to dinner at her house. They were small dinners, presided over by Carmen, who combined the style of a grand lady with the down-home friendliness of a Jewish mother raised in Los Angeles. Drinks would be served, dinner was prepared by her excellent chef, always with a delicious desert and conversation about political personalities we'd known, past and present. She was a bridge between the politics of today and a more colorful -- and more productive --era of a half century ago.
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