Vistan honored for her legislative work on behalf of California families


VISTA, Calif. — When political talk radio was still in its infancy, so were Penny Harrington's two kids, but even then she was already peering ahead to their future. And she was concerned.

"When our children were born, I started to look more at the world around me than I had before, and what was happening at the culture," the Vista resident said.

That was in the early '90s and public schools were pushing the non-traditional outcome-based education. Other progressive concepts such as contraception use by teens, abortion and homosexuality were also beginning to seep into the curricula.

"Slowly I started to realize that this was an important area for believers to be involved in because we did have the wisdom that God gave us in the Bible," she said. "It was something we could rely on. There were clearly delineated areas of right and wrong. Even in some of the gray areas there is wisdom in the Word for us."

Harrington began using her children's napping time to research legislative efforts, to contact her elected representatives and to call talk shows.

"This is something that everybody can do. Everybody can make a phone call, write a letter, get involved, and I started doing it just as an individual," she said.

Three governors and nine legislative sessions later, Harrington has been named Concerned Women for America's 2009 Woman of Excellence for her work as California's legislation director for CWA during a conference in Washington D.C. Also honored by CWA was California State Director Phyliss Nemeth of Arcadia, who was named State Director of the Year, and Sharon Treat, of Salinas, who was recognized as Prayer Action Chapter Leader of the Year.

Nemeth described Harrington's "richly deserved" honor the "Above and Beyond Call of Duty" award.

"Rather than resting on those laurels, she has continued to exemplify excellence in all that she does," Nemeth said. "In fact, Penny could be said to have a godly work ethic that is in overdrive."

Harrington accepted her volunteer post with CWA in 2001 after reading "The Prayer of Jabez," a book that encourages believers to pray to expand their spiritual territory.

"You have to be careful what you pray for," she said, laughing.

Using her gifts
Founded 30 years ago by East County resident Beverly LaHaye, CWA, the nation's largest public policy women's group, invited Harrington on board after she created a legislative newsletter for her church and addressed issues before her local school board. It was a post that fit well with her already-honed business skills and her prior experience in banking, which primed her for much of the legalese she wades through as the state's legislative liaison.

"It wasn't that I had all of this deep background," Harrington said. "It was just that I could research, I could analyze, I could write, I could speak, if I needed to. I could work things into something that was simple enough for people to be able to take it, digest it and do something with it."

Each legislative session—in California the cycle is two years—Harrington and her all-volunteer team read all 2,000-plus bills that are introduced. Harrington analyzes the ones dealing with the six core issues under CWA's umbrella: family, sanctity of human life, education, pornography, religious liberty and national sovereignty, and then helps to draft CWA's position on targeted bills. She then communicates CWA's position to appropriate committees and legislators. Her team also prepares sample letters, creates talking points, generates prayer focus items and distributes e-mail blasts to their constituents. All of the legislative action is also tracked on the California CWA Web site.

Technology a help and a hindrance
It sounds like a dizzying amount of work, especially given the legislature's proclivity of adding amendments to bills, many times inserting non-related laws in an attempt to slide legislation under the public radar. But technology gains have helped with the Internet providing quick access to all of California's proposed measures.

"It's so much easier now," she said. "There's no excuse for not getting the information you need…. I think that we have to take advantage of the technology that we have, and it is so easy to share our concerns with the people we elect to represent us, to get involved in the electoral process."

At the same time, that very same technology can easily fragment the attention of a harried society.

"The difficulty that we have is getting people engaged, getting them involved," she said.

But citizens committed to family values, Harrington stressed, need to pay attention because the state's left-leaning legislature is determined to chisel away at family and parental rights.

"There are so many people who think that someone else is going to do it or I am going to do it or somebody in some kind of leadership is going to do it," the policy specialist said. "But we are truly a grassroots organization. We need people to step in and step up."

Progressives push forward
In recent years the legislature has blocked parental permission and notification for abortions, allowed students to leave their campuses for medical services—including abortion—without telling their parents, advanced transgender protections on campuses and expanded teaching of pro-homosexual coursework.

The legislature is not the only office needing monitoring. On Oct. 11, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new law that will commemorate Harvey Milk Day on May 22. Milk, the San Francisco County Supervisor who was gunned down in 1978, was the first openly gay official to be elected to public office in the United States. On the same day he OK'd Milk day, the governor also signed a law recognizing out-of-state same-sex marriages, despite voters' approval of Proposition 8 a year ago.

In addition to her work with CWA, Harrington is also an advocate of church-based citizenship councils, many times called Salt and Light groups. Many of the groups have sprouted up in California in the wake of the Proposition 8 campaign. Still, there is pastoral resistance in some corners.

"We have a real dichotomy in the church," she said. "There are some that are just very bent on the fact that that's not what we are going to talk about at church, that's not what it's going to be, and then there are others that are very much involved."

It was the involvement of California pastors and their congregations that helped to propel Proposition 8 to victory last November.

"It was so wonderful to see so many people from diverse backgrounds—and even with people with whom we don't agree in our faith background—to come together because this was so important," she said.

Treasured victories
Because they are so rare for conservatives in the Golden State, Harrington said one of the most satisfying aspects of her job is "victory … if you find one."

"California is not an easy state to find victory in so sometimes you have to be happy with very small steps. We did make some small steps this year, but we were also shot down on a couple of big bills."

That grassroots emphasis is particularly thrilling for Harrington who sees her own journey when others capture the vision.

"It's also encouraging when the light goes on and people say, 'Yes. I see the need. I want to get involved. I want to step up. I want to make a difference," she said. "Then you see that snowball with the people that they know. A new chapter that starts, and a new area that starts developing, and people going to conferences, and just seeing the excitement growing and knowing that we weren't called to be victorious; we were called to be faithful."

For more information on CWA in California, visit

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