This weekend, the Sacramento, Capitol, and social justice community lost a legendary advocate in Betty Perry. For years, she worked diligently and effectively on health care, housing, budget, civil rights, and other issues as the most prominent representative in the California Legislature for the Older Women’s League of California, serving in multiple volunteer roles including public policy director and statewide president. She served in many other capacities, including as board member and president of Health Access California.
While she hasn’t been active in the Legislature for the last several years due to her advanced age and ailing health, many remember her role as a beloved, respected “white hat” community advocate who served as the conscience of the California Legislature on many social justice issues. She would frequently testify and submit letters on a list of bills that would rival a professional lobbying firm, and also participated in administrative advocacy and agency workgroups. She was dogged and determined in her goals, both with keen knowledge, her ability to organize OWL members and allied senior and other groups to her cause, and her moral authority that in part came from her heart and values and from her previous career as a teacher.
She was the guidance counselor at McClatchy High School here in Sacramento, and so she knew many local political personalities from their childhoods, from Supreme Justice Anthony Kennedy to former state Senator Deborah Ortiz to the late Congressman Robert Matsui, who honored her in the Congressional Record. Betty was one of the few speakers at his high-profile funeral. Ever the teacher, she wasn’t shy about writing to legislators or Governors telling them when she was disappointed in their actions.
Representing OWL, Betty was a long-time board member of Health Access California, and served several years as our President. Our 25-member board is highly diverse in constituency and capacity but all were united in their respect for Betty. She ran a good meeting, as you would expect: once when I tried to prep her on a flight down to an Los Angeles board meeting, she sharply reminded me that she chaired her first meeting when she was 18, indicating she had over 60 years experience in such a role. As chair, we were proud to have her represent Health Access in meetings with Governor Schwarzenegger on prescription drugs, and in other forums.
She was a tremendous advocate for universal single-payer health care, a frequent priority of OWL and their annual “Mother’s Day Card” action and lobby day that she organized that would have been taking place about this time each year. She was very active on Medicare Part D, on health budget cuts, and women’s health, and not just with “me too” positions. Betty Perry and OWL, which had been founded by a woman who lost her coverage when she was widowed in her 50s and found she could not buy coverage at any price, took on the issue of pre-existing conditions before it was politically sexy. When few others focused on it, she worked closely with us to support and improve the state’s high-risk pool, the Managed Risk Medical Insurance Program (MRMIP). I am so pleased that she lived long enough to see the progress of the Affordable Care Act and the end of pre-existing condition denials, as well as restorations in the state budget and other goals she worked on.
Even in an advocacy community that has its divisions at times, and in a legislature of competing interests, Betty had broad respect because she represented the good and the just. Nobody questioned Betty’s motives, even those that questioned her positions (which I can’t remember ever doing). The fact that she had this distinguished second career in her retirement as a volunteer was a source of inspiration as well. I recall at least a couple career lobbyists and community leaders, after seeing her work, saying to me, “When I grow up, I want to be Betty Perry.”
We’ve missed Betty Perry the last few years, and now we celebrate all that she contributed. We will post more information about a memorial reception that is likely to be held next week, and other information from the family as soon as we find out.
UPDATE: A memorial for Betty will be held Friday, May 15, at 2:00 pm at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery located at 6700 21st Ave, Sacramento, CA 95820. It will be followed by a memorial/reception at the Dante Club on Fair Oaks Blvd.