Paula Hawkins: Latter-day Saint Senator from Florida

“Paula Hawkins: Latter-day Saint Senator from Florida,” Ensign, Oct. 1983, 34

Paula Hawkins:

Latter-day Saint Senator from Florida

The woman standing at the back of the chapel between meetings in Orlando, Florida, is talking to friends alternately about her grandchildren, the Sunday School lesson, and food-stamp fraud.

She is qualified to talk about all three. She is holding one of her seven grandchildren; her husband just taught the Sunday School lesson; and, as a United States senator, Paula Hawkins is one of the few people in the United States who can really do something about food-stamp fraud.

Of her many roles, the senatorial office makes Sister Hawkins most visible. But it’s not the most important role to her. Mother, wife, and a daughter of Heavenly Father are some of the roles she lists as more important than her elected office.

“Much time was spent in prayer before she ever accepted the requests to run for the Senate,” says Sister Hawkins’s husband, Gene—a former bishop, high councilor, and member of a stake presidency. “We spent many, many hours in family council discussing the kinds of pressures being a senator would exert on the family. We knew that if she won the Senate campaign, we would have to share her with the whole state. But we finally decided that she could be a force for right in Washington, so she ran.”

Now in her second year as senator, the fifty-six-year-old mother of three grown children still uses her own family as primary advisers. During the election, her son, Kevin, served as campaign treasurer, her daughter Genean served as political consultant and aide, her other daughter Kelly served as companion, and Gene was chief adviser and source of calm and strength. Twenty-one-year-old Kelly is not married, but both other children have been married in the temple and have children of their own.

“I certainly wouldn’t have been able to run without my family,” she says. “Their assistance has been invaluable.”

The former stake Relief Society president became involved in politics in 1957, when the local city council refused to install a sewer system in her new neighborhood.

“I realized that, if anything was going to get done about it, the residents were going to have to do it,” she explains. “We put our heads together and in 1958 got to work to get a new mayor and two new city councilmen elected. I walked up and down the streets, pushing Kevin in a stroller, and we went door to door working for our people.”

She has been involved in many political campaigns since, including two successful ones for a place on Florida’s Public Service Commission, where she gained a reputation for being a consumer advocate. In each campaign she had her family at her side—phoning, canvassing, supporting, helping in many ways.

“As the family got older, she became more and more involved,” says Brother Hawkins. “We wouldn’t have thought about the United States Senate if we had still had any young children at home. But now the whole family can be involved, so we’re not as concerned about the time she must spend away from home.”

Even so, Sister Hawkins is one of the few senators who returns home every weekend. She enjoys being with her family and attending her home ward, the Orlando Second Ward in the Orlando Florida Stake. Brother Hawkins teaches one of the Gospel Doctrine classes, and, until her nursery-age grandchildren recently graduated into Primary, it was not unusual to find Sister Hawkins helping out in the nursery.

“I’m just a visitor in Washington,” she says firmly. “I represent Florida to the government up there, but my home and family are in Florida. I rent an apartment in Washington, and I come home regularly.”

Sister Hawkins, born in Utah and raised in Georgia, married Brother Hawkins, an electrical engineer, in the Logan Temple in 1947. Both have strong Latter-day Saint backgrounds, and the Church has been a major influence in their marriage and their lives.

And nearly everyone knows that she is a Latter-day Saint—so much so that she is jokingly referred to as “the third senator from Utah.”

“Many times newspaper stories will identify me as being ‘R-Utah’ instead of from Florida,” she laughs. “I haven’t lived in Utah in years!”

Sister Hawkins says her religious convictions have not been a stumbling block in her political life. “Happily, I can say that I have never had to compromise my standards to satisfy any demands of public office. I really haven’t even had much pressure to compromise, either.”

Brother Hawkins speculates that people don’t approach her with questionable proposals because of her reputation. “People have gotten to know that she will not give in to pressures, and they have almost stopped pushing,” he says.

Shortly after she was first elected to the Public Service Commission, the president of one of the companies regulated by the commission sent her some ermine-covered luggage. She sent it back. “Maybe it’s possible to let someone furnish you with a car and then vote against him in a big money issue,” she says. “But I don’t think we ought to have to find out.”

The old stereotypes of Washington social life are not very accurate today, she notes. “We have had a lot of conservative, religious-oriented people elected, and we are all helping to change that image. It’s not a problem these days to go to a party and not drink any alcohol. In fact, many functions don’t even have it available.”

The only time it becomes obvious at all is during toasts, when everyone else is raising a wine glass and Sister Hawkins is toasting with her water glass. “I’ve noticed more and more water glasses going up, though, so even that is becoming more accepted.”

Trying to cope with political situations has occasionally frustrated Paula, but even those who have worked very closely with her, including her family, say that she doesn’t get depressed. Even when she was losing elections, she was more concerned about how her family was taking it than about what was happening to her personally.

“I guess I’m something of a Pollyanna in my attitude,” she says, her voice earnest. “I think attitude is everything, and I just don’t allow myself to be in the pits. If one thing doesn’t work out, something else will.”

And being a woman in the predominately male Senate has its advantages, she says. “There are some things I think I can really see better than many of my male counterparts,” she explains, giving an example: “The aspect of a single woman who has to drop her aged mother off at a day-care center so the daughter can work and support the two of them has never really been addressed by the Senate before. Now it’s on the books as the result of some of our work.”

She also sponsored and was largely responsible for passage of a bill last year to require the Federal Bureau of Investigation to deal with child kidnappings. She’s earned a reputation for child advocacy by supporting an infant vaccination bill, calling for facilities for on-site day care for working mothers, designing a job training program for teenagers, and backing strong legislation against drug pushers operating near public schools.

Sister Hawkins is something of an enigma to feminists. On the one hand, she’s a highly visible female leader in the country. On the other, she insists on being Mrs. Hawkins, and says she wants equal rights but not the Equal Rights Amendment. She reflects that if the ERA were passed, it would be “the greatest let-down to its supporters they have ever seen. They think that overnight all wrongs will be righted; but there are already laws on the books that are not being enforced. If this amendment is passed, the only thing that will happen differently is that the bureaucracy will be able to move more freely into our private lives.”

For all of her honors and positions, Paula supports her husband as the patriarch of their home and counsels with him constantly. Virtually all of the major decisions in her married life have been made in tandem with him and by seeking the help of the Lord.

“Gene is my source of strength. I have never met a finer man.” Her smile broadens. “We talk on the phone at least daily. He comes to Washington frequently, and I am home every weekend. That’s how I keep my batteries charged. He is quiet, strong, and always calm. When things get the roughest, he’s always there to keep me hopeful and on the right track.”

And Brother Hawkins says he doesn’t mind sharing his wife’s time with the Senate, because he has seen that she can be an influence for good. “I can’t do what she does,” he says. “Even though she’s a freshman senator, she can open doors and change opinions of senators who have been there for years. She has the skill and necessary background, and her voice is strong—a positive force where it is badly needed. Hers is the kind of work not everyone can do, but it is a wonderful way to complement her role as wife and mother.”

Paula’s office responds to more than 250,000 pieces of mail from constituents every year, far more than many senators. Many process less than half that number. “The people know me,” she says, “and I have always tried to be as available as possible to help with their problems. We have even put in an incoming WATS phone so people from anywhere in Florida can call the Washington office without charge. We’re one of the first offices to do that.”

She sits on three committees, numerous subcommittees, and chairs the Investigations and General Oversight Subcommittee under the Department of Labor and Human Resources.

The senator credits her church experience for much of her success in Washington. “The Church is a great training place for men and women,” she says. “You learn to speak, conduct meetings, organize groups and yourself, and accept responsibility.

“If any church in the world is not repressive to its women,” she insists, “it is the LDS Church. Latter-day Saint women have plowed fields, built homes, written books, and served in the government. That training is just part of the system.”

As a young woman, Paula Hawkins attended Utah State University and studied history. “I always loved history,” she smiles. “I still do—and now we’re making it!”

Photography by Brenda Schrier

Brother and Sister Hawkins at church with three of their grandchildren. (Photography by Bruce and Barbara Behrens.)