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Sen. Bergeson Has Success at Politics With Unique Style

Times Staff Writer

Another legislative victory seemingly secured, Marian Bergeson rose and began to walk out of the Assembly hearing room where she had won and lost on numerous issues before.

“It was a pleasure, senator,” called out Assembly Ways and Means subcommittee Chairman Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton), who had just sided with Bergeson on the appropriation of $2.7 million to dredge Upper Newport Bay.

“As always,” Johnston added, “persuasive and quite effective.”

In her six years in the Legislature, Bergeson (R-Newport Beach), who represents some of the state’s most solidly Republican areas, has learned to follow poet Rudyard Kipling’s admonition to treat success, failure, victory, defeat and gratuitous compliments from powerful Democrats the same.

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Like the tasteful pastels and bright ice tones of her always perfectly coordinated attire, Bergeson’s style is reasoned and low-keyed. She neither pounds tables nor raises her voice to the oratorical roar that is common among legislators.

For emphasis, she gestures with her hands, sometimes nervously. But Bergeson always speaks quietly in a near-monotone with a tinge of a Utah accent that persists despite more than four decades in California.

And, like her upswept, elaborately coiffed, frosted blond hairdo--colleagues joke that no one has “ever seen a single strand out of place"--her legislative presentations are always extremely well prepared. Democrats and Republicans alike speak in laudatory terms of her thoroughness and flexibility on issues.

Most mayors, city council members and other local officials in her district generally regard her as the most sympathetic ear they’ve ever had in Sacramento.

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“She is,” said Bergeson’s close personal friend, former Newport Beach Mayor Jackie Heather, pausing to choose just the right words, “impeccably responsible.”

Elected to the Senate last year after three terms in the Assembly, Bergeson represents a sprawling Southern California district that touches the borders of Los Angeles County, Arizona and Mexico.

The 37th Senatorial District, which is the approximate size of Massachusetts, includes large chunks of San Diego and Orange counties--including Bergeson’s Newport Beach-area power base--all of Imperial County and a corner of Riverside County.

Since losing in her first attempt to enter the Legislature nine years ago, Bergeson’s political fortunes have been almost all good.

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She has run unopposed three times and has managed more than 73% of the vote in her last four contested elections.

Some pollsters and political observers today regard Bergeson as Orange County’s most popular political figure--a significant accomplishment for someone who was generally regarded as just a nice schoolmarm when she was elected to the Legislature in 1978 after serving on two school boards and as president of the California School Boards Assn.

“She is very keenly respected in the Orange County electorate,” said County Republican Party Chairman Tom Fuentes. Fuentes cited a poll prepared for Orange County Supervisor Tom Riley several years ago showing that a Bergeson endorsement of his candidacy would carry more weight than the backing of any other local political figure.

Some of Bergeson’s critics say, however, that she maintains her enormous political popularity by successfully appearing to be all things to all people.

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Some critics also say that Bergeson is not as conservative as her constituents, but she has managed to prevent this from becoming a political liability. Others, however, say Bergeson’s fear of a right-wing challenge keeps her from voting her conscience at times.

“When you are a Marian Bergeson, you can get it from all sides,” acknowledged Kevin Sloat, who ran Bergeson’s Senate campaign last year, then moved to Sacramento to become her administrative assistant.

But more than anything else, Bergeson has been unpredictable--in the eyes of both conservatives and liberals

Among Few Against Divestment

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A practicing Mormon, Bergeson opposes state-funded abortions, favors prayer in public schools and opposes the equal rights amendment. However, the findings of the annual Orange County Survey, a political opinion study prepared by University of California, Irvine, Prof. Mark Baldassare, suggest that voters in Bergeson’s district are more liberal on these issues than Orange County or the nation as a whole.

As the issue has gained momentum in recent months, the state Capitol’s most outspoken conservative idealogues have said very little on the issue of divesting U.S. holdings in South Africa in protest of that country’s policy of apartheid. However, Bergeson has been one of the few lawmakers speaking out against divestment, calling it “an emotional issue” and arguing that it may be “fiscally unsound” to withhold investments of state pension fund money and other assets in companies doing business there.

Still, Bergeson is one of the few Republicans who is almost universally praised by liberal Democratic leaders pushing for sanctions against South Africa.

Following a long, tedious debate over welfare reform last week, state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), co-author of two of the measures, convinced a senator rushing for the door to cast one final yes vote, by declaring:

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“It’s a good bill that will put people to work . . .. Look, it’s a Marian Bergeson bill. What more can I say?”

Bergeson said people respect someone who “gives a straight answer,” even when they disagree on controversial issues.

While she views herself as “basically conservative,” Bergeson admits she tries to forge workable compromises with Democratic leaders in Sacramento.

Bergeson also says that she is more willing to use government as a tool to allow local governments and people to help themselves than some conservatives who “just don’t want any government.”

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“You have to work with the players in Sacramento,” said Bergeson. “They (the Democrats) are the majority party. If we are ever going to become the majority party, we are going to have to show people that we can provide the leadership to get the job done.”

Style Confounds Critics

As for those critics who say she is wishy-washy, Bergeson said they are confused by “a matter of style.” Often, she said, she makes up her mind on key votes at the last minute, after listening attentively and discussing matters with advocates of all points of view.

For example, former Laguna Beach Mayor Robert Gentry, a Bergeson admirer although he is a liberal Democrat, said he was bothered “a great deal” when Bergeson voted last year against a bill that would have banned job and housing discrimination toward homosexuals.

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Gentry, who had lobbied Bergeson on the issue, said she explained to him afterward “her district was too conservative.”

Bergeson’s style also left Senate Democrats baffled earlier this year when she cast the deciding vote to confirm Joe Campoy as warden of Folsom Prison.

Campoy’s critics said he tolerated sexual harassment of female guards and was generally insensitive to their needs.

Bergeson never made a commitment to vote against Campoy’s confirmation. But based on conversations with her and the fact that she passed on the first roll-call vote, some Democrats thought Bergeson would either vote against Campoy or abstain.

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Two of the three other women in the Senate voted against Campoy’s confirmation and the other abstained.

“It was a difficult vote for me,” Bergeson says now. “There was a concern, obviously, that for a woman to vote (in favor of confirming Campoy) would be to condone” sexual harassment.

Stands by Decision

Bergeson said she has toured Folsom since the March confirmation vote and is convinced “I made the right decision.”

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“I believe Warden Campoy is doing everything he can to react in a way that is very responsive to the concerns raised by the Legislature in the confirmation debate,” she said.

Members of the now-defunct Republican Women’s Task Force, which favored the equal rights amendment, say Bergeson spoke out against the ERA during her first campaign, just weeks after telling them privately that she supported it.

Never has Bergeson baffled so many in the political arena as she did last summer by endorsing candidate Ken Carpenter in the 10-way race for the Assembly seat she abandoned to run for the Senate.

Bergeson had vowed publicly and privately not to make an endorsement. But two other candidates in the race--former Assemblyman Ron Cordova and Newport Beach City Councilwoman Ruthelyn Plummer--both thought they were Bergeson’s choice.

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Bergeson, who doesn’t like to talk about “old wounds,” insists she had made no commitments. But she says that the two candidates may have misunderstood comments she made privately during the campaign.

What changed her mind, Bergeson said, was what she considered the improper influence of outsiders in the campaign of front-runner and now Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach).

The endorsement of Carpenter, she said, was “totally influenced” by a poll she commissioned that showed him running second in the race. Had that poll shown that Cordova, Plummer “or anyone else” had a chance, they would have received her endorsement instead, she said.

Despite criticism of the endorsement, Bergeson pulled off her most impressive electoral victory five months later, when she garnered nearly 77% of the vote and overwhelmed Democratic challenger Alice Keyser.

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Looks Younger Than Her Years

A former teacher and a mother of four who looks younger than her 54 years, Bergeson broke into politics the old-fashioned way.

“As I recall from a fairly early age, she was pretty tightly involved with the home,” said Bergeson’s oldest child, Nancy Bergeson of Salt Lake City. “She became active in Friends of the Library, PTA and that sort of thing only as it supported her family.”

That led to a 13-year tenure, from 1964 to 1977, on the Newport Beach City and Newport Beach Unified school boards, which in turn led to involvement with the California School Board Assn. From this came an interest in state politics and the unsuccessful 1976 race for the Assembly spot vacated by Rep. Robert Badham (R-Newport Beach).

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Although she lost in the 1976 Republican primary, she still received more than 32,000 write-in votes--nearly 23% of all votes cast--in the general election.

“You take on responsibility and if you do a good job, you get more,” Bergeson said recently, addressing a group of high school students in El Centro.

Bergeson says she could not have handled her legislative life, which includes 16-hour days and four days a week in Sacramento, when her four children were growing up. But she said her family, including husband Garth, has always been supportive of her civic involvement.

“I used to put an onion in a crock pot, so Garth wouldn’t know when he got home whether or not dinner was on,” Bergeson jokes. “Of course, Garth knew the kind of woman he was marrying.”

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