Lida Campbell Lenney was in her element, talking to a classroom of students. But this time, the former schoolteacher's subject matter was heresy, or at least what amounts to heresy in Orange County's politically conservative 40th Congressional District.
"I'm a card-carrying member of the ACLU," she told the civics class at Tustin High School. "George Bush seems to think that's unpatriotic. I think that's very patriotic."
The American Civil Liberties Union, she said, champions the causes of "freedom and democracy--whether they agree with the specific issue or not."
The students didn't seem too outraged, but they're not old enough to vote, either. Whether Lenney, a Democrat who is running for retiring Republican Rep. Robert E. Badham's congressional seat, can sell her brand of politics to voters in the 40th District is another matter.
Political observers give Lenney, 55, scant chance of defeating Republican nominee C. Christopher Cox. Cox, 35, who got primary election endorsements from Oliver L. North and Robert H. Bork and has linked his candidacy to his former position as senior associate counsel in the Reagan Administration.
All of which has left Lenney, who has only one paid staffer and who is running her own campaign, pretty much unfazed.
She is centering her campaign, she said, on three issues: peace, the environment and a package of so-called "women's issues" that include increased federal subsidies for child care, job training, care for the elderly and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
On money issues, she calls herself a "fiscal conservative" and says she doesn't favor a tax increase. "I think government should be on a pay-as-you-go basis," she said. "If we're putting together a new plan, let's say a health insurance plan, we've got to figure out a way to pay for it at the same time we're putting it together."
One way would be to redirect the nation's spending, she said. She unequivocally opposes further expenditures on the Strategic Defense Initiative--calling it "throwing money down the Star Wars tube"--or military aid to the Contras. She supports the INF treaty that would eliminate some nuclear weapons and praises President Reagan's overtures to the Soviet Union.
The United States, she said, needs to "retool" its work force--away from the military-industrial complex that has grown since the 1950s and toward a solution of social problems.
"We have to take the brains, money, technology, research and development and put all those things to work to create what we need in society," she told the Tustin High students. "We don't need to keep creating nuclear weapons. We need to take some of those smart people and put them to work solving transportation problems."
Later that day, in her Laguna Beach home in the hills overlooking the ocean, with an indoor swimming pool and a breathtaking view from her living room, Lenney discussed her political coming of age.
A driving force in her political life, she said, is her feeling about women's and family issues. Lenney, who remarried four years ago after 16 years as a divorced mother of two children, said: "It seems there are not very many men who fully understand what a woman goes through. And the preponderance of men in the House and Senate makes a mockery of representative democracy. The camera swings out over the House, and there they are, in their suits and ties."
Plight of Women
The problem, she said, is that Congress doesn't realize the plight of many women in the United States, working for unfair wages or "taking care of human needs in their families--either children or, in some cases, elderly parents."
She told the students that the government's current efforts to bail out foundering financial institutions is good policy--as was the Chrysler Corp. bailout of several years ago. "We need to have the money to bail out women when they're in trouble," she said.
Lenney, a New Jersey native, said she "cut her political teeth" listening to her father's espousal of apartheid. That was not to be her last disagreement with her father, who was born in South Africa. As a young girl, she said, she overheard him telling an insurance agent that he didn't need to set aside money for her college education because "she doesn't have to go to college--she's only a girl."
Lenney went on to graduate from Trenton (N.J.) State College and later spent time in Korea teaching English to Korean businessmen. She and her first husband lived in several places in the United States before settling in Alabama, where, Lenney said, she was one of four national coordinators hired to test the Head Start program.
In 1968, with her marriage ending, Lenney loaded her two young children and some possessions into a 1964 Chevy station wagon and left Alabama for California. She supported the children on her schoolteacher's salary before marrying businessman George Lenney.
Her first experience in public office came in 1986, when she won a four-year term on the Laguna Beach City Council. She later became one of the leaders of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, a nonpartisan group fighting development in Laguna Canyon.
Lenney opposes any offshore drilling along the California coast, saying the oil supplies there wouldn't be large enough to justify the environmental damage.
Lenney said, however, that she doesn't have a specific agenda to take to Washington, if she's elected. Freshman members of Congress, she said, too often make promises they can't keep. But she's a strong supporter, she said, of a child-care bill that would provide federal subsidies for the creation of day-care centers, training of staff and establishment of health and safety programs. She also favors comprehensive national health insurance.
She would like to serve on the House committee overseeing education, she said, "because our schools are languishing." As a public school teacher, she said, she was unable to get $30 for a set of colored pencils that were needed for a class project. "Here we are, the richest nation in the world, and we're not willing to spend resources to educate children in the way we need to."
Lenney is aware of the long odds involved in winning the congressional seat, considered one of the safest Republican seats in the nation. Fund-raising has been a problem, she said, with only about $30,000 raised so far. She said she hopes to double that, which she said will be necessary to pay for direct mail to reach district voters.