Maxine Quirk apologized as she handed me the dashboard permit necessary to park my car on the street in front of her house in Old Town Orange. “I voted against having these. But then, I’m used to things not going the way I vote,” she said, and it’s the voice of experience.
If Democrats think they have cause to feel rejected, they should try being Quirk sometime. The 72-year-old activist has been on the ballot for seven elections during the past 12 years and has lost, lost, lost, lost, lost, lost, lost.
She’s not just trounced by her major-party competition, she’s all but beneath their notice. This time out, running as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate for State Board of Equalization, Quirk polled 44,087 votes, which might seem a respectable number until placed alongside winner Ernie Dronenburg’s 1 million-plus votes. Still, she considers it a good showing if she’s able to draw 2% of the electorate.
Quirk likes to crochet and to braid old-fashioned rugs. She’s had no children of her own but has helped raise some 30 kids: nephews, nieces and others. She has a cat named Chi Chi Foo Foo. She reads, from the Nation to Tom Clancy. But chiefly, Quirk is a nonstop activist.
Under the Peace and Freedom banner she has run twice for the State Board of Equalization and five times for the U.S. House of Representatives. She also is the Orange County chair of the party, as well as being the “convener” for the Orange County chapter of the Gray Panthers and secretary/treasurer for the peace-promoting Nippozan Myohoji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.
She is a member of Vets of Peace and the Orange County Workers Coalition for Justice and Democracy, which supported the dry-wallers strike in the county. She fought against the passage of Proposition 187 and now is among those hoping to nullify it. In her spare time she works toward closing the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Ga., which she and others contend trains South American death squads.
Lost causes are practically in her blood.
“When the women got the vote, my mother voted for (five-time Socialist presidential candidate) Eugene Debs. I grew up in La Habra and Whittier, and we were in very close proximity to Richard Nixon. My family used to be Republican, but they went over to the Democrats after the Depression in 1929. So they worked against Nixon, not very successfully,” she said with a laugh.
Quirk became politically active herself in the 1950s, precinct walking for Adlai Stevenson, one of the most brilliant, articulate and compassionate candidates this country has produced, and, of course, a big-time loser at the polls. That began a real streak for Quirk, who went on to locally support Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern.
Although the outcome of last Tuesday’s election was certainly enough to give her the impression she’s paddling against a tidal wave, she didn’t seem particularly daunted when we talked the morning after the vote. She’d been up nearly all night listening to the results come in on the radio.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I don’t know why, except that I just feel like a very small percent of the people can make a very big difference. Maybe you don’t get elected or maybe you don’t do the things that the big money people do, but you have an influence on what’s happening.”
If she ever did wake up to find she’d been elected, Quirk admitted her first act would be “to go into shock.”
“I frankly have never believed that I would get into government. And it doesn’t matter to me. I just feel that I’m working for something that’s good. Like Eugene Debs said, ‘It’s better to work for something that you want and lose than to work for something you don’t want and win.’ I think he hit the nail on the head.”
Quirk had been a 30-year Democrat, though she had her doubts about the party in the early ‘70s when, precinct walking for McGovern, she found all of her Democratic neighbors were voting for Nixon. She began voting for Peace and Freedom candidates for lesser offices but stayed with her old party.
“Then in 1979 when there was Three Mile Island, I thought, ‘Both the Republicans and the Democrats are never going to do anything about this.’ There is really no left left there. It’s drifted to the right, and Democrats and Republicans are almost identical, and they’re in somebody’s pocket both of them.
“And so I just switched. I was really glad I did because people in the Peace and Freedom Party seem much more active to me. That was the beginning of a lot of really active times, the anti-nuclear movement was really big, the opposition to registration for the draft, then Central America,” she said.
When she decided to try for public office herself in 1982, her years of campaigning for others had prepared her for the trials of going door to door.
“You develop a thick skin once you get into politics. I know the first year I ran, I’d go up and knock on a door and say I was running for office with the Peace and Freedom Party, and people would make all kinds of funny remarks, like, ‘Well, it’s not going to take them long to wipe that grin off your face.’ ”
She’s never been tempted to move to a political climate more hospitable than the famously right-leaning Orange County.
“I grew up here. I accept it for what it is. And I find that people have become pretty accepting of me because I’m not a fanatic. When I first started having the Peace and Freedom Party phone here at my home, I would get a lot of hate calls from people threatening to bomb and calling me a dirty Commie. But I’ve been running for office long enough and circulated enough that people know I’m not that kind of person, so I think they accept me for what I am,” she said.
Rather than view government in an us-versus-them light, she sees it as a tool its citizens can use to create a better life. She also believes that compassion should be a part of that national will.
“I have a very strong Pennsylvania Dutch background, and we were just brought up to be caring people,” she said. “Sharing and caring are the main goals I’m after I guess.”
A long-divorced husband had purchased a number of investment properties, and Quirk still owns 14 apartments in Santa Ana, which she manages and maintains herself. “There are people in Peace and Freedom who jokingly call me a slumlord. I’m not a very effective landlord. I rent my apartments out for $230, and I pay the utilities. I just--most of the time--make a living wage off them. My tenants are Latinos, and I’m very close to them.
“Proposition 187 to me seems so un-Christian and so against brotherly love. This split over 187 in California is almost as bad as the Vietnam War, because it so divided people. And it is so unkind, because this country has gone down there and screwed that country up, and numerous others besides. We have created a lot of their problems, have really exploited them to the max. It doesn’t make any sense to me that there could be so much hate against people we have wronged so terribly,” she said.
So why would an activist with such strong feelings run for an administrative post like State Board of Equalization?
Quirk explained, “I hate to admit this, but I ran . . . so I wouldn’t have to work (at campaigning). I was busy with other things. It’s a regulatory body, and it has no issues, so you don’t get invited to do anything, and this freed me up to work against 187 and the other things I’m involved in.
“I usually prefer running for Congress because you have more of an opportunity to get into nationwide issues. I have really enjoyed it because I have been able to go speak in the schools and get interviewed by the press, though sometimes I do a real long interview and get one line in the paper.”
She rarely gets to face off against her high-powered opposition, though two years ago she did get to appear on cable TV in a forum with Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach). Rather than acrimony, Quirk said she felt a certain kinship with him.
“It was a very good experience. When you run for office, you feel you have something in common with the others there, even though you may disagree with them totally. After you’ve run for office, you feel it’s kind of like a club you’re in where you feel like you have something in common with everyone who’s ever run, even if they’re doing it on a different level and for different reasons,” she said.
Among her reasons for running for offices that she never thinks she’ll win is just letting people know, by the Peace and Freedom presence on their ballots, that there are alternatives to the established powerbrokers. Along with the Libertarians and the American Independent Party, the Greens also fielded several candidates this year. That’s all for the good, Quirk maintains, though it does spread the vote thinner among the struggling parties, each of which must claim at least 2% of the vote in gubernatorial elections to maintain a presence on future ballots.
And will we still have Quirk to kick around in those elections?
“You know, I don’t know. I’m 72, and I was thinking maybe this would be the last time. And it’s so hard getting the signatures to qualify. Sometimes I get kind of discouraged being in an other party, but then I think, ‘Where would I go?’ And there isn’t anywhere to go. I can’t imagine ever giving up my beliefs for the underdog.
“Like the kids say,” she concluded with a laugh, “ ‘It’s a job, somebody dirty has to do it.’ ”