"It's hard to get into a festive social mood during these times," said new Orange County Supervisor Marian Bergeson, forcing a smile last week during a charity luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Irvine.
But even in one of her worst weeks in this office, amid a multitude of tense meetings, proposals of staggering layoffs and cuts in social services that are expected to cripple some of the programs she helped establish as a state senator, Bergeson found time to attend the benefit for a spiritual retreat center for children in Santa Ana.
Now, more than ever, she said, it is important for her to set an example on the charity scene, to encourage a spirit of volunteerism that will serve the county.
"There are going to be such ugly cutbacks in many of the services that affect children and families that it is going to become more and more important that we draw on the resources of the community to serve the population," said the former state senator at the fund-raiser for the Heart of Jesus Retreat Center operated by the Sisters of the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart.
"We have always been a very caring and concerned community. But right now, we're looking at a $2-billion deficit. It's literally going to be life and death for many individuals in the county--particularly children in trouble, at risk because the county can no longer provide the services they need."
During Thursday's festivities, Bergeson joined other female leaders to judge male participants, several corporate hunks among them, in a fashion show.
As the men swept by, modeling everything from silk robes to dress suits, Bergeson applauded with gusto, enjoying her two-hour reprieve from civic responsibility.
"It's kind of nice to be a judge of somebody else for awhile," she deadpanned before taking her seat at the foot of a spotlighted ramp.
Social situations, while they appeal to Bergeson and her husband, Garth, can be difficult these days, she has found. People criticize her, bombard her with questions.
"The severity of this bankruptcy has caused everybody to wring their hands (and) say 'How can this happen?'; 'Who can we blame?' " she said.
"When people are so intensely critical, it's demeaning in a way. But I keep in mind that this is not necessarily about Marian Bergeson, because I wasn't here when it happened," she said. She joined the board after the county declared bankruptcy.
"I can respond in a way that is not emotional . . . maintain control," she said. "My admonition to (critics) is: We had a wonderful county, a strong economy. And we are going to get through this."
Given the time demands of her work--"I never see her," said Garth--Bergeson is not always able to participate in fund-raising events. But when the retreat center's benefit committee invited her to be a judge at the 17th annual "Gentlemen's Haberdashery," she was game.
During her years as a politician--"a word I don't mind when it means a master of the political process," she said--she has done everything from parachute from a plane to perform in a rap concert.
"I'm a daredevil, actually. I love rides, especially roller coasters."
But on a rare day off, Bergeson will likely be at a Ruby's restaurant, dressed in sweats and tennies, sharing burgers, fries and shakes with her grandchildren.
"People are surprised when they see me" casually dressed, Bergeson said.
During her years as an Orange County school board member, assemblywoman and state senator, Bergeson has appeared at public functions in classic suits, sensible pumps, every hair in place, prompting some to dub her "Marian the librarian."
"A lot of the time my clothing has to take me from day to evening, so I generally wear things that don't wrinkle," she said, patting the skirt of her smart blue suit. "I have a few evening dresses that are seasonal, classic."
Her accessories include hoop earrings, a wedding ring, an opal ring from Australia, bangle bracelets and a roomy handbag.
But no cellular phone. Bergeson is not into displays of "busyness."
"It annoys me, people answering phones all the time," she said. "I let my messages gather and return my calls when it's appropriate."
How does it feel being the most politically powerful woman in Orange County? "I've never thought about it as power as such," she said. "I've always looked upon elected office as public service. It's what you do to meet the obligations and requirements of your position of responsibility."
More than ever, the power to make a difference is going to be in the hands of the Orange County community, she says.
"What volunteers convey to the meaning of a community through their efforts is immeasurable."