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O’Neill Era Comes to a Close

Times Staff Writer

Dabbing away a tear, outgoing Mayor Beverly O’Neill gazed out at 800 admirers in the Long Beach Convention Center ballroom. For once in 12 years she didn’t quote Mae West.

Hours of adoration more befitting a eulogy than a retirement had preceded O’Neill to the podium. She was compared to Jesus and FDR, and called a civic “superhero.” In the audience were many who felt they had flourished during her time in office: Long Beach port and shipping executives, civic boosters, clergy, police officers and artists.

Seated with her family was O’Neill’s longtime hairdresser, whom she thanked -- as few big-city mayors would -- for keeping her strawberry blond coif “the same color it was in high school.”

“Isn’t that wonderful?” she added.

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O’Neill stepped down last week after three terms as Long Beach’s most prominent and popular leader -- reelected the last time in an unprecedented write-in victory that made national news.

An approachable leader who kept her home phone number listed, she has been credited with guiding the city’s economic revival after aerospace downsizing and the departure of the Navy. And even her detractors concede that O’Neill chipped away at Long Beach’s civic inferiority complex.

Her rah-rah spirit and self-deprecating style were spoofed in a video at last month’s farewell gala.

With her retirement, the video noted, she would be shopping around for the perfect new gig. But when asked what her next job would be, O’Neill allowed that she was weighing “some options.”

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The video showed a life-size cardboard cutout of O’Neill piloting a city gondola, feeding seals at the aquarium, grinning with Cal State Long Beach cheerleaders -- even getting tips from a bus driver.

“You have to .... be polite, cheerful, confident, while listening to lots of complaints, while steering people in the right direction,” the driver lectured the cardboard O’Neill. “Have you had any experience like that?”

For those who call her the “feel-good mayor,” the answer would be a resounding yes.

“She has been a stalwart through tough economic times,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

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He cited job growth -- 3% so far this year compared with last year -- and the revived if controversial downtown, whose restaurants and condos are expected to pour 10,000 new residents into that area by 2010.

Being positive, and “not a diva, like most politicians, does actually translate into economics,” said Kyser, who deals with politicians around the state. So, he said, does O’Neill’s role as outgoing head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Through her, hundreds of the nation’s city leaders -- including many from the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast -- came to know this gritty port town, he said.

“Her warmth and persona have spilled over from what people think of her to what people think of Long Beach,” he added. “Even if you don’t like her policies or positions, you can’t not like her.... She is a generally loved politician.”

Even critics can’t help but appreciate O’Neill’s life story, which began modestly in Long Beach. Her life’s upward trajectory often parallels Long Beach’s.

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She was born Beverly Lewis 75 years ago. She went to the city’s oldest day care and local schools, and met her future husband, Bill O’Neill, at Polytechnic High School.

For years her family lived in rental apartments, O’Neill has said, and her mother worked too. Her beloved father sobered up, and her mother, Flossie Lewis, founded in their living room the support group for families of alcoholics that became Al-Anon.

O’Neill worked for years as a JC Penney sales clerk while putting herself through college. She earned five degrees and became a schoolteacher, with a 31-year career at Long Beach City College. One of her proudest achievements was founding a center there for women returning to college later in life. In 1988, she became the college’s president.

In 1994 she beat incumbent Ernie Kell, becoming Long Beach’s second directly elected mayor.

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Her defining public moment came soon after, when the federal base-closure commission was deciding whether to shut down the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. O’Neill went to hold the hands of families waiting for the decision in a hotel ballroom -- something the Navy and aerospace families that made up so much of Long Beach’s fabric said they would never forget.

In 1998, O’Neill was easily reelected to another four-year term, backed heavily by the Greater Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. O’Neill’s administration focused on the need for other industries to replace the lost Navy and aerospace jobs. The Port of Long Beach and tourism were key elements of O’Neill’s recovery plan.

In 2002, term limits prevented O’Neill from officially running for a third term. But she wanted to see several unfinished downtown projects through. So she put herself forward as a write-in candidate. She won again, though critics note that turnout was low and only 20,000 ballots were cast for her in a city of nearly 500,000.

O’Neill critics say it isn’t easy to oppose O’Neill without feeling like party poopers.

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During her time in office, the port grew rapidly, offsetting middle-class jobs lost in the 1990s. Air pollution from the port increased too, and her critics say she was slow to throw her weight toward fighting what is now a looming problem left for her successor.

The hotel and service jobs that have come with downtown redevelopment in places surrounding the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Pike at Rainbow Harbor generally pay low wages and have been criticized by some as unstable foundations on which to build the city’s financial future.

O’Neill has called some opponents of change and development “CAVE people -- citizens against virtually everything.”

“It’s a very effective way to marginalize anybody who would disagree,” observed Bill Pearl of LBReport.com, a watchdog blog on which O’Neill critics have sounded off over the years. Lately, the topic there has been a perk that the City Council approved for itself and for O’Neill in which unused sick time can be banked and spent to buy postretirement health insurance.

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O’Neill’s replacement, Bob Foster, maintains a cordial relationship with her, and he did not directly tar her in his campaign. But criticism was implied when he said Long Beach officials’ decision to give themselves fat pension raises had cost citizens library hours and police patrols. The U.S. Census Bureau last year listed Long Beach among the 10 cities with the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line. Foster referred to this, saying the city had not done enough to keep itself “from becoming a city of haves and have-nots.”

George Economides, publisher of the Long Beach Business Journal, said the weekly newspaper went from opposing O’Neill’s first term to cheering her last.

“Anyone who serves 12 years is going to make mistakes,” he said. “But she did more right than wrong. Far more.”

O’Neill acknowledges that Long Beach still has problems, like any big city with crime, scant affordable housing and poverty. But she stresses, in her ever-sunny way, that Long Beach’s poor are “working poor.” And she says she leaves office proud of her legacy.

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