Venezia: Bergeson is in another tough race — against cancer

This post has been corrected, as noted below.

With politics on everyone’s minds these days, I thought I’d check in with one of my favorite iconic women in the game: Marian Bergeson.

She’s been a school board member, assemblywoman, the first woman in the state Senate, an Orange County supervisor and secretary of education under Gov. Pete Wilson. An elementary school is even named for her.

Bergeson has seen it all and is one tough cookie, which means she’s got the mettle for her current battle with pancreatic cancer.

“I’m doing OK for an old lady,” she jokes, adding that she feels like a “meatball in a bowl of spaghetti” because when she was in the hospital at the start of the new year “people keep poking you.”

Now home, nurses arrive twice daily for treatments.

Bergeson says she went into the hospital originally for breast-cancer surgery, and that’s when doctors found a mass on her pancreas.

Luckily they caught it early or it would have been “sayonara,” she explains, adding that the surgery cost her the loss of her spleen and about 40% of her pancreas.

“It wasn’t an easy surgery, but I’m still salvageable,” she quips.

Bergeson has a great sense of humor and believes that even though she received expert medical care, her attitude played an equally important part in her recovery.

In the political arena she’s been called “a pit bull wrapped in St. John Knits.

Starting her career as a kindergarten teacher got her ready for politics.

“It was the best training because it’s all sandbox politics,” she jokes.

Though she didn’t start out to be a politician, destiny had other plans.

When she and husband, Garth, moved to Newport Beach in the late 1950s, she saw lots of opportunities in the burgeoning community.

In 1959 and ’60, Bergeson raised $1,200, went to City Hall and got the ball rolling on getting Mariner’s Library built.

She saw an opportunity to run for school board and took it. She then became an expert in school finance and president of the California School Board Assn., where she worked with the Legislature.

“People used to say, ‘How can you deal with smoke filled-rooms?’ I’d make them perfumed rooms,” she says.

Then she ran for Assembly. If you think politics is nasty today, it was no different back then.

When Republican and Mercedes dealer Jim Slemons ran against Democrat Ron Cordova for the 74th Assembly seat in 1976, Slemons hit a hiccup when he was accused of bringing pornography through U.S. Customs. Bergeson became a write-in candidate just 10 days before the election.

“The headlines read, ‘Bergeson sails in, Slemons sails out,’” she says.

She remembers someone wrote Ronald Reagan, saying a woman was trying to upset the Republican nomination.

Bergeson says Reagan wrote a letter of support for Slemons, though she heard later that he was sorry he did.

In the end she mustered 40,000 votes, and her supporters were called “Marian’s Mafia.”

Cordova won the race.

In 1978, Bergson ran again and won but not before the race got a bit nasty.

“Lee Watkins ran against me in ’78 and accused me of having a prostitution record in Texas,” she says with a chuckle.

For the record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Dick Spooner ran against Bergeson in 1976. In fact, her opponent was Lee Watkins. Spooner was her campaign manager.

In her early campaigns, Bergeson says her age was continually reported every time someone wrote about her, but not those of her male opponents.

“I did lie about it at one time,” she says. “My mother told me if you tell the truth about your age, you’ll tell everybody everything.”

Bergeson certainly does that. She’s surprisingly candid about her past and has strong opinions on what needs to be fixed politically in state and county government today.

She says the toughest thing to change is the inability of government to adapt to conditions as they evolve.

“The problem with Legislature now, as then, is they deal with crisis issues, not long-term,” she says. “We had much of the same problems then as we do now.”

Bergson says the long-term problems are part of a syndrome she calls “not in my term of office,” explaining legislators push off long-term solutions so nothing gets accomplished.

Talking with her, I was amazed at how sharp her memory is at 89, and how relevant her observations of today’s political scene are.

Will she write a book?

Maybe someday, she says, but right now she has other pressing issues.

Talk with Bergeson and you can’t help but feel she’s a real life Wonder Woman. She’s looking forward to her 90th birthday this August and plans to go sky diving.

When I suggest that might not be the best idea for someone in her condition, she shrugs, saying she’s already made the commitment. And she keeps her commitments.

She truly is amazing.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at