Editor’s note: This is third in a series of interviews columnist David Hansen is doing with Laguna Beach City Council candidates who are challenging incumbents in November.
For Allison Mathews, her political awakening started when she was 8 years old and pulled out of elementary school by the Secret Service.
It was 1971 in Rhode Island and her cousin, Daniel Ellsberg, had just released the Pentagon Papers.
“I was a very young girl,” she said. “I was yanked out of school by the Secret Service, and my parents were questioned because he had called us the night before the release of the papers. And he told my mother he was going away for a while and something big was going to happen.”
Mathews and her siblings had only recently moved to Rhode Island from Switzerland because her father, James Twaddell, was a U.S. diplomat in Geneva.
“It was a very tumultuous, scary time,” Mathews said. “We were separated from our parents, and we were asked questions, and it was frightening to see the government have that kind of power.”
Fast forward 47 years, and Mathews now uses her childhood experiences as ballast for a life of involvement and positive change. She is running for one of three open seats on the Laguna Beach City Council in November.
She knows she is considered an outsider. Mathews has only lived in Laguna for less than two years, but she’s been on the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force since February and is eager to do more.
It’s the way she was raised.
“I’ve been working on political campaigns for as long as I could stuff an envelope,” she said. “We always had formal dinners every night, and the topic of conversation was twofold: service and politics.”
To say that Mathews comes from a political family is an understatement.
Her father ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974.
Her uncle, William Twaddell, was the ambassador to Nigeria and career member of the Senior Foreign Service. He served many assignments and was also the special assistant to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance during the late 1970s.
Her family is “good friends” with U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) . Mathews also worked on the campaign for U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
When she was in high school, her family took in Max Kennedy, son of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy. He lived with them for 18 months.
Mathews said her upbringing was never about name-dropping but what you were going to do to help others — now.
“For instance, on my 18th birthday my father got me out of bed, and before he even said ‘happy birthday,’ we went to register to vote,” she said. “That’s what we did in our household. There was no excuse for not being politically involved and informed.”
Which is why the first thing Mathews did when she arrived in Laguna was join the League of Women Voters of Orange County and apply for city committees. On her application for the Housing Task Force, she also checked off the Environmental Sustainability Committee, Housing and Human Services Committee and the Arts Commission as options.
She’s eager, affable and a quick study. She’s also pinpointed some things about Laguna that she’d like to improve.
“Rent seems so disproportional to what anyone can really afford,” she said. “Most people in Laguna spend 80% of their income on rent. That should not be acceptable in any town. And I want our teachers and our firefighters and our nurses to be able to live here. I want to be fair to the LCAD students. Where the hell are they going to live?”
Mathews is realistic enough to know that ideas alone are not enough. Change will take time. There will be compromises.
But she will not apologize for fighting inertia and entrenchment.
“People sometimes give me a bit of the hairy eyeball, like exactly who are you?” she said. “Again, coming from New England, I get that because we don’t like outsiders either. So the only thing I can do is reassure them that I’m not going anywhere.
“I think what we need are some positive ideas. Stop the tribalism. I guarantee you that a few easy fixes here and there will make a huge difference. It’s not going to get done overnight. It will be a process. We could be a prototype for the rest of Southern California.”
She came to Laguna because of her husband of 26 years, accomplished sculptor Jack Mathews, who needed to be closer to the Hollywood studios. They have three children and live in the Top of the World neighborhood.
More than anything she wants to help. It’s a DNA thing. Otherwise, she feels a little claustrophobic.
“I’m in no position to go around and shake trees. What I’m focusing on is pruning. Let’s prune back a little bit. People tend to go with what’s familiar, and what’s familiar right now is the way things have always been, clearly.”
In the weeks ahead, Mathews will join the rest of the many candidates trying to make their positions known.
Homeless? Yes, she’s worked directly with the homeless and has a clear point of view.
Parking? Yes, she wants to tackle it because “the congestion downtown is absurd.”
Zoning? Yes, she wants to rethink the details because some of the rules just don’t make sense.
In many ways, with her deep, lifelong political experience, Mathews is the expert consultant that the city doesn’t have to pay.
It would just have to vote her in.