City Life: He's made amends

In 1993, I started a small wholesale business based in Costa Mesa. The goal was not to become the dominant player in the market, but to have more control over my schedule so that I could spend more time with my kids, who were 3 and 1.

In 1996, an odd series of occurrences triggered a desire to change my career and become a writer. Two years later, in 1998, I had devoted so much time to writing that my once-successful business suffered and had to be put to sleep.

That year, at the age of 43, when my peers were at or near their peak earning years, my annual income was just over $17,000. I owed money here and there, not a lot relative to others perhaps, but when you can't pay, anything is too much.

In June 1998, I started to write for this newspaper and managed to get some assignments from a few regional magazines. I was finally making money writing, but it was not very much.

Determined to make a career out of writing but still needing to put food on the table, I took a menial graveyard shift job to generate a little income. I started work at midnight, got home before 8 a.m., took the kids to school, came back home and worked on my writing assignments. I slept from about 4 to 11 p.m., then started the process over again.

It was the lowest point of my life, but I did what I had to do.

I worked graveyard for about three and a half months. In November 1998, I caught a big break and got a fantastic, full-time writing job that paid very well. It was more money than I'd ever made.

The transition from businessman to writer took almost a year, and was the most difficult year of my life. Through all of the stress at home, and from the leftovers of my business, I promised myself that somehow, someday, I was going to make it up to my wife.

At 8 a.m. on a beautiful, sunny day in June 1999, I was smoking a cigar on a 20-foot condominium balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, celebrating not just my writing success, but the process. All of my debts had been settled. I had not taken a dime of assistance from the government, friends or family, and had not declared bankruptcy.

The Hawaii vacation was paid for in cash from writing jobs.

That was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

I thought about my past financial hardship as I read about the attack on Costa Mesa City Council candidate and Planning Commissioner Jim Righeimer by the Costa Mesa Police Assn., which created a billboard that airs Righeimer's dirty financial laundry from many years ago. Seems that about the same time that Righeimer was having his financial troubles, I was having mine.

Righeimer owed far more money than I did. Where it took me a few months to settle my debts, it took Righeimer nine years. But settle them he did, without declaring bankruptcy.

I learned several lessons in 1998. The first was that most household debt is bad. At its worst, debt keeps one parent working and out of the home away from his or her children. The second lesson was that while I may possess good writing skills, my oral communication with my wife was poor. That problem has been solved for 12 years.

I also learned that I was capable of accomplishing anything I set out to do.

The last and most important lesson I learned is that my reputation and my honor are priceless and that control of both are completely within my power.

Righeimer is not proud of his financial woes from so many years ago. But, like the strongest among us, he made restitution and learned from his mistakes.

But the Costa Mesa Police Assn. won't let Righeimer forget about his past. It is reminding Costa Mesans of it because Righeimer is threatening the status quo and it has no other ammunition.

There isn't anyone among us who hasn't had a time in their life they'd like to forget, even though they may have made amends for it. Now imagine that a powerful organization wants to remind you and your neighbors of that time long ago, in public, over and over.

Righeimer does not get a pass for his past financial mistakes, but he has overcome them, and the Costa Mesa Police Assn. should get over them, too, and start addressing the questions about its members' compensation.

Instead, they have created a public, personal campaign against Righeimer that says far more about them than it ever will about the candidate.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Send story ideas to smi161@aol.com.

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