Marian Bergeson, Respected on Both Sides of Political Aisle, is Dead at 90

Looking at the Trumpy, tea-bagged direction of today’s Republican Party, you’ve got to wonder whether the relatively moderate Marian Bergeson could have been elected dog catcher in Orange County, let alone school board member, city councilwoman, state senator, assemblywoman, county supervisor as well as appointed state secretary of education.

After battling pancreatic cancer, Bergeson died Wednesday morning at Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach. She was 90.

Born in Salt Lake City, raised Mormon in Westwood and educated at Brigham Young University, Bergeson moved with her husband Garth to Newport Beach in the late 1950s. They had four children together and 11 grandchildren.

Bergeson quickly made her mark as a school teacher and community leader who helped raise funds to complete the building of Newport’s Mariners Library. She began her long and storied career as a politician by running for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District Board of Trustees in the early 1960s, and was so well respected she was later elected to preside over the state organization of school board members. Education would be her defining issue during her long career of public service. Following a stint on the Newport Beach City Council, Bergeson was elected to the California Assembly in 1978 and the state Senate in 1986—making her the first woman elected to both legislative houses. She was well respected in both as well as on both sides of the aisle.

Her biggest blemish came near the end of her final term. John Moorlach was an accountant and conservative activist making his first run for public office, squaring off against Democratic county treasurer Robert Citron. The more Moorlach crunched the county numbers during the campaign, the more he was convinced Citron’s investment strategies would bankrupt the county. When Moorlach went public with his fears, he was portrayed as a Chicken Little by the Los Angeles Times, all five county supervisors and other prominent Republicans, including Bergeson, who promptly resigned from his campaign committee.

Citron was reelected, but as everyone would discover in what was in 1994 the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Moorlach was right. Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Riley would not seek reelection, Bergeson took over his seat in 1995 and while she and her colleagues rebuilt the county’s finances, she joined the movement to appoint Moorlach to the office Citron resigned from before ending her one-year board stint.

Bergeson later joined another movement, the one opposed to the proposed El Toro airport, which also put her at odds with Orange County’s most-powerful political puppeteers. She had a tumultuous three-year tenure as state Secretary of Education before being appointed to the California transportation board in 2008.

Her darkest days came in retirement. Her daughter Nancy Bergeson was murdered in Oregon in November 2009. With her golden retriever Bodie lying over her body, the 57-year-old federal public defender was found face down in the dining room of her Southwest Portland home. There were no signs of a struggle or break-in, leading investigators to originally assume she died of natural causes. An autopsy later determined she’d been strangled.

Marian Bergeson made several trips to Oregon to draw attention to the case, hoping to produce leads for investigators. The case remains unsolved.

Here is what county officials had to say about Marian Bergeson’s passing:

County Mourns Passing of Former Supervisor Marian Bergeson

County officials mourned the passing Wednesday of former Supervisor Marian Bergeson, who was elected to represent the Fifth District on the Board of Supervisors in 1994 after a prestigious career in the state Legislature.

Mrs. Bergeson left the Board in November 1996 after being appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson to serve as California’s Secretary of Education. She later served on the state Board of Education and on the California Transportation Commission.

“We are profoundly saddened by the passing of such a loved and respected leader in our community,” said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett, Fifth District. “We will always be grateful for the time she spent contributing her energy, optimism and intellect to help solve problems across California.”

“She brought so much experience and insight to everything she did,” said Vice Chair Michelle Steel, Second District. “She was a true pioneer and an inspiration to many.”

Supervisor Andrew Do said her legacy will continue thanks to efforts such as the Marian Bergeson Excellence in Public Service Series, which encourages more women to serve in politics and government. “Marian Bergeson’s legacy will continue to live on through the countless number of people she has inspired to run for office and serve in government,” said Supervisor Do, who represents the First District. “For generations to come, Orange County will remember Marian Bergeson for her leadership and lifetime of service.”

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Third District, who was elected to his first stint on the Board as Mrs. Bergeson was leaving for Sacramento, remembered her as “the smartest, classiest person and elected official I have ever met. She continued to attend most social and political events despite her years of fighting illness. She was deeply committed to her family, her husband Garth and her children. She leaves an amazing and earned legacy. We are all better off knowing and working alongside her. Rest in peace, Madame Secretary.”

“She had nearly unparalleled stature in this county for good reason,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson, Fourth District. “She understood more than most the intricacies of local and state government and devoted her life to solving problems.”

Some notable tweets:

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