Marian Bergeson (center) during a skydiving trip. Credit: Facebook

Orange County’s grand dame of politics and government, Marian Bergeson, has died.

Bergeson, 90, of Newport Beach died Wednesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her husband, Garth and three of her four children.

Bergeson’s energy, her legacy, will never disappear here in Orange County – where she focused her efforts since the early 1960s.

But this kind of politician is, unfortunately, disappearing.

Bergeson, a school teacher by training, was seen as a principled conservative leader who could reach across the aisle on a variety of issues and was adept at cobbling together coalitions – especially on her passion, education and local government.

Virtually every interview about her mentioned her toughness, tempered with a keen sense of civility and style.

“You could work with her and she could do shit and she was a very good legislator,” said California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton of San Francisco, a steadfast liberal legislator who served with Bergeson in the Assembly and immediately recalled her specific interest in education issues when informed of her death by a reporter.

“She was good people,” said Burton, who later served as a congressman and then state senator where he was President pro Tem.

Bergeson – a Republican who started her career in politics in 1964 with election to the Newport Mesa Unified School District – was the first woman to serve both in the State Assembly and Senate and served in the legislature from 1978 to 1995.

She was sworn in as an Orange County supervisor in 1994, just a month after the county declared bankruptcy and stepped down a few years later when then-Gov. Pete Wilson tapped her to become his Education Secretary.

She was later appointed to the California State Board of Education and also served on the California Transportation Committee under then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Marian Bergeson elementary school in Laguna Niguel is named after her.

After retiring from public office, she became a force as a private citizen in Newport Beach and countywide Republican politics.

In 2014, our then-columnist Barbara Venezia wrote about Bergeson taking on then County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh and consultant Dave Ellis over their slate approach to the Newport Beach city council election, where they ultimately elected a council majority.

Bergeson’s main point as an elected official and citizen activist was to keep the politics out of policy as much as possible and deal with issues on their own merits.

Bergeson with fellow activists (left to right) Nancy Skinner, Jean Watt and Evelyn Hart. Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears is pictured to Bergeson's right.
Bergeson (second from left) with fellow activists (right to left) Evelyn Hart, Jean Watt, Nancy Skinner, and Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears. Credit: Lou Delgado

She also opened up doors for other woman to enter politics with politicians like State Senator Pat Bates and County Supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett counting Bergeson as a mentor.

“We will always be grateful for the time she spent contributing her energy, optimism and intellect to help solve problems across California,” said Bartlett in a news release.

Each one of her colleagues also reflected on Bergeson’s accomplishments upon the confirmation of her death Wednesday.

“She brought so much experience and insight to everything she did,” said Supervisor Michelle Steel.

“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 Andrew Do.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer called her “the smartest, classiest person and elected official I have ever met.”

“She had nearly unparalleled stature in this county for good reason,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

“She understood more than most the intricacies of local and state government and devoted her life to solving problems.”

Bergeson was always very gracious and complimentary on news coverage to reporters and you could tell she read what was written on government and appreciated good watchdog coverage.

She’s definitely in a better place.

I don’t know about us.

Senior Staff Writer Tracy Wood contributed to this story.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *