“I remember Maureen sitting in that campaign office in tears. She’d say, ‘How can they say that about me? I’m a nice person!’ ”
Once upon a time there was a freckle-faced little girl named Maureen who lived in Mission Hills. She had twelve brothers and sisters, and though her parents didn’t have much money, they boasted that instead they all had plenty of love. Maureen had a happy childhood, and she decided to spend her life helping other people. She wanted to become a teacher when she grew up, and she become one.
Maureen's father, Jerome O'Connor, in Parade: “I don’t want to sound highfalutin’, but man was born to reproduce, to keep the life cycle goin’. The married man who can do the job and doesn’t is generally selfish or a coward or both.”
But then something very strange happened.
One day Maureen began to expect a miracle.
She confided in her sisters and brothers about it, and she told her students and her friends, and pretty soon they all expected it, too. Everyone else in town laughed at the idea, but one night in November the miracle surprised them all. That night, Maureen O’Connor was magically transformed from a simple swimming instructor into a member of the San Diego City Council.
It was a strange kind of magic. The voters had waved their wand and suddenly this young woman was wearing a title, but when she started the job you could barely detect any difference in her. She still seemed like the same girl who a few months before had taught from the edge of the Rosary High School pool. Then seven years passed. And when the day finally came for Maureen to leave the job behind her, you could tell that indeed she had been touched by powerful magic. In place of the idealistic schoolteacher stood a chic and poised politician, one of the most powerful women in town. The wife of a millionaire, she roamed the globe with him for amusement. Some folks said that the most dramatic changes were the invisible ones: walls that had grown up between Maureen and the people. But Maureen said no. She said she hadn’t really changed that much after all.
Jerome dreamed up the idea of taking the Swimming O’Connor Sisters on a nationwide tour. (Maureen third from left).
She entered politics on the crest of a national wave of belief that young people could somehow save us, that if youth led the country, they could steer it in a better direction. When Maureen O’Connor leaves office next December, she'll have devoted a quarter of her life to public service. What does she now think of that early, optimistic vision? And how did her personal life change as she journeyed from the O’Connor family home in Mission Hills to Bob Peterson’s dazzling Point Loma mansion?
Victory, 1971. Maureen became, at twenty-five, the youngest person ever elected to San Diego’s governing body,
The second question remains largely unanswered because Maureen O'Connor now guards her private life with remarkable jealousy. In the course of preparing this story I wasn’t invited to her home, she wouldn't introduce me to her husband, and she warned me that she would flatly refuse to answer many questions. I learned that she’s built up careful defenses to protect her privacy and that few outsiders invade it. Those who do know her non-public side seem almost as protective as she. It’s disappointing not to have broken through those defenses; it would have been nice to describe some cozy domestic scene which might provide an insight into whatever chemistry unites two very unusual San Diegans. Yet the evolution of those defenses and the need for them are among the most fascinating marks that public life has carved into Maureen O’Connor’s soul.
Every morning, she would take the bus from the eighty-dollar-a-month Ocean Beach apartment which she shared with Mavoumeen and another girl.
If it's difficult to find out just what kind of person Maureen O’Connor is today, it’s easy to discover where she came from. Her family for decades has been a prominent part of San Diego’s human landscape. When Maureen was nine, the entire clan lined up and marched across the cover of Parade magazine, and Lloyd Shearer’s story left no doubts about why the O’Connors were noteworthy (in addition to the fact that Mrs. O’Connor had been named Mother of the Year). The feisty father, Jerome, a one-time fighter and bookie, led the cast of colorful characters, accompanied by his wife Frances, who Shearer informed Parade readers had been pregnant 124 months, or about 54 percent of her married life. The grabber, however, was the seemingly endless row of beaming youthful portraits; Maureen's and Mavoumeen's twin countenances ranked seventh and eighth from the top.
“If you think I’m private, then you should meet my husband,” Maureen says today of the man who founded the Jack-in-the-Box and Oscar’s food chains.
The senior O’Connors had been married in Coronado in 1938 and had started reproducing immediately. “I don’t want to sound highfalutin’,” Papa O’Connor pontificated, ‘‘but man was born to reproduce, to keep the life cycle goin’. The married man who can do the job and doesn’t is generally selfish or a coward or both.”
Most of the 13 children had been born when Charles Buddy, San Diego’s Roman Catholic bishop, had moved in the early Fifties from his Mission Hills mansion to a new residence on the University of San Diego campus, and had sought a good Catholic family to move into his Sunset Boulevard residence. The O’Connors seemed perfect, and they lived there for a year paying $200 a month, but turned down a chance to buy the place for $36,000. Jerome says his family never quite felt comfortable in the ritzy neighborhood. ‘‘I figured I was over my head with all those rich people. You know the crazy Irish; they isolate themselves.”
Peterson recommended that she interview Mary Mays, the secretary to the director at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Instead they bought a two-story Spanish-style house on nearby Hickory Street, where the senior O’Connors still reside. They lived there when Shearer's story informed the nation about their remarkable lifestyle. Making $800 a month, Mr. O’Connor boasted that one of the family’s secrets was potatoes (‘‘Mama serves all kinds . . . mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, baked potatoes, potatoes au gratin, potato salad”), but his clan also devoured seventy-five quarts of milk, eight pounds of butter, twenty-two dozen eggs, and forty-five loaves of bread per week. Maureen’s mother’s day ran from 6:30 a.m. and went to 11:30 p.m. Jerome was then running a liquor store downtown, so he got up at 9:30 a.m. and didn’t retire until 2:00 a.m. But one thing he made time for was a daily session at the neighborhood swimming pool.
O'Connor: "My personal, private, daily life is like their [the public’s] personal, private, daily life. It’s personal.”
There he taught all the kids to swim and trained them to compete. Their successes kept the family in the limelight. Every one of the children collected medals for their prowess, and Mr. O’Connor eventually had a brainstorm for exploiting it. When several of the girls reached adolescence, he approached the nuns at Rosary High School and got their permission to stage a water-show fund-raiser. It succeeded well enough to both pay off his daughters’ tuition and to generate an additional tidy sum for the school. In fact, it succeeded so well that Jerome dreamed up the idea of taking the Swimming O’Connor Sisters on a nationwide tour.
He signed them up with a sport show called the Aqua Spectacular, and they traveled together for about six months, visiting cities around the United States and Canada. Today O’Connor says that the experience instilled in Maureen the poise and experience before the public that she later drew upon in her political campaigns. Maureen’s sister Colleen (who ran for office herself in 1974 and failed to capture Congressman Bob Wilson’s seat) adds that it was good political training simply to be an O’Connor. ‘‘I think there’s something in coming from a large, Irish-Catholic family that makes one adept at political maneuvering,” she muses. ‘‘Of course you fight a lot, but you also become very sensitive to other people’s feelings. I think that kind of training is invaluable and very much akin to what one needs in the political arena. ”
The family nonetheless wasn’t particularly involved in political causes. Several of the children (though not Maureen) had run successfully for high-school offices, but the larger issues of the day—the Vietnam war, social problems—didn’t really engage their attention. Mr. and Mrs. O’Connor, lifelong Republicans, had steered all their offspring to GOP registrations, but Maureen, Colleen, and a few others later quietly became Democrats. Maureen's shift by no means signified any ideological flowering. By the time she had graduated from San Diego State University in 1968—with a special bachelor of arts degree combining psychology, sociology, and recreation, and had secured a $460-a-month job teaching physical education and counseling at Rosary High— she still hadn’t summoned up any interest in current civic events. ‘ ‘When I first knew her, she wouldn’t read the newspaper or Time or anything,” says Sister Jeannette Black, then an English teacher at the school, who Maureen today describes as her ‘‘best girlfriend.” The nun recalls, ‘‘I used to get so mad at her because of it. ” Maureen then was ‘‘just the typical young teacher who was out there living in that apartment in Pacific Beach with two roommates, looking for Mr. Right,” according to Sister Jeannette. She remembers her as notably other-oriented. She detected only one atypical note: while Maureen’s two roommates seemed totally satisfied by their routines of school work and the hunt for husbands, ‘‘Maureen was frustrated. . . . She felt there had to be more than just that.”
Driven by both a family and religious ethic that preached a compelling civic obligation, Maureen found one release for her energies by starting a community service club at the high school. She prodded her apathetic adolescent charges into pitching into a long list of projects which ranged from giving Christmas parties for the elderly to aiding the police department. Then one day in 1971 she sat home watching television when the second district’s incumbent council representative, Sam Loftin, announced he wouldn’t run for office again. Maureen had had one frustrating encounter with city government when she had tried to aid a troupe of performing Aztec Indians whom she and her sisters had met while traveling with the water show. The Indians had since come to participate in the celebration of San Diego’s bicentennial but hadn’t received the wages promised them. When the young teacher found them sleeping on the floor of a shack in Old Town she’d tried—unsuccessfully—to get the city to correct the injustice. Her still-smouldering indignation and Loftin’s announcement coupled to produce the embryo of an idea. ‘‘I thought, ‘This would be a very constructive thing to do, to campaign and get my [school] kids involved in it, and my family and friends, and really see if we could have an impact on this community . . .’ Plus, 1 wanted to see if I could do it.”
Maureen’s twin, Mavoumeen, reacted to the idea dubiously. ‘‘Oh God, Maureen,” she told her sister. ‘‘We don’t know anything about government.” Yet Mavoumeen promised to think about it and then proceeded down to the library. ‘‘She checked out three books on how to win an election,” Maureen recalls in amazement. ‘‘And she came back and read them all and she said, ‘Okay, I’ll be your manager.’ ” What would be known as the Kiddy Campaign was off and running.
Maureen quickly secured the blessings of Sister Carmen, Rosary’s principal, but Sister Jeannette recoiled at the decision. ‘‘I told her she was crazy, not to do it, that they would tear her apart. ... I saw this idealistic little person who was going to get creamed.” Heading for an eight-week prayer retreat, the nun vowed to pray for Maureen’s defeat. The more potent reaction, however, came from Maureen’s young students, dozens of whom agreed to sacrifice their summer vacations to forge Maureen’s miracle. In return, the campaign promised excitement, ‘‘but when I say it was exciting, I mean it was painful, ” Maureen now remembers. ‘‘I mean, it was the agony and the ecstasy.” She tasted some of the agony immediately.
Mavoumeen had read in her library books that campaigns begin with a press conference, so Maureen bustled to that task with alacrity. She asked the principal if she could stage the event at an assembly in the school auditorium, and Sister Carmen happily assented. ‘‘And so the kids helped put together the assembly. They’d seen the President have the flag on one side of the podium and the state flag on the other, and they fixed it up like what they’d watched on television. And we all sat around and wrote the speech and we sent press releases for everybody to come.” Maureen’s proud family turned out, as did all her friends, but not one single reporter showed up at the crowded hall.
Maureen faced the auditorium full of deflated high school girls and swallowed the indignity, but the incident frustrated her. When one newsman finally called and asked if she was joking, “I said, 'Isn't it interesting that when the young people want to get out and do something it’s a joke, and then when we’re yelling and screaming in the street, we’re nothing but a bunch of no-good hippies.’ I was just really upset.”
” ‘Waaall, what’s your platform,' " Maureen bitterly mimics the next question that flew at her.
“Platform?” Her face still mirrors the blank naivete. “I said, ‘Where in the world would I get a platform!' But that’s when we really started to think about what we were going to say.” They thought of improving citizen-government communication, getting young people involved, adding a woman to the all-male council, “just really giving us an opportunity to serve.'’ The twins also quickly rejected the notion of spending thousands of dollars to win a job paying $5000 a year (then the salary of the part-time city council position). So they righteously declared that they wouldn’t accept contributions of more than $250, an amount that they figured Maureen could always scrape together and return should a contributor ever try to pressure her. "Plus, $250 to us was a lot of money,” Maureen adds. ‘‘We couldn’t imagine anyone giving us $250.’’ The first contributions surprised them. They came in that amount from three prominent Jewish San Diegans—Murray Goodrich, Sol Price, and Irving Kahn— and Mr. O’Connor takes credit for the coup. He recalls that he had met Goodrich one day while jogging in Presidio Park, and that Goodrich offered to support the Irishman’s daughter because he was still angry at the way he’d been “stabbed in the back ” by the San Diego Independent when he’d run for mayor in 1963 against Frank Curran. The Independent was owned by the family of Steve Cushman, one of Maureen’s most powerful primary opponents. Maureen’s father also nudged her into making the rounds of major San Diego businesses, and when she walked into the corporate halls of Southern California First National Bank she met the bank’s director (and her future husband), Robert O. Peterson, for the first time. However pleasant that encounter may have been (Peterson later contributed $250), Maureen soon discovered that she loathed the humiliation of fund-raising.
Perhaps as a result, she ended up collecting less than $2000, but it didn’t matter. Mavoumeen had conceived a secret weapon. She’d decided that Maureen’s workers would visit every single door in the district — three separate times. So while businessman Lou Ridgeway and Cushman commissioned polls, which showed them comfortably ahead, Maureen and her teenage supporters trudged through the streets of Loma Portal, Ocean Beach, Mission Hills, and Hillcrest. Nights they would compare notes, cross-examining each other on how receptive the day’s precincts had been. By the night of the primary, “We thought, ‘God, if everybody that said they were going to vote for us actually goes to the polls and votes for us, we actually have a chance of making it.’ ”
Maureen today recalls that when she showed up at the El Cortez Convention Center primary night, September 21, 1971, newsmen Harold Keen and Fred Lewis wished her better luck next time before the first results had been posted. Steve Cushman had even gone up to Los Angeles that day to film his television ads for the general election. So when the votes finally were tallied the results were dazzling indeed. Maureen had taken 27.3 percent of the vote compared to Cushman’s 25 percent, and she trailed Ridgeway by only 126 votes. “And there was another little miracle,” she says. “We were the underdog. Here ‘the kids’ almost made it. But not quite.”
The reporters no longer ignored her. Political writer George Dissinger of the Tribune (he’s now assistant managing editor there) crowned her “the Cinderella girl of San Diego politics.” When the O’Connor twins called a second press conference, reporters jammed the auditorium, and for the next two months they dished up a plentiful helping of Maureen's promises. She talked a little about limiting growth, but mostly she talked about restoring people’s faith in the government. “I would set up volunteer sources where they would actually come in and work right with the city and see what is going on,” she confidently asserted. “This is the way you develop trust."
Naive words, perhaps, but they were words which sounded just right to city residents who had nine months before seeing half their city council members tainted in the Yellow Cab scandal. The vote totals on election night in November reflected the desire for new, young leaders. Thirty-year-old Jim Bates swept into office that night, and Pete Wilson, thirty-eight, bested his fifty-three-year-old opponent, Ed Butler. Maureen made history, becoming, at twenty-five, the youngest person ever elected to San Diego’s governing body, beating Ridgeway by 8546 votes.
The campaign had left its mark on her. It had exposed her to some of the ugliness that Sister Jeannette had feared. “People said terrible things [during the campaign]. There were rumors about her having affairs with people,” the nun recalls. “I remember Maureen sitting in that campaign office in tears. She’d say, ‘How can they say that about me? I’m a nice person! ’ ” It had begun to nibble away at Maureen’s personal privacy, but she says the serious intrusions didn’t come until after she got into office. And in the first months she had more pressing worries than the loss of privacy. “I was scared to death,” she whispers today, in recollection.
At the time she was elected she had never attended a single council meeting. “I didn’t know what an R-4 lot was. I knew nothing about government. I had taken only one political science class in college and that was because I had to.” Yet there was no choice but to draw a deep breath and dive in. “I went to my first council meeting and I looked around and I said, ‘If they can do it, I can do it!’ ”
Every morning, she would take the bus from the eighty-dollar-a-month Ocean Beach apartment which she shared with Mavoumeen and another girl. She’d arrive at around eight, eat one meal a day, work until eleven or twelve at night. In those first months she seemed determined to fulfill her promises of open government. On Valentine’s Day, for example, she and Mavoumeen spent the morning passing out red carnations to the elderly residents of five downtown hotels, inviting them to call Maureen’s office if they had any problems. On several occasions, she sent out her campaign force to poll her district about issues.
She chattered, uninhibited, to the press about her personal adjustments; she cited one invitation she’d received which called for informal dress. “To me, that means capris and a sweater. But I soon found that to them it means ladies in dressy dresses and men in coat and ties.” To another reporter she confided the difficulties of living on the $156 biweekly council pay check. She joked, “I am going to put an ad in the personal column. Wanted: one husband worth about. ...”
The glowing news accounts went to her head, she now admits, and friends say she also discovered that she enjoyed another benefit of the job: the respect and deference given her new authority. Pete Wilson took her under his wing and helped initiate her into the ways of city politics; the close alliance that developed between them sprang partly from agreement on issues and partly from friendship. She found she had a penchant for the intricate demands of political maneuvering. By the end of her first year, she had begun to feel at home.
Today, she stands in her tenth-floor office, as much at home as if she owned the place. In fact, she does own the furniture that surrounds her, the apricot-colored Oriental rug under her feet, the bright orange upholstered chrome-and-wicker chairs. She redecorated this inner sanctum a few months ago, paying for it out of her own pocket instead of inflating her $84,000 office budget (still the lowest; all the other council members but Bill Mitchell have passed the $100,000 mark). Her office is airy and comfortable; many touches make it feel homey. A young ficus tree stands in one comer, an unopened bottle of wine rests on a counter, a dozen mementoes brighten up the walls. Maureen sits on a sofa in a furniture grouping away from her cluttered desk, sipping on Coke and ice. She’s just returned from a two-week swirl through Africa, so she’s fighting jet lag. Yet she’s alert; she projects a controlled sense of energy. Her face is luminous, prettier than in pictures, and framed these days by short curls. She wears blue jeans and an elegantly tailored blue work shirt.
It’s been a very long time since she has dispatched volunteers to monitor the thinking of the populace. It seems like an eternity since those days in 1972 when she was burned in effigy in Horton Plaza because she’d said she had to follow the will of her constituency (and thus had voted against a council resolution calling for a total U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam). Last year Maureen O’Connor flouted Proposition D’s public mandate (she was the only council member who voted to retain nudity at Black’s Beach). Yet she claims that she believes in direct democracy as strongly as ever. “The only reason why I stopped the polls was that the kids couldn’t do them any more. They all went on to college and bigger and better things.”
Now Maureen O’Connor glibly answers questions about specific issues, commanding the self-confidence founded in those early sixty-hour weeks of study. Yet if the last seven years have taught her volumes about city government, they don’t seem to have changed her approach to governing. She entered politics unshaped by any ideology other than the faith in her own sincerity: if she wasn’t acquainted with the issues, she believed she could nonetheless study them as they confronted her and make good decisions. Today, those issues of city government are as familiar as the view from her window, but Maureen still rejects any systematic approach to dealing with them. “She’s always been a nuts and bolts technician, rather than a political type. Maureen always said, ‘Will it work, how will it work, how much will it cost, and will it fulfill a need?'Everything was individual to her,” says a friend of hers within city hall. Had she embraced an ideology, “she could have been the darling of the liberals in this town. She could have just been queen,” he says. “But she always thought that was bullshit.”
Instead, she flatly refuses to categorize herself politically; she cites the (isolated) instances when she’s voted with council conservatives: on budget-cutting measures, for example. Even her stances on those things closest to her political heart have roots going back to her political beginnings. She says her intensive support for building a public transportation system stems back to the days when she rode the bus. “I didn’t drive a car until I was twenty-five-years old.” Her belief in growth management extends back to her first years on the council, when the chaotic lack of adequate public services in Mira Mesa dismayed her. “I take it on an issue-by-issue basis,” she reiterates.
If that hasn’t changed, she says neither has her public accessibility. “I have a good pulse about what the people are thinking out there,” she states. “They still come up to me on the street. They think of me as the average gal.” As she talks, she hikes her leg up in the air and tugs up on her navy blue knee-high sock, as unselfconscious as a ten-year-old. Her frankness is disarming; the words almost blot out the thorny criticism which has grown up around her.
But the criticism is persistent, and it has come from too many quarters to be ignored. It comes from those like former councilman Lee Hubbard, never much of a political ally of Maureen's, who avows that “her poor-little-girl chemistry that got her elected” evaporated long ago. Hubbard claims that by the time he settled into office in 1974, word had spread throughout the council that O’Connor had become inaccessible. He says people from her district frequently would appeal to him because “unless it was something she was promoting, like a charity event or something, she was very hard to get to.” Adds one community activist in her district (who asked not to be named lest he lose O’Connor’s vote), “She has been the least accessible council person of the eight.” Gary Webber, a former city planner who worked with various community groups, and who admires Maureen and her politics, nonetheless is another of those who’ve detected change. “Back in the early days she was very much in touch with her district,” Webber says. “But I think somewhere along the line she threw up her hands in disgust."
Somewhere along the line she acquired a reputation for persistent absenteeism, a reputation which spilled into the headlines in her 1975 bid for re-election (a rematch against Lou Ridgeway). Maureen claims she agonized over the decision to try for a second term but finally was seduced by the things she hadn’t quite accomplished. She admits her decision was influenced by Pete Wilson, who counted on O’Connor’s supportive vote in that heyday of the "Wilson council.”
Once again she walked precincts, but this time no army of school children accompanied her, and the second campaign saw other subtle differences. Instead of talking about faith in youth, she cited specific accomplishments: additional senior services such as dial-a-ride, nutrition programs, and lower bus fares; more open space; an ongoing debate on public safety. She also found herself on the defensive, refuting a charge by Ridgeway that she had missed 248 votes during the first three months of 1975 (a figure Ridgeway said was twice as high as that for the next-most-absent council member).
When Ridgeway printed his charge in voter information pamphlets, Maureen obtained a temporary restraining order, but the court finally ruled against her and let the statement stand. Apparently it didn't dissuade a critical number of voters. On election day Maureen again beat Ridgeway, but this time her margin of victory had shrunk to only 3755 votes.
That image of absenteeism got a boost more recently when the Young Americans for Freedom awarded her a "prize” for logging the second greatest number of votes missed (thirty-two percent) during 1978. Maureen’s aide, Mary Mays, says the award wasn't fair because it didn’t make allowance for excused absences. She points out that Maureen’s membership on the California Housing Commission takes her away from one meeting a month and "it makes a big difference.” Yet the image clings in spite of the explanation, fueled by those like Hubbard who claim that Maureen also takes more (excused) vacations than other council members. Somewhere along the line her honeymoon with the press also ended. "I always found her uncooperative as an office-holder, ’ ’ says San Diego Union political reporter Don Harrison. Gary Shaw, who covers city hall for the Daily Transcript, echoes the most common (though not universal) opinion of the local news media: "She’s super-inaccessible to the press. Trying to get hold of her to find out what's happening behind the scenes is nearly impossible.”
Maureen acknowledges the latter charge. “The press has complained a lot because they say .they can’t get to me. . . but they always want to know about your private life. At the beginning I gave personal interviews because I didn’t know I could not give them,’’ she claims: Then as the months went by, the day-to-day demands of fame began to wear on her. She’d go out and people would stop her on the street. “It not only affected me, but it affected six other sisters who looked like me. . . . Some of them didn’t appreciate being that public. “ She says some stories appeared that deeply wounded her (though she no longer remembers specifics). “And 1 thought, ‘It’s going to tear me apart as a person. I’m going to be in this office for a while and I have to live with myself, and I don’t want to read about myself in the paper.’ ’’
Colleen O’Connor says that as her sister settled into public office she began experiencing the dehumanizing forces which can overwhelm any public official. In that spotlight, one starts to lose contact with one’s family and friends, Colleen asserts. “You have to give up things that mean most to you. You have to give up the things that make you a human being. As a result you see this isolationism. . . . It’s a mild form of paranoia that sets in.’’ Under the constant aim of reporters’ microphones, “You start to couch your words, to get cautious. You begin to adopt this neutral mind-set so that you don’t offend anyone, and after a while you stop taking positions even mentally.” Colleen indicates that all these pressures built up in Maureen, plus she also began to see “the barracudas,” Colleen’s term for those who attach themselves to public figures to reap personal benefit. “After a while, you start to think everyone’s a schemer.”
Sister Jeannette Black confirms that the barracudas scarred Maureen’s psyche. “Several times people supposedly got into a real relationship with her and she later found out they were baldly, blatantly trying to take advantage of her position. ” As a result, the nun says, “I think she’s become—not hardened, no, not hardened—but realistic.” Maureen began to feel “that the only people she could really trust are those she had been close to before getting elected.”
And so she gradually withdrew. She and her family made an explicit decision to stop granting personal interviews, and at the end of her second year in office Maureen gained another line of defense. She was searching for a good administrative aide, and Robert Peterson, who’d become a close friend, recommended that she interview Mary Mays, a formidable woman who had been working as the secretary to the director at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Mays has a talent for efficient intimidation, and she quickly sheltered Maureen from life’s petty irritations. “Maureen pretty much knew how she wanted the office set up,” Mays insists. “She had been just totally distracted with the everyday running of it.”
Mays today denies that she screens Maureen’s calls. “We just take the messages and put them on her desk .... She calls back when she has the time and when she wants to call back.” Freed from the necessity of handling every inquiry, however, Maureen began to revel in what she could accomplish from a less public position.
Today one of the mottos that hangs from her wall declares, "There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Friends say it became a personal trademark. As she concentrated on issues (like senior services and public transportation) that interested her, Maureen acquired a reputation for relishing behind-the-scenes manipulation. One city hall insider cites her role in promoting light-rail transit. “When MTDB (the Metropolitan Transit Development Board) first came in with the facts on a system, a lot of the council opposed it, including Pete Wilson.” But the observer says Maureen doggedly exploited her statewide contacts to bring state senator Jim Mills and Wilson together, and to maintain communication with the Southern Pacific Railway. To council members, she hammered away at the advantages of a light-rail system. “She could take those councilmen and she could do amazing things, ” the insider says of her past successes. “She could take Lee Hubbard and Floyd Morrow and get them to vote the same way.’’
“Maureen never gave a damn who got the credit," recalls Pete Wilson’s press secretary, Otto Bos, who covered Maureen for four years as a reporter for the Union. “She was never the kind of person who wanted to trade favors for favorable coverage.’’ Instead, she almost relished intrigue. A reporter who covered her during the time of the Watergate revelations says Maureen set up a private communications system with him. “She had this little desk-top animal, and when she wanted to give me some piece of information, she’d put it on her desk in a certain position.’’
When she finally married the divorced, sixty-one-year-old Peterson in May of 1977, her passion for privacy grew even more. “If you think I’m private, then you should meet my husband,” Maureen says today of the man who founded the Jack-in-the-Box and Oscar’s food chains. True to form, news of their impending union only leaked out a few days before the actual ceremony, which took place on the French Riviera, thousands of miles from the eyes of her curious public. The only accounts of the wedding appeared in the society columns of Hazel Tow (Tribune) and family friend Burl Stiff (Union).
Some observers say ther marriage is responsible for Maureen’s decision not to run again. Some say she wants to relax and enjoy spending part of the Peterson fortune. Still others point to her frustration in the recent years since the complexion of the council shifted to favor more conservative interests. Maureen herself says the job had grown comfortable and familiar, but she insists her overriding reason was her long-held stance favoring two-term limits. Maybe some of the explanations are true; maybe all are. In any case, Maureen admits she only made her final decision in the few days preceding her announcement in late January.
She says she still believes that young people should enter politics. “You need young, energetic, new ideas,” she expounds, “and this is a totally new experience whether you’re a twenty-five-year-old just coming into your own or you’re a fifty-year-old businessman who’s ready to retire. ” But she concedes that people trust government even less now than when she entered public office, and today she can’t see how that picture will change. She seems eighty years, not eight years, away from the days when she talked about the solution being “crystal clear communication” between the people and their government.
When Maureen’s sister, Colleen, thinks of all that is demanded of public officials today in the name of such communication, her voice brims with indignation. “We in our greed to know are destroying public lives. Look at the wives of politicians and see what it does to them. They can do nothing in private. They are not even allowed to weep!” she cries. “The questions of political office are political ones. They’re not questions of surgery or hemorrhoids or of whether people are sleeping together or not. ... I mean who cares about Jimmy Carter’s hemorrhoids? If that’s the public’s need to know, I think there’s something very wrong with the public’s need to know. I think we’ve become a nation of peeping Toms.”
It’s easy to sympathize with those sentiments, to not try very hard to peep into the areas which Maureen has declared off-limits. She says she’s shared “important decisions” with the community. “My decision to marry was made public and my decision not to run again was made public. But my personal, private, daily life is like their [the public’s] personal, private, daily life. It’s personal.” She says she’s even confident that the average person, the one whose pulse she thinks she’s so in touch with, respects and even agrees with that decision. Well, maybe.