Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Reunion

“We need progressive health care, tax reform, creative social welfare, job opportunities.” All part of Obama’s 2008 campaign – not! These were 29-year-old Cathy O’Neill’s messages to voters in 1972 as she campaigned for the 23rd District State Senate seat.

I was part of her ambitious and enthusiastic cadre of volunteers in the general and primary elections. We set up campaign headquarters in her neighbor’s garage in Pacific Palisades. Most of us were young mothers, toting diaper bags and strollers in the crowded space. We stuffed envelopes, walked precincts, made phone calls (with crying babies in the background), urging voters to endorse the bright, visionary candidate.

Cathy, a young social worker and political activist, lost the election by a few hundred votes.

Losing the election didn’t stop Cathy. She went on to found the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, a leading United States-based advocacy organization focusing on the needs of refugee women and displaced families. Op-eds frequently appeared with her byline in national and international publications. President Clinton appointed her Director of the United Nations Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Sunday afternoon we held a campaign reunion in the same Palisades home, this time indoors, continuing the “potluck” campaign tradition. How did 38 years passed so quickly? We shared photos of grandchildren, compared Medicare plans, chatted about our winding-down careers and complained about the lack of social reform. Cathy joined us late in the afternoon having spent the past few days in a hospital ICU. Her loving husband, noted journalist and author Richard Reeves, pushed her wheelchair up the stairs while we clapped and cheered at her tenacity to party while immobile and whispered voice. Multiple surgeries in the past 10 years, followed by other complications would depress anyone, yet this vibrant woman managed to join in the laughter as we told campaign stories -- hors d’oeuvres (Lipton onion soup blended with sour cream and a bag of chips served 50 people at one fundraiser) her campaign wardrobe limited to three suits and how she defended her position as a Catholic pro-choice while under attack from local churches.

Cathy never compromised her values, unlike many of our current elected officials. She paved the way for women to seek office and challenged the status quo. The same issues she was passionate about are shouted by community organizers at rallies, in churches, at backyard barbeques, and on the Internet, etc. Sadly, we haven’t made much progress since 1972.

Cathy’s legacy is extraordinary.

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