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O'Neill Keeps His Feet on the Land, but His Heart's True Love Is Politics

May 27, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Richard Jerome O'Neill is hoping that the Rev. Jesse Jackson doesn't get 15% of the 43rd Congressional District vote in the June 7 primary. Not that O'Neill has anything in particular against Jackson. It's just that if Jackson pulls more than 15%, O'Neill gets knocked out as a Dukakis delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August.

If that seems an odd situation for a man accustomed to picking the delegates--and who seems almost unilaterally to have financed the Democratic Party in Orange County over the past two decades--blame it on the normal chaos that accompanies the Democrats in election years.

Delegates elected at regional party caucuses will be prorated according to popular vote on June 7, and because of some heavy breathing from San Diego, the Mission Viejo area in which O'Neill lives was broken off this election year and attached to San Diego, where O'Neill is neither known nor loved. ("They're pretty provincial down there," he says matter-of-factly.) So he came in third in a caucus in which only the first two are assured of the chance to support Michael Dukakis at the convention.

"Hell," says O'Neill, pondering his fate in his Santa Ana office recently, "if a woman had come in first, I'd be out altogether."

That's because the Democrats alternate delegates by sex, regardless of the numerical vote. If the top vote-getter is a woman, then every other delegate is female, even if men pull the next half-dozen highest vote totals. "We are," says O'Neill mildly, "too democratic sometimes."

In mid-May, however, O'Neill's office staff was busy making arrangements for his accommodations in Atlanta. It was clear that O'Neill would be at the convention, one way or another. His offices, like his working life, are divided into two parts. At Rancho Mission Viejo, he wears his ranching hat, holding forth at the headquarters of the company that owns and manages the remaining 40,000 acres of choice south county land that O'Neill and his sister Alice inherited in 1943 but didn't control, under the terms of the estate, until more than a decade later.

The Santa Ana office is O'Neill's political base, full of artifacts from almost 30 years of deep involvement in a cause that has been philosophically out of sync with Orange County conservatism since the first freeway snaked south out of Los Angeles.

O'Neill takes all of this in bemused Irish stride. On this day, he is wearing a pink, open-neck shirt with suspenders holding his pants over a generous belly. His gray hair is tousled, and he has kicked off his shoes as he rocks gently behind his desk. His eyes dominate. They are by turn wary, amused, shrewd. They say immediately that they've seen a lot and somehow it all makes a tortured--and often funny--kind of sense, even the boy-girl selection of convention delegates. They are not the eyes of a zealot.

O'Neill would rather talk politics than ranching, though he is amenable to either. He is amused by efforts to peg him in the philosophical spectrum. Although he is referred to repeatedly in the press as "moderate to conservative," he says: "I look at myself as a liberal. But around here, a liberal is looked on as a radical. I think of a liberal in the sense of Jefferson and (Franklin) Roosevelt. Sensible. That's where I put myself. But I have to keep my mouth shut or be ruined socially in Orange County, so maybe that's why they think I'm a moderate Democrat."

He says that Roosevelt and Harry Truman were his early heroes, "but I was young and easily influenced then. In retrospect, Hubert Humphrey was the best I ever met. I really believed that guy."

O'Neill is also amused by the attitude, prevalent among Southern California's conservative Republicans, that Democrats are automatically anti-business. He tells about an encounter with state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia)--the former Los Angeles police chief--at a business meeting that O'Neill attended as one of the investors in a Simi Valley development.

"Davis actually said to me, 'What are you doing here? I didn't know any Democrats were involved in free enterprise.' And he was dead serious. I told him I could say the same thing about some truck driver working his tail off in Garden Grove and voting Republican. Or a kid going to college now and voting Republican in spite of the fact that most of the help he's getting came from Democrats."

O'Neill also might have pointed out to Davis that he was a successful businessman before he became either a rancher or an active Democrat. Although the land had been in the O'Neill family for five decades before Richard Jerome was born, it was neither easily accessible nor particularly valuable when the young man was growing up. His parents lived in Oceanside and made their livelihood by raising cattle and farming the land at the time Richard was born. But they also had a house in Los Angeles, and that's where Richard grew up and attended high school. The ranch was a long commute away on the Santa Fe.

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