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Moving On : Green Line Vote May Be Political Springboard That Has Eluded Catherine O'Neill

January 22, 1992|ELIZABETH VENANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Catherine O'Neill is marching back and forth across the terrace, delivering bowls of luncheon salad to the table with a thud, quick-stepping back to the kitchen to grab the telephone.

Unsuspecting callers receive the imperative blast: "I'm Cathy O'Neill! Who's speaking?" Even the miracle of a perfect California day merits but a terse accolade: "Heaven!"

A political crusader in the no-nonsense mode of Betty Friedan, O'Neill is focusing her considerable energy on marshaling forces for today's vote on reconsideration of the Metro Green Line contract awarded to the Japanese firm Sumitomo Corp. of America.

In so doing, O'Neill created the ad hoc committee Citizens for Public Transportation in the Public Interest and is clocking the final crucial hours as the 11 members of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission ponder their decisions.

Amid mounting furor, the telephone is ringing furiously.

Supervisor Kenneth Hahn's office has just called to say he'll go with reconsideration.

Hahn is a longstanding commission member and supporter of the Sumitomo award. Says commission Chairman Ray Grabinski, who also originally voted for the Japanese firm: "This must rip Kenny's heart out."

O'Neill, however, is taking Hahn's move with the impassive assurance of a jut-jawed field commander.

"(Mayor Tom) Bradley's been calling Hahn to encourage him to stay pat," she observes, driving home the importance of the victory.

Now she's waiting for a call from Councilman Richard Alatorre, a Bradley appointee to the commission and an influential holdout.

The six votes needed to assure reconsideration are virtually in the bag, with many bets on unanimous approval. But, O'Neill declares, "you don't let your guard down."

Today's tally is expected to be a dramatic reversal of the Dec. 18 commission vote to give the contract for Green Line cars to Sumitomo instead of to the American firm Morrison-Knudsen. A second vote in favor of automated driverless cars also may be forced today. Against the background of a deep recession, "Buy American" has become an increasingly convincing war cry for the counterattack. For O'Neill, however, the political opportunities raised by the rail contract go beyond the issue of today's debate and the ensuing fallout.

After a decade away from Southern California, she has returned--full of what she terms "a civic surge"--to participate in the region's politics. She has not yet defined the direction this surge will take; perhaps it will veer to education issues or to a role as a public policy commentator.

It also may mean a crack at the one thing she says she has missed in life--a seat in the state Legislature.

O'Neill, 49, ran for the state Senate on the Democratic ticket in 1972 and lost; two years later she was defeated in the primaries in a bid for the secretary of state's office. Acknowledges Richard Reeves, the syndicated columnist and political analyst who is her second husband: "It may well be that it still eats at her."

Already, watching her visibility rise throughout the Green Line brouhaha, some political observers are questioning her motives.

"Many people have taken this as an opportunity to seize the moment," notes a beleaguered Grabinski, adding, "I've not seen the lady involved heavily before."

According to well-placed Republican sources, pernicious rumors have variously linked O'Neill to lobbying for the losing American bidder, for organized labor or for an unnamed politico with high aspirations.

O'Neill firmly denies any such speculation and asserts, "We're all clean beans"--with a budget of less than $1,000.

Her supporters concur, touting O'Neill as a savvy wielder of people power who whipped up the political storm virtually single-handedly.

"She's been an unbelievable spark plug in rallying the public," says John Phillips, a longtime social acquaintance of O'Neill and state chairman of Common Cause.

Phillips, an attorney for the public-interest consortium that has sued for a Century Freeway light-rail system, has offered powerful support for O'Neill's citizen group.

"She's the one who has really brought this to the surface and kept the pressure on," he declares. Without her, he adds, "it would have sneaked by without a great deal of attention."

Between telephone calls, O'Neill gives her version of events. Wearing a tailored skirt and a blouse with a bow tied primly at her neck, she sits on the terrace of her Pacific Palisades home overlooking an expanse of golf course.

O'Neill and Reeves moved back to Los Angeles last October after leaving for the East Coast 10 years earlier. During that time, she held various positions in what she categorizes as the international portion of her resume.

"I want to understand the world of my times," she states broadly, enumerating how she earned a master's degree in international affairs at Columbia University, worked in Paris as public affairs director at the International Herald Tribune and served in Washington as a senior public affairs officer for the International Monetary Fund.

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