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THE REGION

Couple Offer Liberal Dose of Progressiveness

Assemblyman and San Bernardino councilwoman stand out in conservative Inland Empire.

August 10, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

When Assemblyman John Longville met San Bernardino City Councilwoman Susan Lien at her 1998 inauguration, he just assumed she was one of them -- a conservative.

After all, Republican lawmakers lord over San Bernardino County politics. And Longville, a Vietnam War protester who dropped out of college to join Sen. Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in 1968, is one of the county's most liberal politicians.

But he soon learned that she was a kindred spirit. At 16, she demonstrated against that same war at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where she felt the sting of tear gas from police in riot gear.

Last year, these two children of the '60s were married in a ceremony attended by dozens of elected officials from both ends of the political spectrum.

In many parts of the state, John and Susan Lien Longville might be considered a power couple. But for the conservative power-structure in the Inland Empire, they represent the rare union among devout liberal lawmakers.

"They had a parallel course in life and now they are one mind and one soul," said Heidi Von Tilsit, a member of the Inland Empire Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club, who attended the couple's wedding in November.

But their political views have not always been embraced in San Bernardino County.

A gunman threatened Lien Longville in March after she introduced a motion at City Hall to oppose the war in Iraq. And a group of protesters demonstrated in front of Longville's office last year after he co-authored a bill to support gay civil unions.

Still, even their conservative colleagues praise the couple's unwavering devotion to progressive ideals.

Councilman Neil Derry, a Marine veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, opposed Lien Longville's antiwar motion but said he still admired her moxie for introducing it. "It took some bravery on her part," he said.

Benjamin Lopez, a spokesman for the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim, criticized Longville's gay union bill, saying, "I have never seen a more liberal person than John Longville."

Still, he added, "As someone who sits on the other side of these issues, I can tell that these are convictions that are deeply held in his heart."

The long road that led John and Susan Lien Longville to San Bernardino began in the Midwest.

John Longville, 53, grew up near St. Paul, Minn., and attended the University of Minnesota.

After McCarthy lost the Democratic nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Longville decided to support the most ardent opponent of the war he could find. That quest led him to the Los Angeles office of Rep. George E. Brown Jr., a renown champion of liberal causes.

After losing a bid for the U.S. Senate, Brown moved to a newly drawn congressional district in the Inland Empire. Longville worked on Brown's staff between 1968 and 1979.

The following year, Longville was elected to the Rialto City Council and later became mayor for six years. He ran for an open Assembly seat in 1998 and won handily.

Longville's first wife died in a car accident caused by a drunk driver; he had been separated from his second wife when he met Lien.

Forced by term limits to leave the Legislature next year, Longville plans to run for an open seat on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in 2004.

Lien Longville, 51, grew up in Milwaukee. When she was 16, she sneaked out of her home to demonstrate against the war at the 1968 Democratic convention.

By coincidence, Longville also attended the convention, as an aide to McCarthy.

After her first husband, Bob Lien, brought Susan and their three children to San Bernardino to pursue a job offer, she attended the University of Redlands, where she received a degree in environmental studies. She is now the associate director of the Water Resources Institute at Cal State San Bernardino. The couple separated in 1997.

When they met, Longville and Lien Longville assumed the other was married. When they learned they were both separated, she asked him for a date.

"I said to myself, 'This is a kindred spirit I want to get to know,' " she said.

Once the couple decided to wed, they realized that politics and marriage demand compromises. Because Longville's Assembly district includes Lien Longville's council ward, but her ward does not include his home in Rialto, Longville moved into her modest single-story home on a quiet street in San Bernardino.

Lien Longville has completed more than 30 marathons, including those in Boston and New York.

It was while jogging -- the day after she introduced a resolution to oppose the war in Iraq -- that a man pulled up alongside her in a car and threatened her with a gun. She said the resolution was meant to force people to think about the cost of war. "When I was stalked and threatened at gunpoint," she said, "it only deepened my resolve to live my life with the conviction I always have."

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