Marian Bergeson, the first woman to serve in both the state Assembly and the Senate and an influential player in public education policy, died Wednesday.
She was 90.
Bergeson, who represented the affluent Newport Beach area of Orange County in the Legislature for nearly two decades, also was the 1990 Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, an Orange County supervisor after leaving the Legislature, former Gov. Pete Wilson’s education secretary, a member of the state Board of Education and a two-term appointee to the state Transportation Commission.
Dave Kiff, who was on Bergeson’s legislative staff for eight years and is city manager of Newport Beach, said she succumbed to complications of surgery for pancreatic cancer.
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“She knew the risks of surgery but wanted a couple more years of life, and just couldn’t make it,” Kiff said. “She had a great life.”
Bergeson was born in Salt Lake City and earned a degree in education from Brigham Young University. Her political life began in 1964 with her election to the first of four terms on the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board and expanded with her election to the Assembly in 1978. She won her seat in the Senate eight years later and served two more terms before shifting to the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 1994.
Bergeson concentrated on education and local government issues in the Legislature, including a stint as chairwoman of the Senate Local Government Committee, and was deeply involved in landmark changes to redevelopment law in the early 1990s.
“In the 30 years that I staffed the Senate Local Committee, Senator Bergeson was my best chair,” retired legislative staffer Peter Detwiler said in an email. “Although her traditionally conservative politics didn’t match mine, she never let that difference get in the way of policymaking for local finance, land use and the other topics she was responsible for. She was engaged in the committee’s work and pushed counties, cities and special districts to improve their public service and accountability.”
Detwiler described Bergeson as “very much the lady, but with an adventurous spirit,” and recalled that she and most of her aides went skydiving in Lodi to celebrate one birthday.
Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, said Bergeson was “a passionate advocate for schoolchildren and small business. Marian commanded respect from members of both parties for her quiet leadership, intellect and humor.”
Sen. Pat Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, said Bergeson was a trailblazer for women.
“Few people have influenced Orange County and California politics more effectively than Marian did,” Bates said. “She was a strong champion of education and transportation, and worked well with others – including those who disagreed with her.”
In 1986, an elementary school in Laguna Niguel was named for Bergeson.
She’s survived by her husband, Garth, and three of their four children. Their daughter Nancy, a deputy federal public defender, was found strangled in her Portland, Ore., home in 2009, a murder that’s still unsolved.
Services for Bergeson are pending.