In June 1968, the United States was at one of the peaks of its internal war over Vietnam. The Tet Offensive, the Martin Luther King and R.F. Kennedy assasinations, and the McCarthy candidacy had all filled the popular rhetoric with heavy moral color. The campuses, under the gun of Selective Service, were especially rife with such moralising; the June 1968 Time Magazine described that June's graduating class as "the most conscious-stricken, moralistic... in U.S. academic history.” And it was as part of that June graduating class that Colleen O’Connor emerged as a history major from San Diego State.
Colleen had been brought up as a thorough-going Catholic — elementary school at St. Vincent’s (right around the corner from her present campaign headquarters in Mission Hills), Rosary High School (“I was student body president there”) and though her undergraduate years at State had left her without strong political feelings (“I was too busy. I was working my way through school as a maid.”), she, like so many others of her graduating year, joined the Peace Corps right after graduation.
”I was pretty apolitical all along. Oh, I remember in 1964 my sisters and I were Goldwater fanatics, but my ideas weren’t really well thought-out then... Joining the Peace Corps after college fit in very well with my Catholic training. You know, you were taught that you had these God-given gifts, and that you had an obligation to society.”
The Peace Corps sent Colleen to Turkey. But she claims it wasn’t so much the specific demands of Peace Corps life that transformed her Catholic altruism into liberal politics. Rather it was the spare time she had for reading and the exposure to other more cosmopolitan, liberal co-workers.
“I had a lot of spare time; I began to read the international edition of Time. I began to read the New York Herald Tribune. Things are so different when you leave San Diego and the San Diego Union... In 1968 I was still a Nixon supporter. I must have been the only Peace Corps volunteer who was. The other volunteers were about ready to throw things at me... But things began to fall apart for me. I had bought the domino theory about Vietnam. Then with the invasion of Cambodia, that fell apart.”
When Colleen returned to San Diego in 1970, she, like so many other Peace Corps returnees, had more trouble re-adjusting to the U.S. than she had had originally adjusting to Turkey two years before. “It was primarily the wealth here, the waste.” But with the feeling’ that she “couldn’t do anything with a B.A.,” and with the encouragement of her mentor, a S.D. State history professor who now works in her campaign, she began work at State on an M.A. in history. Though she had emphasized Queen Elizabeth I and Tudor-Stuart England when she was an undergraduate, she turned to recent American history and to Catholic socialist Dorothy Day.
“You know Dorothy Day? Oh. she’s so great. She’s wonderful. She spans the whole modern social movement in this country. She was fighting for justice back in the thirties, and she’s been with Cesar Chavez in the ’60’s and 70’s... I met her. She came to the Cardijn Center, she came to Rosary High. This gentle, grey-haired woman, she’s fantastic... I first found out about her when Father Dolan (liberal USD priest, now transferred to Poway) mentioned her on Telepulse in a program on the Church’s involvement in politics.”
It was during her study of Dorothy Day in the ’30’s when Colleen finally decided she was a liberal Democrat. “I was reading the debates over Social Security in the ’30’s, and I began reading the Republican arguments and they were things like, ‘You wouldn’t want someone on Social Security to live next door to you, would you?’ They were ridiculous. The same arguments they used against Medicare, the same arguments they use now... Then I heard Nixon was checking on people who were switching party registration, so I went out and changed parties."
None of Colleen O’Connor’s photographs look as good as she does in person. Her hair is beautiful, long dark brown. With a nice print dress with a pleated skirt and stockings she looks demure and much younger than her campaign photographs. Her freckles, eyes, and warm smile remind you of a million other Irish kids you met in a blue or brown Catholic school uniforms. And. for the most part, the words and phrases she chooses in her conversation reflect a fine liberal arts education.
The major theme of Colleen O'Connor's campaign is the connection she makes between Watergate corruption and our present inflation. Though she might find little company with this theme among professional economists, Colleen asserts that she finds a lot of company in San Diego. “The people are mad. I talk to them all the time. They’re in a hanging mood... This isn’t a budget-induced inflation. The 12 per cent inflation is directly attributable to the Russian wheat deal and the oil deals and the milk producers. There's over 5 pages of the Congressional Record filled with names of executives of oil companies who contributed to Nixon's campaign. There's a Phillips Oil Company executive named Bowen who re-wrote the law so oil companies could ‘double dip’ and charge us twice for gas... Ford is selling 100,000 tons of wheat to Egypt at 2 per cent interest and here we're paying 12 per cent interest.”
This strident tone of candidate O'Connor's is accompanied by a rather acerbic cynicism — cynicism about which Democrat she favors for Presidential candidate (“None of 'em”), cynicism about the youth vote ("They never come through these days. They lopped off UCSD from Wilson's district, and I couldn’t care less. Do you know how many students voted in the precincts at San Diego State and UCSD?”).
But occasionally she calms down. With a little questioning she admits that much of our present inflation is caused by the Vietnam war. And she philosophizes that she is a Democrat because “the greatest social gains have come from them."
When you ask her how she can be so singularly fiery in our mellow, apathetic '70's, she lights up again. “Oh. there's so much we can do if we win in November. We can get rid of the congressional seniority system. Did you know that there's one congressman that's been there 40 years; there's one guy there that was born in eighteen ninety-one!... I want to limit a congressman's service to ten terms. Do you know that ten of eleven of the most powerful committees are headed by Southern Dixiecrats?!”
Colleen shows a good amount of political aplomb on the stump. In front of a group of some 20 shop stewards of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers on 19th Street, she is dressed neatly in a nice white dress, her hair is pulled back a little, and her manner is down-to-earth. She talks about pay raises for company and government executives. "That’s another one of those fat little goodies they rip off.” Pleading with the union stewards to go back to their shops and spread the word about her candidacy, she points out, "It’s a lousy six weeks till the election.”
And she manages to respond to matter-of-fact questions with polemical answers. One blue-collar worker: “Wilson, uh, he’s the big defense dude, isn’t he?"
Colleen: “Yes, well, he’s on the Armed Services Committee. But he’s so powerful he lost San Diego 29 million in defense spending this year!"
Another worker, this one a Navy wife: "Do you support the program where they pay a Navy welder the same as a welder gets on the outside?”
Colleen: "Yes. I support that. And we’d have more money for that if the money weren’t concentrated on a heavy arms race. The F-111. for example. They spent millions on it. and now they don’t want it."
Before she leaves the group she reiterates her all-important theme of Watergate-induced inflation. "You want to know why you're paying 75 cents a half gallon for milk well, the cows didn't go out and ask for a coffee break. It was the dairy executives and the Nixon Administration."