The Voice of OC is paying tribute to one of its most important underwriters in the first piece below. Nick Berardino and I had fun in our respective roles, his was to acquire as much as possible for the County’s employees, and me in trying to properly represent the taxpayers. We had our public differences, but we kept a very professional and positive relationship between ourselves in our private lives. Nick was fun to verbally box with and I want to wish him all the best on his retirement (also see MOORLACH UPDATE — SB 562 — May 8, 2015 May 8, 2015 John Moorlach).
Recognizing that this is a substantial piece, I did notify David Washburn that there were a few corrections to be made on my behalf. Below is our email exchange:
Nice book. 🙂
Just a few corrections:
It was a June election, not November.
Citron resigned in December of 1994.
I was appointed on March 17, 1995. Because Citron resigned before he was sworn in to his next full term, starting in January, my appointment was good until the next election cycle, where I ran for the remaining two years of a normally four year term in 1996.
I was not a "public employee fighter," as I was one. I was a "public employee union fighter." There is a big difference. I never "attacked members." I always focused on the numbers and the sustainability of the pension system. I would strongly argue that I fought for the members in order to prevent them a potentially significant heartache during their retirement years, should pension funds become exhausted.
With some irony, it was Norberto that did an excellent article for the OC Register quoting an actuary on the folly of "2.7% @ 55." It printed on the day the Board vote was taken in August of 2004.
Thanks. I’m having action-hero dolls of myself manufactured and ready for the Christmas season. 🙂
David’s response to my e-mail follows:
Yeah, I know — it was quite a tome. I swear, I didn’t plan for it to be so long when I started out…thanks for the heads up on the corrections regarding election dates, etc.. I’ll fix those now.
Regarding the "public employee fighter" moniker, I see your point. However, many argue that your enthusiastic support of contracting out services that have historically been done by public employees makes you more than just a union fighter.
That being said, I’ll chat it over with Norberto and see what he says.
Thanks again for feedback.
As Nick and I have been in too many articles to mention, allow me to provide a sampling:
I’m happy to see the OC Register engaging our young people and encouraging them to write about their experiences in public policy and politics. In the second piece below by Oliver Ma, a journalism intern at the OC Register, he highlights the activities of the The Orange Club, a Chinese-American political action committee. This group has some valid concerns about UC admission. The column mentions the Club’s work with Assemblyman David Hadley (R-Torrance), as well as their involvement for my opponent in the recent Senate race.
I’m thrilled that many in the Chinese community are getting involved politically. I look forward to working with them. If The Orange Club contacts Ruth Ding, the founder of the Orange County Chinese Cultural Club (OCCCC), as a reference (see MOORLACH UPDATE — COAST Update — March 16, 2013 March 16, 2013 John Moorlach), they will hear about my long and positive history with the OCCCC and the Asian American Senior Citizens Service Center.
A Fighter Steps Out of the Ring
By David Washburn
Editor’s note: This article contains explicit language.
It was a summer’s afternoon in 1964 and 15-year-old Nick Berardino was sprawled out on a couch in the living room of his parents’ South Central Los Angeles home listening to a buddy of his talk about a protest scheduled for later that day.
The NAACP had sent an African American couple with the necessary income and credit to make an offer on a home in a nearby neighborhood. But, as expected, the white owners had refused to sell to them.
So, his buddy said, they were going to do a sit-in.
"I remember saying ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with that.’ I just wanted to lie on my couch," says Berardino more than a half-century later from his office at the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA) headquarters in Santa Ana.
But his friend was persistent and played a card he knew would work. "Nick, I’m telling you, at these things — I’ve been to them — there are a lot of hot girls."
Several hours later, Berardino and his buddy were in the back of a paddy wagon. The cops had busted up the sit-in and shown no mercy on the protesters. For hours, as Berardino describes it, they sat in the stifling hot, windowless van baking in the puke and piss left by the previous night’s drunks.
As the son of working-class Italian immigrants who had spent his childhood in South Central, Berardino certainly had a sense of how the police wielded their power on the street. But until that day at the sit-in he had never felt it delivered in such a swift and cruel fashion.
"It opened my eyes to injustice in a way that I’d never seen it before," he said. "Doing this because we come here and sit? Because someone who is another color wants to live in this place? It just struck me — it was incredible."
Looking back, Berardino is convinced those hours in the paddy wagon set him on a path that led him not only deeper into the Civil Rights struggle but ultimately to the labor movement. And, he says, that feeling of injustice stayed with him and helped fuel his drive to build OCEA into Orange County’s largest and most far-reaching public sector union.
The Berardino era is coming to an end Friday. The 67-year-old will step down after more than four decades at OCEA, the last dozen as its general manager. He leaves a legacy that touches all corners of Orange County and stretches to Sacramento.
Berardino was a counselor in the county’s probation department when he joined OCEA in 1973. The union represented 5,000 workers and had fewer than 10 full-time employees, and an annual budget of less than $150,000. Its headquarters was a trailer in a parking lot on downtown Santa Ana’s Ross Street.
Today OCEA represents 18,000 workers countywide, employs more than 30, and has a budget in the millions. Its political action committee, which started with $4,000 in the early 1980s, is now regularly in the six figures.
Behind the so-called Orange Curtain of one of the nation’s most conservative counties, the union has become a progressive force, not only for workers’ rights but also for the rights of immigrants, underserved communities and the freedom of the press.
Berardino has been the chief architect of the union’s rise to power. And along the way has become every bit the polarizing figure that one would expect in an environment as ideologically charged as Orange County politics.
His supporters describe him as fiercely loyal and a tireless fighter for working-class people both in an out of the county government. They also say he is one of the most astute political players in recent county history.
"Nick has made tremendous contributions," said former state Sen. Lou Correa. "He’s reshaped the face of Orange County politics."
His detractors have called him a shameless grandstander and a bully. Chief among them is Republican State Sen. John Moorlach, who questions whether Berardino’s efforts have done anything to benefit the county at large.
"Maybe he was having too much fun being an over-the-top union person," said Moorlach, who for the better part of a decade was Berardino’s chief rival on the Board of Supervisors. "But I’m not finding anything he did to improve the way the county operates."
And some former allies in the activist community have in recent years accused him of selling out the progressive causes that he has championed throughout his life for the right political deal.
But even Berardino’s harshest critics admire, however grudgingly, the passion and intensity he’s brought to his side of the fight.
With a shaved head, prominent nose and barrel chest, Berardino looks the part of a pugilist. And his love of boxing — which he’s done since he was a boy — has been apparent to anyone who’s seen the iconic shot of Muhammad Ali standing over Sony Liston in 1965 that adorned the back wall of his office.
Also hard to miss have been the photo of Martin Luther King and his collection of swords: including one from the Marine Corps, two samurai swords and one from a Kenyan Maasai warrior. They are cues that understanding Berardino requires an understanding of what he experienced during his youth in inner city Los Angeles and his time in Vietnam.
Berardino’s grandfather, Sam Grasso, brought his family to Los Angeles via Chicago in the 1930s. And during the 1950s, when an influx of African-American families sparked the "white flight" to the suburbs, Grasso stayed in his South Central neighborhood.
"My parents wanted to join the white flight," Berardino said. "But my grandfather didn’t have any problems with the changes. He liked it when the Italians were living there, and he liked it when a lot of them left."
His grandfather’s stubbornness had the unintended consequence of putting Berardino at the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement on the West Coast. Following the 1964 sit-in, he thrust himself into community organizing and was just blocks away when the Watts riots broke out in August of 1965.
None of this made his parents happy.
"They sent me to a f*****’ shrink," he said. "Then they sent me to a black minister my father knew, and he told me to get out. He said it was too treacherous for white people."
The minister wasn’t kidding about the risks. "I got kicked. I got spit on. I got hit with a baton," Berardino said. "I got called ‘nigger lover’ over and over and over and over again by white cops — that was their favorite phrase."
But, he said, along with all that abuse came one of the most important lessons of his life.
"I learned from that movement that we have rights, and we have the right to assert those rights," he said. "Just because someone is an elected official, it doesn’t make them right. It doesn’t make them honest. It doesn’t make them the kind of people who are going to do the right thing. You don’t have to respect them. You have to be confrontational when it’s right to be confrontational. Otherwise your voice will not be heard."
The movement had found a good soldier, and a willing one. Rabble rousing was something that came naturally to the young Berardino. And there was certainly a lot of that to be done in late 1960s America.
But as so often happens with young people, and especially during that era, his life took an unexpected turn. In 1967, with the specter of being drafted hanging over him, Berardino signed up for the Marine Corps. And before the year was out had landed in Vietnam.
He ended up in one of the northern-most regions of South Vietnam, near the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, which saw some of the fiercest fighting during that period of the war. Some of the more famous battles during his time there included Khe Sanh, Monkey Mountain and Hill 881. On his first patrol — just a couple days after he arrived — the soldier on point hit an anti-personnel mine.
"I saw him blow 10 feet into the air, like a little rag doll," he said. "It all became very, very real. This wasn’t training, This wasn’t TV. This was people with real blood, real screaming, real crying… people calling for their mothers."
Berardino was ultimately put on Special Landing Forces, which today is called Marine Expeditionary Unit. They are the Marines dropped in by helicopter when another group gets in trouble.
"[We were] engaged almost all the time," he said. "The first three or four months, we were in two or three firefights a week. My last six months — everyday."
When he was sent home in May 1968, Berardino says his body was still encrusted with the red clay soil common to the northern region of South Vietnam. He slept in his parent’s yard his first night home. After living for a year in a foxhole, he couldn’t fall asleep in a bed.
He was in constant pain —and still is — from an ankle that he injured severely while on a reconnaissance mission. He also continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he acknowledges has affected his relationships both at work and home.
"When I came back from the war, I was a completely different person and I haven’t been the same since," he said. "Harder edge, had a hard time feeling happy… I was resentful because my leg was so badly hurt. I was in pain. I remain in pain to this day. Every single minute, every single day."
Along with the physical pain and PTSD, Berardino suffers from a survivor’s guilt and harbors an intense loyalty to the men he fought with. It comes across so strong that one gets the sense every battle he has fought since he came home from Vietnam has been as much for them as anyone else.
He’s not aware of any other member of his squad who is still alive, many of them lost to suicides and alcoholism. "They’re all gone, I’m the last man standing," he says. "It means I’m their voice."
Berardino describes himself as somewhat aimless after being discharged from the Marines in August of 1968. Still only 20, he worked odd jobs, including a stint as a presser in a garment factory and as an x-ray technician at Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood. Meanwhile, he was using the GI Bill to pay for classes at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he eventually graduated with a degree in sociology.
He says a greedy landlord pushed him south to Orange County.
It was 1972, and he and his first wife were living in a two-bedroom apartment on La Cienega Boulevard. The landlord raised the rent to $150 a month, which Berardino — along with the rest of the complex’s tenants — considered highway robbery.
Berardino went to the landlord with his beef and started by demanding new carpet if he was going to pay that kind of rent. The landlord refused. So he decided to launch a rent strike. It was his first attempt at leading a boycott on his own. It failed miserably.
"I got my ass thrown out and couldn’t get anybody except this guy who used to play in the Michigan marching band to sign the petition," he said. "Everybody else who was sitting around this shitty pool bitching about the rent increase — none of them would sign it.
"But it was a great lesson. You know, [a] thing you learn about community organizing is you can get left hanging out there… I got left out there. The only two guys who got thrown out were me and the guy from the Michigan marching band — the only two to get f****** flopped!"
As his forced departure from the La Cienega apartment was becoming increasingly imminent, a friend told Berardino he should head down to Orange County, where the mortgage payment on a house would be about the same as the rent he was objecting to. He took the advice and he and his wife ended up buying a home in Fountain Valley.
It wasn’t long, however, before he got sick of the commute to LA and started looking for work closer to home. A neighbor said the county probation department was looking for people. He applied and was hired as a group counselor. It was 1973.
Berardino had only been at the probation department for about six months when OCEA’s chief steward approached him. At the time, OCEA — like many other public employee unions nationwide — was in the midst of a sea change, and leadership was looking for new blood.
Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, public employee unions were little more than loose associations with few legal rights. That began to change in 1959 when Wisconsin became the first state to pass a collective bargaining law for public employees.
Then in 1961, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner, who was facing a bruising re-election fight, became the first public official to make legalizing public sector unions a campaign promise. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, with his razor-thin victory in 1960 still fresh in his mind, signed Executive Order 10988 granting public sector union membership.
California’s public employees won the right to collectively bargain in 1968, when Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act.
"It was definitely part of the larger social movement going on," said Karen Boroff, a professor emeritus at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business and expert on the union movement. "People were fighting for more rights in the workplace."
Berardino was exactly what OCEA was looking for.
In addition to his years in the civil rights movement, he had done some low-level work for an LA-area congressman named Charles Wilson. And the union, though still operating out of a trailer on its Ross Street property (the building would be completed the following year), was ready to take things to the next level.
The 26-year-old Berardino was more than happy to be a part of that. He was very active right off the bat and by the end of 1974 was a steward serving on OCEA’s council of representatives.
Then in 1976 he got his first big break. OCEA’s leadership wanted to jump into the political ring and run a county employee for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. They tapped Berardino to run the campaign.
The union’s candidate was a county engineer named Fred Singer. They put him up against incumbent Democrat Phil Anthony. And though Anthony would be indicted (along with fellow Supervisor Ralph A. Diedrich) later that year on charges of campaign finance corruption, he was a well-known figure with a considerable war chest. In short, Singer never had a chance.
"We got our asses kicked — it was impossible for us to raise money," Berardino remembers. "[But] even though we lost… they had to pay attention to us."
More importantly for OCEA’s long-term future, Berardino had found his calling. By 1978, he had joined the union full-time and was establishing himself as both a charismatic organizer and an astute political player. They were qualities that would be put to the extreme test in the coming years as he faced a hostile takeover bid.
By the early 1980s, organizing public employees had become big business. While private sector union membership was well into a half-century long decline, many other states had legalized public sector unions and the race was on to capture the growing market in dues-paying public servants.
One of the two largest players among public employee unions was, and still is, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Founded in 1932 in Madison, Wisconsin by a group of state employees, the union had grown to more than one million members by 1980. It had also developed an insatiable appetite for expansion, and had fed that appetite by gobbling up smaller unions.
Today, OCEA is affiliated with the AFL-CIO — the country’s largest federation of labor unions — and Article 20 of the AFL-CIO constitution forbids one member union from launching a takeover bid on another. But in 1981 OCEA was an independent. And situated in booming Orange County, it was a juicy target.
Part of AFSCME’s takeover strategy was to lure away the top leadership of a union it was targeting with fat salaries. That started happening at OCEA in early 1981. By July, the only members of the leadership team left were General Manager John Sawyer, his son, John Sawyer Jr., who was legal counsel, and Berardino.
Berardino knew that turning down AFSCME’s offer meant he had a war on his hands. So he decided to launch a counter-offensive.
All union contracts have what is called an open period that ranges from 6 months to a year. During that period, it generally only takes 30 percent of the employees to sign a petition and a vote can be held on whether to decertify the current union. If the decertification vote is successful, then the door is open for a new union to step in.
In 1979, AFSCME had successfully taken over the county’s blue-collar unit, which represented operations, service and maintenance employees. Berardino’s strategy was to take it back with a show of force that would rally his troops and give AFSCME second thoughts about embarking on raids of other bargaining units.
He started by going up and down the state and asking leaders of other municipal unions to join him in his petition drive. He invited them to stay at his parents’ house and made them huge pots of spaghetti. The next morning they went out and hit every location that AFSCME had in that unit. In one day 30 percent had signed the petition.
"They f****** went nuts," Berardino said of the AFSCME leadership when they found out about the petition drive.
"They said we couldn’t beat them in the election. I thought…you ain’t going to win no g*d*** election either.’ I worked from October through January…never took a day off. We won the election. Stopped them cold."
Although Sawyer was still the general manager, the AFSCME victory put Berardino in charge. Over the next several years there would be 29 more takeover attempts from AFSCME and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). OCEA would win 26 of them, Berardino said.
The next two decades would be an unprecedented period of growth for OCEA — both in numbers and political power. And Berardino developed a reputation as not only a hard-nosed negotiator, but also a consensus builder with the political acumen to travel in many circles.
"I don’t remember any negotiations where we didn’t get a deal with Nick," said Jim Ruth, who sat on the other side of the table from Berardino as both the city manager of Anaheim in the 1990s and Orange County’s CEO in the early 2000s. "Once it was done, it was done. It never became personal."
He was even able to keep raises in place for his members in the aftermath of Orange County’s 1994 bankruptcy, the largest municipal default in U.S. history. But while the bankruptcy may not have hurt the union at the time, it did give rise to a Costa Mesa accountant named John M. W. Moorlach.
Moorlach had predicted the county’s financial debacle during his race that year for county Treasurer-Tax Collector against incumbent Democrat Robert Citron. Moorlach charged that Citron was putting the county’s finances at risk through highly leveraged bets on municipal bonds. Though he would lose the November election to Citron, his warnings proved spot on.
Interest rates spiked, and Citron’s scheme unraveled in spectacular fashion. By 1995, Citron had resigned in disgrace and was facing felony charges. Moorlach, meanwhile, had won a special election to replace him.
Moorlach represented a new breed of Republican politician that rose to prominence in the early 2000s: the public employee fighter.
Tension between public and private sector workers was nothing new. But there had always been an understanding in American life that if you wanted job security and benefits, and were willing to make $10,000 less a year, you chose a job like teacher or county engineer.
"There was no resentment," said Lee Adler, an expert on the labor movement who teaches at Cornell University. "But then in the decade prior to the Great Recession there became increasingly sharp attacks against public sector unions, and an argument began to take hold that public sector unions had become a dangerous political force."
It was a narrative that Moorlach played to the hilt in 2004 as the county was negotiating a new contract with OCEA that included a pension enhancement known as “2.7 @ 55." The new deal meant that upon eligibility for retirement, the pension benefit of county workers would be equal to 2.7 percent of the average of their final three years of salary multiplied by each year of their service.
Moorlach decried the deal as an irresponsible giveaway and made it one of the centerpieces of his 2006 campaign for county supervisor.
The numbers he used to back up his argument were compelling. Between the 2000-01 and 2004-05 fiscal years, the county’s contribution to employee retirement funding increased by nearly 300 percent, according to a grand jury report. And the county retirement system’s unfunded pension liability, which represents its expected future shortfall, had reached into the billions.
Moorlach does credit Berardino with agreeing to the so-called "reverse pick-up," which requires employees to cover increased costs generated by the 2.7 @ 55 deal. And he worked with supervisors to reduce the retiree medical unfunded liability by $1 billion. He has faced criticisms from some employees for both of those deals.
"Nick should not have been so aggressive in trying to get such a big pension boost," said Moorlach, who is now a state senator, in a recent interview. "Because it has made raises almost non-existent…I would say over that past 11 years, many of Nick’s members have become quietly upset with him."
Berardino confronts Mario Mainero, chief of staff to Supervisor John Moorlach while OCEA legal counsel Don Droozd looks on. (OCEA file photo)
Regardless of the merits of Moorlach’s arguments, the vitriol that he and other local Republicans were directing at public employees was something that OCEA had not experienced before. The fight had gotten ugly and it was bringing out the ugliness in Berardino.
"We’ve always had tension," Berardino said. "But it wasn’t until we had some people who were so hateful [who said] ‘We don’t want to have a fair boxing match and in the end we come to an agreement’. It was ‘let’s destroy these people.’"
It was at that point, he says, that his tactics began changing. "It was ‘OK, we’ll play as hard as you play.’ "
Among Berardino’s lessons learned from the Fred Singer loss in 1976, was that you don’t win political battles without political money. So in 1981, after beating back AFSCME, he convened a conference of his stewards on the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor and convinced them to start a political action committee.
OCEA’s PAC began, literally, with a passing of a hat onboard the ship — Berardino remembers it being a white Stetson. The PAC’s opening balance was about $4,000. Millions more would be collected over the next quarter century, and in the mid-2000s OCEA would start directing a lot of that money toward attack ads.
The spending reached its apex during OCEA’s 2011 fight with the Costa Mesa City Council. At that point, the country was in the depths of the Great Recession and the Republican rancor against public employees had reached unprecedented levels.
In Madison, Wis., the birthplace of the modern public sector union, Republican Gov. Scott Walker created a national firestorm with a budget plan aimed at destroying the collective bargaining rights of the state’s public employee unions. Meanwhile, Costa Mesa’s Republican council majority, led by Councilman Jim Righeimer, was attracting national attention with a plan to outsource the majority of city services.
On St. Patrick’s Day, 2011, Costa Mesa began implementing its plan by issuing layoff notices to more than 200 city employees. One of those employees was a 29-year-old maintenance worker named Huy Pham. That afternoon, after receiving his notice, Pham climbed to the roof of City Hall and jumped to his death.
News of Pham’s suicide sent Berardino into a frenzy. He raced down to the City Hall and had to be physically restrained by the police chief as he screamed at the city’s CEO. Over the next couple days, members of the council majority were accosted so bitterly by employees that they had to be escorted by police off city grounds.
Within a week of the suicide, OCEA ran a highly produced and extremely dark television ad that directly blamed city officials for Pham’s death.
Berardino faced considerable flack for the ad, mainly from Republicans who focused on the fact that Pham had suffered from emotional problems and that cocaine was in his system on the day of his suicide.
"I couldn’t believe he took the suicide of an employee and used it politically," Righeimer said. "I completely detested the guy."
Over the next few years, Berardino would increasingly inject himself into the politics of Costa Mesa and other cities where OCEA represented employees. In 2012, he was severely criticized by activists in Anaheim for funding a grassroots effort to pass an ordinance restricting subsidies for luxury hoteliers, only to pull the plug on the funding after he and the city’s Republican council majority reached a deal on a labor contract.
It was also widely rumored that the pull back from the ordinance push, known as the Take Back Anaheim campaign, was also related to an agreement between Berardino and Disneyland to take it easy on each other’s candidates in that year’s city council election.
"I was extremely disappointed," said Larry Larsen, the spokesman for Take Back Anaheim. "He cut our legs out from under us — it was betrayal."
Berardino’s rhetoric in recent years has routinely reached a fever pitch, and in one case his actions bordered on violence. In January of last year, county officials filed an assault complaint against him, stemming from threats he made during a negotiating session.
"Mr. Berardino verbally abused and physically threatened with violence members of the county’s negotiating team," wrote then-county CEO Mike Giancola.
Berardino acknowledges the intensity of his actions in recent years, but says he has no regrets and has had nothing but the full support of his members.
"I’m a voice for my members," he said. "And, you know, they were attacking our members. And if they ever do it again, with me not being present, I hope that OCEA will double down and do it twice as hard."
Berardino’s sentiments are echoed by Jennifer Muir, OCEA’s assistant general manager and his heir apparent.
"Nick is maniacal, he’s obsessive," Muir said. "[But] he’s so committed and intense about the work that you can’t help but get caught up in it. Talk to everyone at OCEA and they’ll say he inspires everyone on staff."
The only thing Berardino will openly acknowledge having second thoughts about over the past decade was his decision in 2009 to provide seed funding to a locally based nonprofit news organization. It became known as Voice of OC and OCEA remains one of its funders.
Voice of OC’s origins can be best described as what happens when you pair a recalcitrant and outspoken Italian American with a recalcitrant and outspoken Cuban American.
Norberto Santana Jr. had covered Berardino for years as the Orange County Register’s county reporter. The two had developed a mutual respect stemming from their working class immigrant backgrounds and a shared love for the rough and tumble of politics.
In mid 2009 Berardino was still embittered over a protracted and ultimately losing battle against layoffs at the county. And he was growing increasingly frustrated with news coverage that he considered slanted against public employees. Meanwhile, Santana, who was known as an extremely aggressive reporter, was routinely butting heads with the higher-ups in the Register newsroom and chafing at what he described as the "corporatization of news."
For a while they had been talking about the wave of nonprofit newsrooms that had sprung up nationwide in the aftermath of mass layoffs in newsrooms brought on by the Great Recession. It had begun as just idle talk between a reporter and his source, but had become more serious as each had become more disenchanted with their respective situations.
Santana’s situation reached a breaking point the day he had to go on a weeklong furlough, something the Register was asking of all its employees at the time. Making matters worse, he was getting flack from Register editors regarding his coverage of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens.
Berardino and Santana talked that day as they were both driving home from work. Santana was ready to quit the Register. "I remember I was turning onto Bake Parkway, when I said ‘lets do it,’" Berardino said.
That was all Santana needed to hear — by the following week he had turned in his resignation and began telling people he was starting up Orange County’s first independent nonprofit news organization.
The terms of the deal were simple. OCEA would be a funder and Voice of OC would provide daily county government coverage. However, there would be a hard firewall between the newsroom and the union. Berardino wouldn’t be able to order up stories, nor would he be able to kill stories. In fact, he wouldn’t even be told what stories were running when.
Despite those strict terms, Berardino was game. His thinking was that as long as Voice of OC would cover the county in a straightforward way and give all sides a voice in its stories, OCEA would be better off than it was with just the Register covering the county.
He says he remembers making his final decision on the funding during a lunch with Santana. They were sitting across from each other and Berardino was fiddling with a saltshaker. "What would happen if I ran away with a million dollars — would Voice write about that?" Berardino asked, sliding the saltshaker across the table.
"Let me just tell it to you this way Nick," he remembers Santana saying while he slid the saltshaker back across the table. "As far as Voice is concerned, you’d be f*****."
At that point, Berardino says, "I knew this guy was going to tell the truth. And as long as he was telling the truth…90 percent of the time I’m not going to regret it."
But what he now admits he didn’t realize was the true power of a media organization and how much it touches people. "I didn’t know my phone, from that day on…would never stop ringing with complaints, with threats" from politicians and power brokers that Voice of OC was writing about, he said. "I never knew it would reach that level!"
"That’s why there will never be a next time. But if there ever is — here’s a million bucks — leave me alone and never mention my name again. And that’s because people are vicious when the truth is told about them…I’m the same way…when you guys write about me, I get vicious too because I don’t like it."
But despite all the viciousness, Santana said Berardino has stayed true to his word.
"I’ve almost found it stunning that the deal has held given how much firepower has been put on OCEA," Santana said. "But Nick is a person who enjoys the battle, especially when the truth is at stake. He understands that without an umpire calling balls and strikes, the game of politics turns into a free-for-all."
For the past few weeks, Berardino has been gradually packing up his office. The Ali poster has been taken down along with the MLK picture and the many framed recognitions and mementos of a long public life. The swords have also been packed away.
If he’s depressed about stepping down, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. The overwhelming sense you get from him is one of relief. And he’s excited about his third act. He’s a member of the Orange County Fair Board and will be a part-time consultant for OCEA for at least a couple years.
Veterans’ causes will be the main beneficiary of his newfound free time. As a Fair Board member, he’s leading the charge to establish Heroes’ Hall at the fairgrounds, which will be the county’s first large-scale veterans’ museum.
The choice of Muir as his successor is a gutsy one. She’s just 35, and only five years ago was the Register’s county government reporter. But Berardino said he’s supremely confident in her abilities and knows that the time has come for him to go.
"My old-school tactics worked for a long time — and they built a union," he said. "But the workforce has changed. Younger people need a younger voice."
Please contact David Washburn directly at dwashburn.
Irvine Voice: Crisis gives purpose to The Orange Club
BY OLIVER MA / CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Can proposed legislation driving many in a community into alarm build something positive? Alex Chen, president of The Orange Club, thinks so.
The Orange Club, a Chinese American political action committee in Orange County that’s registered with the state, was formed in 2014 because of Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA) 5: an affirmative action bill that would have allowed California public universities to use race as a factor in their admissions process.
Under this amendment, underrepresented groups, particularly Latinos, would have been viewed favorably to help them compete for admission.
SCA 5 caused alarm among many Asian Americans, who account for almost 35 percent of the student population in the University of California system. Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and others, weary that Asian admissions would fall as they’d be displaced by other minorities, began banding together.
Concerned parents across California wrote petitions and open letters, and took to the streets to oppose politicians who supported SCA 5. Many political organizations, (the Orange Club included), were born during this movement.
SCA 5 was rejected by the California State Senate in 2014, but Asian American communities faced a backlash. Some people criticized their passion in stopping a bill intended to help disadvantaged students.
The Orange Club (TOC), which recently counted over 150 members, seeks to give Chinese Americans’ new-found political influence an added purpose: giving back to the community by encouraging local students to participate in the American political process.
“It began naturally” said Chen. “Parents usually brought their kids to community meetings, and we thought, `why not give these kids something meaningful to do?’”
The idea quickly took off. Throughout the summer of 2014, TOC organized weekly events where teens volunteered in phone banks, precinct walks and voter education. In politically dormant months, TOC also invited speakers, such as the politicians they’ve helped to elect, to give speeches to the student volunteers.
In this way, TOC seeks to give back to the community by encouraging political activism, instead of just narrow-mindedly campaigning against politicians who supported SCA 5.
The benefits for students are enormous.
Michelle Liu, a 15-year-old student volunteer from Northwood High School, was able to talk to her hero, California Assemblywoman Young Kim, at a precinct walk.
“I gained more insight on how politics could empower people, especially women, by allowing people to express themselves through a high-influence medium,” Liu said of her inspirational experience with the Fullerton assemblywoman.
“No matter people’s age, their race, gender, or background, everyone gets a voice in politics.”
California Assemblyman David Hadley, who worked with The Orange Club in its opposition to SCA 5, acknowledges TOC’s contributions to civics engagement.
“Voter participation rates are very low,” the Manhattan Beach Representative said.
“It is wonderful that groups like The Orange Club exist to help our young get more involved and make a difference.”
Hadley added that “it is not easy for a lot of teenagers to make a phone call or knock on a stranger’s door, but it develops great life skills and helps get young people involved.”
This innovative purpose spiked TOC’s popularity. In the race between Donald Wagner and John Moorlach in the District 37 State Senate special election this March, TOC organized more than 100 students in phone banking and precinct walks in support of Wagner.
Moorlach won by a slim margin of about 4,700 votes, but TOC’s student volunteers learned all the same.
Many cite progress in self-confidence and persistence as reasons why they decided to participate.
Jedy Wang, 14, who will be a freshman at Irvine High School this fall, was especially inspired.
“I like TOC because it is an active organization that allow kids of all ages to test and improve themselves in the real world,” Wang said.
Despite his young age, Wang is eager to help and encourage new volunteers this summer.
Liu, on the other-hand, is spending the summer organizing weekly web seminars to interview politicians.
When asked about TOC’s goals this summer, Chen smiled.
“We are focusing on increasing voter participation, starting with some communities in Irvine. Ultimately, however, the kids are the main focus.”
Oliver Ma is a journalism intern at the Register. He graduated from University High School in Irvine in 2015 and will attend UC Berkeley in the fall. He participated in and supports TOC.
This e-mail has been sent by California State Senator John M. W. Moorlach, 37th District.
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