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Mardi Wormhoudt Faces Her Most Serious Battle

tom_honig_sThey say that journalists should not reveal their sources. But as is so often true, Santa Cruz does things differently. Sources and journalists here can be metaphorically in bed together for years at a time, and the relations between the newsmakers and news reporters sometimes run deep. Once in a while, people even become friends.

Such is my relationship with Mardi Wormhoudt, former Santa Cruz mayor, former dominating presence on the county Board of Supervisors and one of my most indispensible friends.

Mardi now is battling melanoma, and those close to her say the long-term prognosis is not good. She remains an active presence in Santa Cruz, but her medical situation gives us pause to consider what she has meant to the community.

From the perspective of a journalist, Mardi is close to the perfect public official. She tells the truth. She represents her constituency. She works hard. She’s knowledgeable—no one works harder at reading policy surrounding every issue that comes before her. She gives no quarter to opponents—and asks none in return. I was editor of the Sentinel for 15 years, and the newspaper never once supported her. That was a standing joke between us.

There is a Mardi Wormhoudt that the general public knows. She’s unabashedly left-wing. Some revel in her successes; her political opponents curse her name. And why do they curse? Because she’s damn good at the base skills of politics: she studies the issues, she understands strategies and potential support and she’s as strategic in her thinking as anyone I’ve ever come across in public life. And my does she play the inside game of politics well. Don’t be fooled—some of the best-known and best-situated local political figures would not be in their roles without her support.

The private side of Mardi would surprise her supporters and opponents alike. She’s devastatingly funny. (“There I was on Bike to Work Day. I completely forgot about it. So here I show up in my Mazda Miata in the same parking lot where all my political friends are serving breakfast to everyone who had biked to work.  No one said a word. It was humiliating.”) She’s well-read. She travels extensively and has so many interests outside of politics that when she decided not to seek re-election to the Board of Supervisors in 2006, I wasn’t surprised.

She can analyze her own weaknesses as well as the weaknesses of others. She has all the qualities of the most successful politicians—except one: personal ambition. No matter what one thinks of her liberal philosophy, you have to respect that her eye, always, was on the office she held, and not the next one up the ladder. She would have represented Santa Cruz well at the state or national level. She wanted no part of it.

My friendship with Mardi evolved from respect. Unlike some political back-slappers, she understood and respected the different job roles between a public official and a journalist. Her complaints about coverage were never petty. She could take a political shot better than anyone I’ve known. She was a member of the city council that took a vote one year not to invite a Navy ship to Santa Cruz on the Fourth of July. She told me later that she really didn’t want to vote on the matter, but that it was important to her supporters. So she voted against the Navy and the outcry was loud. I wrote an editorial excoriating her and the council. She protested not at all.

In fact, it was shortly after that that we started lunching together. Often. The talk was largely political. Soon, it turned personal. We’d discuss lefty politics and we’d analyze what each side ought to do. We’d freely discuss the foibles of friends and foes alike (sometimes one person’s foe was the other’s friend). And, of course, family matters. We agreed on more issues than not—and our disagreements provided wonderful conversations.

Her illness comes at an unfortunate time—20 years after the Loma Prieta Earthquake. As mayor during a two-year stint, she was the public face of Santa Cruz in its fight to come back economically and emotionally from the quake.

She won’t be at the various 20-year anniversary functions. That’s a shame, but then again, Mardi Wormhoudt isn’t big on ceremony. What she’s big on is character, intelligence and talent. Those qualities—and the support of all of us who have benefited from her time in Santa Cruz—will serve her well during her challenge that lies ahead.

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