It was a clear, perfect day at the perfect man-made oval known as Pinewood Lake. Hazel-gray ducks cut across the water in threes and a daring squirrel darted straight up the trunk of the substantial cottonwood at water’s edge. Jacquie Sullivan served apple juice on the back patio in tall, slender glasses, behaving more like a cocktail party hostess than a politician meeting the press for the first time.
It was June 1995, and Sullivan had just defeated three men, including the appointed incumbent, to win her first election. She seemed entirely too sweet, too earnest to plan on making a habit of it. Many would make that miscalculation over the next quarter-century.
Exactly 25 years and four generations of amphibious fowl later, the cottonwood tree is larger, Jacquie Sullivan has switched to iced coffee, and she is no longer the City Council newbie but rather its senior member. In fact, she's the longest-serving City Council member in Bakersfield history.
But seven elections, she declares on the patio of the home she's owned for 41 years in southwest Bakersfield’s gated Pinewood Lake tract, is enough. When she relinquishes the Ward 6 seat at the far-right end of the dais in December, she will be 81, and she will have retired undefeated.
Undefeated in political elections, anyway. She has battle scars from life, but she must credit two of the most grievous for two of her greatest successes.
One of those scars is divorce, aggravated by poverty: She was a 30-year-old, single mother of four when she returned to her hometown of Bakersfield from Lake Tahoe’s north shore and became something of a self-made woman. It was 1970, her ex wasn’t paying child support and, she admits without shame, she was forced to accept welfare to feed Richard, Julie, Joyce and baby Linda. But she stumbled upon the opportunity to buy a house for $17,500, borrowing the 10 percent down payment and assuming the previous owner’s loan — back when FHA accepted that sort of ownership transfer.
“It was one of those houses by Bakersfield College. They're all kind of the same there, flattop roofs, inexpensive but wonderful and just what I needed,” Sullivan said.
She obtained her real estate license before the end of the decade, kept on buying houses — and says she's now paid off most of them, including that first flat-roofed three-bedroom near BC. One of the handymen who maintains her rentals lives there now.
The other scar is more permanent and profound.
Her daughter Joyce Boden, third-oldest of the four, contracted the virus that causes AIDS on a vacation to Hawaii with her sister Julie Boden.
“Both were invited to an after-party party, and Joyce was game for everything. And Julie (eventually) went back to the room, (but) Joyce went and spent the night (at the party).
“I can remember the first time I heard about AIDS. I thought it was the virus that’s showing up in San Francisco among the gay community” and not a threat outside that environment.
Joyce’s 1993 death devastated the family and plunged Sullivan into a deep depression.
The phone rang one day a year later. It was Connie Brunni, who was leaving her seat on the Bakersfield City Council to run for Kern County supervisor. Western Pacific Research, the Republican campaign consulting firm founded and run by the late Mark Abernathy, had circled Sullivan's name as a potential near-future candidate.
“Mark would go through the precincts, looking for someone that might be interested, and have a good resume,” said Cathy Abernathy, his wife. “And of course Jacquie was a businesswoman, a Realtor.”
“That’s nice,” Sullivan said she responded, and then pantomiming an idea sailing over her head without registering: “Whoosh.”
That changed when Kevin McCarthy, then the top aide to Rep. Bill Thomas, made a follow-up call urging her to reconsider. She agreed to come down to the WPR office and meet Mark Abernathy.
“They had about a three-hour meeting,” Cathy Abernathy said. “He did his standard (question), which he does with (potential) candidates and employees, which is: ‘Where do we get our rights?’ Many will say, from the government, from the Congress. Few of them know that it's God-given rights and that's why the government can't take them away. Jacquie answered it right.”
She agreed to run for the Ward 6 seat, which incumbent Kevin McDermott was vacating in order to run in Ward 4, where he had moved.
Sullivan didn't fully grasp the sort of commitment Abernathy expected of her until the time she tried to skip a day walking precincts.
“She calls him in the morning and says, ‘You know, I'm sick, I’ve got something — I've got a sore throat, a low-grade temperature,” Cathy Abernathy said. “I really should stay home today. Can't walk.’ Mark’s response to her, because I was in the kitchen: ‘So?’”
Sullivan remembers his sarcasm that day, too: “Oh, well, we’ll just have to tell them to postpone the election.” She put on an extra scarf and walked.
Sullivan got almost half the votes in a four-person field that included Gaylen Chow, who had already served six months as an appointee. It was to be her closest election.
Now Councilwoman Sullivan had something meaningful to focus on besides her daughter Joyce.
“This was God’s gift to me,” Sullivan said of her election to the council. “It really, really saved my life.”
Sullivan joined a City Council that already had three women, giving Bakersfield its first, last and only female council majority, with Irma Carson, Pat DeMond, Pat Smith and Sullivan occupying four of the seven seats.
Sullivan established her own style — “a happy warrior type,” in Cathy Abernathy’s words.
“She can be very friendly, talking and listening to someone's problems, and she's always polite. But she's got strong feelings about things and she will pursue it. Sometimes people don't realize where she's going on something because she listens very politely. Which is why everybody gives her their opinion.”
Not everyone was charmed by her style.
Insurance man Stuart Gentry ran against her in 2000 and lost badly, 69 percent to 31 percent. When council wards were redrawn after that year’s U.S. census, Gentry's residential block in southwest Bakersfield was conveniently moved from Sullivan's Ward 6 to Harold Hanson's Ward 5. Gentry had no interest in going after Hanson. He wanted Sullivan.
"It would be a different ballgame now, now that I know how she plays," Gentry said at the time. Gentry said he would have supported the effort Sullivan eventually became best known for — her successful quest to get the words "In God We Trust" affixed to the walls of City Hall and ultimately city halls all over the country. But he gave her no credit for pushing it through.
"That showed no leadership," he said. "She got the idea from somebody else. She's better suited for city hostess."
Sullivan laughed at the possibility of Gentry moving back into her ward.
"Oh, how funny," said Sullivan, who got nearly 69 percent of the vote to Gentry's 31 percent. "I wonder if he needs a good real estate agent."
“I think about guys like Stuart Gentry,” said Mark Salvaggio, who sat next to Sullivan on the dais for perhaps 20 years and was the city’s longest-serving council member until Sullivan passed him. “She absolutely drove him crazy because he was convinced that she was beatable, and should be beatable, and yet she caught on for 25 years.”
Former City Manager Alan Tandy, who retired in December after more than 20 years at the city's helm, said Sullivan always had a gauge of right and wrong, a compass to which she remained true, and it served her well at election time.
“Because she was so positive ... soft-spoken and kindly, I think she was really viewed as kind of a grandma figure by a great many people,” Tandy said. “And you don't vote against Grandma.”
Among the doors that public service opened to her was the door to activism — an unusual sort of activism for an older, reserved, conservative woman. Sullivan became an outspoken advocate for AIDS treatment and understanding.
“I was just determined to have had (Joyce’s) life and her passing, and the reason for (her life) stand for something — do some good. And we used it for awareness and education,” Sullivan said.
And not for political gain, at least in Salvaggio’s estimation.
“She never wore that on her sleeve,” he said. “She never tried to capitalize politically on that.”
Sullivan’s AIDS activism created some unlikely alliances — none perhaps more so than with Audrey Chavez, founder of Bakersfield's AIDS Project. Chavez’s brother Ricky had died of AIDS, and that tragic shared story created a sort of sisterhood.
“We were brought together through AIDS, through losing two beautiful individuals to this virus,” Chavez said. “During a time that nobody wanted to deal with HIV — nobody. I don’t even think it was called HIV during that time period. There was a major amount of stigma involved. And so Jackie and I and her mom and family met through one of our first fundraisers for Bakersfield AIDS Project. And we really developed a connection, I think.”
With her footing on more solid ground, Sullivan turned to her other big cause — that of spreading the national motto onto the daises of cities and counties across the United States. Affixing the words “In God We Trust” to city council chambers across America proved, and continues to prove, controversial.
Some say it violates the constitutionally mandated principle of the separation of church and state. Some say it is exclusionary. Whose God? Bakersfield Mayor Harvey L. Hall, whose campaign motto was “Unity in the Community,” felt it promoted disunity and told Sullivan he couldn't support it.
But today, thanks to the efforts of Sullivan’s foundation, the words “In God We Trust” are in the chambers of more than 700 U.S. cities and counties — more than 200 of them in California.
Sullivan will serve until the new Ward 6 council member is sworn in in December, but even at 80 she's not looking for any rocking chairs. She intends to keep pushing the motto “In God We Trust” into every corner of the country.
“Jacquie always came from a good place,” said David Couch, who served alongside her until he was elected to the Kern County Board of Supervisors. “Her heart was always in the right place. I know she loved the city of Bakersfield. And she loves serving on the council and representing people.”
Once upon a time, some might have seen AIDS activism as an awkward fit with religious activism. But as we’ve seen with another, very different sort of virus, epidemics don’t discriminate on the basis of religion or political party, and Jacquie Sullivan and her family are undeniable examples.