O’Rourke’s gambit – Businessman says he’ll be a better guardian for District 2
It was a night like many nights at Steve O’Rourke’s home, tucked into the pines, cedars and black oaks of Alta Sierra.
Steve and his 10-year-old son, Jared, watched a video of a PBS show, “The Battle Over Citizen Kane,” that they rented on one of their regular visits to the library. (The family has no broadcast or cable television).
In the kitchen, with Wolfie the terrier hungrily looking on, Priscilla O’Rourke taste-tested a curry recipe that she and her husband picked up when traveling in Asia.
The scene befitted a candidate for Nevada County supervisor who self-effacingly describes his political platform as “a wife, a kid, a dog, small businessman, and resident of District 2 who wants to look after his area and be a good steward for future generations.”
But don’t be fooled into thinking that O’Rourke is not a serious campaigner. Knowing that he faces an uphill struggle against his higher-profile and better-funded opponent, incumbent Sue Horne, O’Rourke doesn’t pussyfoot around when analyzing their differences.
“It’s a choice between a concerned politician who is serving the people, as opposed to somebody who is a professional politician who raises tons of money but only cares about you every four years,” O’Rourke said. Speaking of Horne, he added: “I respect her; I hear she’s a nice person and works hard. But we have very different visions about the future of Nevada County.”
Horne, in turn, is quick to offer a long list of what she has accomplished for District 2 in her tenure and has strongly denied O’Rourke’s implication that she is in the pocket of developers.
Once a globe-trotting businessman, O’Rourke has found settling down to be a new experience – and one he is relishing.
He grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo., and worked in his father’s businesses – first a landscaping company, then an industrial cleaning supply firm.
O’Rourke’s mother never left Colorado, but the son developed an early wanderlust. He worked at resorts in Aspen, Keystone and Yellowstone before enrolling at the University of Colorado for a business degree. It was there that he developed a lifelong interest in anthropology. He traveled to Europe, drove to Belize, toured Yucatan and still has “an interest in all things international,” he said.
That interest led him to one of the top international graduate business schools – Thunderbird, in Glendale, Ariz. – where he picked up an MBA while studying Spanish and considering a career in Latin America.
“But then a friend got a job in Hong Kong and urged me to come on over,” O’Rourke said. Leveraging his experience in the hospitality industry, he was hired to do marketing services for Club Corp. of Asia, which sold memberships in private clubs. There, he met Priscilla, the secretary for the company’s general manager.
The late ’80s was a time when mainland China was opening up economically. Entrepreneurs created trading companies and scrambled for a piece of the action. A friend who landed a contract to deliver a million shoes for Wal-Mart asked O’Rourke to be his eyes and ears at the state-owned shoe factory in the eastern Chinese city of Lianyungang. It was an eye-opening experience.
“All those managers wanted to do was to party every night and eat Peking duck,” O’Rourke said. “Meanwhile, the factory workers earned low wages and ate beans, rice and fatty pork. They punished the bosses the only way they could – by turning out lousy shoes.”
Back in Hong Kong, O’Rourke teamed up with another entrepreneur who saw that the high-tech boom had created a demand for people who could organize big trade shows, meetings and events in Asia. “I soon realized, ‘I can do this,'” O’Rourke said, and he went on his own in the mid-1990s, starting Asia Meetings and Events (known as IntConnection in the U.S.).
Looking for roots
The candidate said much of what he learned in the event-planning business applies to being a county supervisor:
“You have hundreds of people to coordinate, with a multimillion-dollar budget, but with no real authority. At the same time, there are tens, if not hundreds, of vendors to deal with. You have to be a brutal negotiator, but then they have to deliver the services for my client. I enjoy getting in there and arm-wrestling and making sure we get the best value we can. At the same time, you’ve got to make sure it’s win-win at the end of the day.”
During a trip to a New York City trade show in 1992, he and Priscilla were married in Colorado. By the late 1990s, his son was born and the family lived an hour’s ferry ride from Hong Kong, on a small fishing island. But O’Rourke knew it was time to go home.
“Colorado wasn’t a priority, and San Francisco was the softest landing for someone returning from Asia,” he said. “But we were looking for a place to settle down, to put down roots.”
O’Rourke had known about Nevada County because a high school buddy had moved here, “and it appealed to the Colorado kid in me.” In searching of a place to bring his family, he was interested in open spaces away from sprawl, but quality schools were critically important.
When he and Priscilla bought their Alta Sierra house in the fall of 2000, it was the first home O’Rourke had ever owned. Jared is now in fifth grade at Alta Sierra School, and O’Rourke has put his businesses on hold to plunge into county politics and to spend time with his son at the library or Western Gateway Park.
“I’m just an average guy who wants to keep this beautiful place beautiful,” he said. “I have no agenda; nobody is prioritizing what I do.”
His campaign at first centered on opposition to bringing a regional “super sewer” line to south county, but in recent weeks he has focused more on traffic congestion, the lack of park space in Alta Sierra, concerns over fire protection, and the impact of the proposed Wolf Creek Ranch Estates housing development.
In his campaign pitch, he asks voters what Horne has done to help the district in the past three years, and he paints her as the tool of special interests such as the Nevada County Contractors’ Association and the real estate industry. However, his campaign treasurer is Lou Sans, owner of RCI Real Estate, and a supporter is Brian Bisnett, project planner for the 400-unit Kenny Ranch subdivision planned near Grass Valley.
“Running for office is a real crash course for me in local government,” he said. “It’s been eye-opening to see the polarization in local politics. My signs have been vandalized, even on private property. I guess it comes down to an issue of voting for values that you trust.”
BIO IN BRIEF
Candidate for: Nevada County Board of Supervisors,
Current hometown: Alta Sierra
Occupation: Self-employed event organizer
Major issues: Growth, parks, fire protection
firstname.lastname@example.org, or 274-8878
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