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End of legislative career propels O’Connell to different deserving pursuits

Life after the Legislature is proactive rather than reactive. And it’s freeing. At least, that’s what it’s like for former state Sen. Ann O’Connell.

Four years ago, she was fighting to fend off an attack from the gaming industry, which portrayed her as a tax-and-spend Republican. She was far from that. But she had opposed a gross receipts tax on all businesses pushed by the gamers, so the industry took her out.

Voters in her GOP primary believed the deceitful fliers, and she lost her race. The Legislature lost a voice for less regulation of business, particularly small business.

But her political loss in September 2004, ending a 20-year legislative career, was minuscule compared to the loss of her husband, Bob, in April 2004. For the four months he was hospitalized, she spent her days with him and politics moved to the back burner.

“My time became my own after the election,” O’Connell said. “It was a time to be peaceful, and in a lot of ways, that was very nice. It’s freeing. You didn’t have any encumbrances.”

After her husband’s death, she dealt with business matters and home maintenance. But she didn’t withdraw from civic life.

“I started teaching again at church, and there was a lot of work at home,” she said Monday, glancing around at the rooms she had painted and the wood she had refinished. At 73, she does her own cooking, cleaning and bakes from scratch. (I can vouch for her German chocolate cake.)

She enrolled in two Bible study programs and joined the board of directors of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank in sync with her less-government-is-best philosophy.

For some, that would have been enough. But not Ann O’Connell.

Two years ago, she became chairwoman of a new rehab hospital that was then still in the planning stage. Soon after that, she agreed to become chairwoman of a new private Christian school, now in the planning stage.

Desert Canyon Rehabilitation Hospital is open in southwest Las Vegas, and O’Connell is in her second year of a three-year term as chairwoman.

Capstone Christian School is in the fundraising stage, with $5 million of the first $35 million raised. She hopes the private school will open in 2010. Right now there’s nothing on the 75-acre quarry near Maryland Parkway and Cactus Avenue, but the vision is for a 1,200-student private middle and high school.

Health and education, two of the state’s biggest and most challenging issues: She works on both as a private citizen. Silly me. I assumed she was being paid for the board jobs. Not a penny. She works for free on the boards.

O’Connell won’t go so far as to say she’s accomplishing more in her post-Legislative life. But she said the big difference between the two is that the Legislature is more reactive and her private-citizen life is more proactive.

“There’s nothing so frustrating at the Legislature as finding out how hard it is to change things,” she said.

Her 20 years in the Legislature offered an unparalleled education about how the state works and gave her a broader perspective. Now she’s putting that education to work. She could have become a high-paid lobbyist. Many lawmakers who lose their races go that route, trading in on their legislative relationships for big money.

O’Connell’s style is to move forward and not look back.

“I don’t think there’s been a minute I’ve missed the Legislature, but I would have liked to have left of my own accord,” she said.

She offered her opinion about how the state got into its current financial quandary.

“I think we’re in the mess we’re in because of how at the end of every session, the legislators spent one-shot money,” she said. “We started on-going programs and never took a realistic look at priorities.”

Policymakers in one committee didn’t consider how those policies drove up costs.

Other boards have asked her to join them, but she focuses on a few rather than taking a shotgun approach.

For some, life after the Legislature would mean loss of identity. For Ann O’Connell, it’s having freedom, including the freedom to say no. And that’s real freedom.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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