Richard J. O’Neill, 1923 – 2009

richardoneillEarlier today, DPOC Chair Frank Barbaro sent an email announcing the death of prominent Orange County Democrat Richard J. O’Neill.

I have very sad news to report. Last evening we lost a great leader and Orange County legend, Richard J. O’Neill. Richard was larger than life and the Democratic Party of Orange County owes its existence and success to this great man.

For those who did not know Richard, let me tell you a little about him.


A sixth-generation Californian, Richard was born in 1923 and was raised on the 230,000-acre Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores. During Richard’s lifetime a portion of the ranch was sold to the U.S. Government and became Camp Pendleton; many acres were set aside as O’Neill Regional Park and Caspers Wilderness Park; and the communities of Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Las Flores, and Ladera Ranch were developed on a portion of the remainder of the ranch.

Richard graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he met and married Donna Newman, with whom he later established the Rancho Mission Viejo Land Conservancy. After Donna died in 2002 the Conservancy was re-named in her honor.

The presidential campaign of Harry Truman was Richard’s first foray into politics. He continued to work in Democratic politics, becoming a member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Orange County in 1964 and serving three terms as our Chair. In 1974 he was elected Southern Chair of the California Democratic Party and became State Party Chair in 1979. For his many contributions the Democratic Party of Orange County created the Richard J. O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 and made him our first honoree.

In spite of his success and influence in Democratic politics, Richard considered himself primarily a restaurant owner. His flagship restaurant, El Adobe de Capistrano, was frequented by President Richard Nixon. The two Richards, Nixon and O’Neill, were quite the political odd couple when they met at El Adobe.

Richard was always there for his friends. To the end his mind was as sharp as ever. His body just failed him.

We will all miss him, his advice, and his friendship, but most of all his presence.

Services are tentatively scheduled for Monday, April 13. We will send details in a later email.

In sadness,

Frank Barbaro
Frank Barbaro
Chair, Democratic Party of Orange County

  2 comments for “Richard J. O’Neill, 1923 – 2009

  1. Susan Freeze
    April 4, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    I feel very fortunate to have made an acquaintance with Mr. O’Neill. Unpretentious and appearing to be half-asleep, he was always spot-on in his observations and responses during the meeting or conversation. He also had an astute eye for OC Politics (better than almost all of the new so-called experts who think they know the current landscape) that understood the times. Mr. O’Neill also had a devastating wit. My favorite recollection was getting into a teasing match between Barbaro & O’Neill. After my off-color comment, O’Neill looked at me with a twinkle in his blue eyes to tell me I had been hanging around Barbaro too long.

  2. Eric Cooper
    April 5, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Richard O’ Neill was as much a political boss as Richard Daley of Chicago and William Tweed of New York. But without that kind of leader, the Democratic Party of Orange County would have died out decades ago.
    Requiescat in pace.

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