By Ray Huard
When she turned 50, Jeannine English celebrated by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
“I had always wanted to do something like that,” English said of her trek up the mountain. “This is the year of my 60th birthday and I haven’t figured out what to do.”
As the new AARP president, English is ready to take on challenges this month that could be as daunting as scaling a 19,340-foot peak. She succeeds Robert Romasco as the association’s principal volunteer spokesperson for the next two years, representing AARP to its members and the public.
English promises to bring a mountain climber’s determination to dealing with complex issues. Among them: long-term care, reinventing retirement and financial pressure on aging boomers as they grapple with the needs of their parents and children.
“We have to figure out how not just to address their needs but their concerns about their children and grandchildren,” English said. Her goal is “to make sure people over 50 can live their best lives and be financially secure.”
Friends and colleagues say English’s skills include attention to detail and coalition-building. Climbing a difficult peak “is a good metaphor for what she is,” said Carole McCook, a close friend and bicycling partner. “She decides she wants to do something, she learns about it and carries it through.”
As president of AARP California from 2007 to 2009, English pushed the organization to become a leading force in reforming state government. She helped pass a 2008 ballot initiative, Proposition 11, that changed the way state legislative districts are drawn, creating an independent commission to oversee the work, instead of leaving it up to legislators.
She also spearheaded the campaign for a 2010 initiative, Proposition 14, that created open primaries in which voters can cast ballots for any candidate, regardless of party, with the top two finishers moving on to the general election.
Helping build coalitions
Those measures faced strong opposition, including some from both major parties, but English helped bring together groups to appeal to a wide range of voters.
“She was just phenomenally influential,” said Zabrae Valentine, a former deputy director of California Forward, a nonpartisan group.
Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who worked with English on Proposition 11, said, “I was grateful to have Jeannine’s leadership in our bipartisan coalition fighting for political reform, and as an advocate for our senior citizens.”
Trained as a CPA, English has had an extensive career working on public policy. For more than a decade, she was executive director of California’s Little Hoover Commission, which studies state government and makes recommendations on how to improve it. She also cofounded a lobbying firm, was a financial auditor of state health services and served as public representative on the State Bar Board of Governors.
Sacramento developer Mark Friedman, who worked with her on land use issues, said English “was extraordinarily adept at making principled arguments that would persuade other people to go along with her.”
English and her husband, lawyer Howard Dickstein, raised four sons, now ages 21 to 36. She commutes to Washington, D.C., from Sacramento about 10 days a month, along with visiting AARP state offices.
English is mindful that as she focuses on health and retirement issues, she represents a generation of boomers “who don’t see retirement as a reason to stop.”
That description fits English, McCook said: “Jeannine will be engaged until her last breath.”
Ray Huard is a writer living in San Diego