The Many Lives of Sheila Kuehl
California Lawyer

The Many Lives of Sheila Kuehl

From TV star to lawyer to law professor, the former legislator is now running for one of the nation's most powerful local offices.

May 2014


Illustration by Jon Berkeley

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On a sunny autumn afternoon Sheila Kuehl is calling political supporters on her iPhone from a courtyard table in her unofficial campaign headquarters, the neighborhood restaurant Il Forno Trattoria in Santa Monica where she's been a regular since it first opened 30 years ago. Kuehl is running for the Third District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, occupied for two decades by the outgoing Zev Yaroslavsky. Wearing one of her trademark ensembles - turtleneck, pants, and collarless jacket - and eating her usual chicken Caesar salad with iced tea, the 5-foot-2-inch lawyer spends about 15 hours a week here meeting voters, writing emails and fund-raising letters on her laptop, soliciting endorsements, and strategizing with Madeleine Moore, her campaign manager. Kuehl doesn't have an official campaign headquarters. She also campaigns out of the Santa Monica home she bought in 1985, and drives to meet voters all around the sprawling district - from world-famous cities like West Hollywood and Beverly Hills to lesser-known unincorporated areas like Seminole Hot Springs - adding about 1,000 miles monthly to the 558,000 she's already put on "Sam," the red 1964 Porsche convertible she's driven since it came rolling off the assembly line.

When Kuehl announced her candidacy more than a year ago, her approach was to build up such a formidable lead in endorsements and fund-raising that potential challengers would peel off from the race and leave her unopposed. "I run the same way if I have opposition or I don't," she asserts.

A relentless fund-raiser, Kuehl regularly sends out email solicitations, mining seemingly any occasion as a rallying cry. "Help me scare away the competition with a donation before Halloween," read one typical plea last fall.

Kuehl has had her eye on Yaroslavsky's seat since even before she was "termed out" of the California Legislature in 2008. She served a total of 14 years - six in the Assembly, eight in the Senate - during which time she was the first openly gay person to be elected to the Legislature and the first woman to be speaker pro tem of the Assembly. She chaired the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, and in the Senate both the Health and the Natural Resources and Water committees; addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1996 (on domestic violence) and 2000 (on diversity); and authored 171 bills that became law.

The job of Los Angeles County supervisor is considered one of the nation's most powerful positions in local government. Perhaps that's why Hilda Solis, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration, is running in the First District. After all, cabinet-level positions aren't usually stepping stones to a county board seat.

But Los Angeles County has an estimated population of 10 million - that's a quarter of all Californians, and enough people to qualify as the country's eighth-biggest state. Its annual budget of $25 billion exceeds the gross national product of some countries in the developing world. Yet the power and responsibility for L.A. County's operations is vested in just five supervisors.

The position is not for the timid. L.A. supervisors can, with as few as three votes, make far-reaching decisions that affect a multitude of communities. The county provides a vast array of services to its residents, including social services, property assessment, Medi-Cal services, and public safety, to name a few. The board has executive and legislative powers, as well as a "quasijudicial" role when it acts as an appeals board for certain zoning cases of the regional planning commission.

The board of supervisors determines how best to implement and oversee numerous policies, be they environmental in nature - such as water treatment or protecting beaches, coastal areas, and the Santa Monica Mountains, which run right through the city of Los Angeles - or managing alternative energy sources, making light rail feasible and attractive for commuters, expanding affordable housing, or providing social services to the needy. Additionally, the board appoints officers to unelected positions, which include the public defender, county clerk, registrar of voters, schools superintendent, and chief of the largest probation department in the world (50 facilities, more than 6,500 employees, 12,000 state parolees, and 60,000 adult probationers).

All 88 cities within the county's borders have some contracts with L.A. County for the municipal services it provides, everything from weed abatement to health ordinance enforcement. The board also acts as the "city council" for 1 million people living in roughly 140 unincorporated areas of the county. The supervisor representing each district is the "mayor" for those communities.

Indeed, a place on the L.A. County board is about as close to a fiefdom as an elected office can get - the supervisors have been dubbed the "five little kings." Which means there's not much turnover: Collectively, the current members have held their seats for more than 100 years, notwithstanding that the most-junior member, Second District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, only assumed office in 2008. Incumbents have rarely been challenged, and until term limits were passed in 2002, it seemed as though supervisors could hold office for as long as they liked. (Because the maximum of three consecutive four-year terms wasn't retroactive, Yaroslavsky didn't have to count his first eight years on the board.)

When Kuehl, 73, announced her candidacy for supervisor, even some political allies grumbled that perhaps, given the board's extended entrenchment of personnel, it needed an infusion of younger blood. "I think Sheila misses the spotlight and feels a bit marginalized," speculates one colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. "Some officials are able to find other outlets and move on, but Sheila misses being in the middle of things."

When someone learns Kuehl is seeking yet another public office, the question she's often asked is "Why?" After all, it's not like she doesn't have laurels aplenty to rest on.

Kuehl admits that, financially, she needs to work, because those 14 years serving in the Legislature didn't come with a pension; she'll have to stay employed, she estimates, "until I'm a hundred." (The supervisor job pays $181,292 a year.)

But then Kuehl pulls out a pen and begins sketching a map of the county and its sprawling Third District on the back of an Il Forno place mat, complete with topographical features and demographic clusters. She launches into a long, detailed litany of the county's many challenges - scarce water, immigration, affordable housing, child care, jobs, health care, schools, transportation, equal rights, etc. - and how these problems affect each constituency and create competing tensions among them, and what she plans to do about resolving this and alleviating that, and it soon becomes clear that what Sheila Kuehl really means is, she needs this work.

There's one more fact that must be mentioned when seeking to understand Kuehl's quest for office at this stage of her life: She volunteers that she has read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy a mind-boggling 27 times. "So far," she hastens to add.

And when you ask why (again), Kuehl quietly responds, "It is the story of a quest that ultimately saves the world, but [is] undertaken by ordinary people who don't ask for the task, but take it on when it comes to them, and act heroically."

It is a peculiar phenomenon that strangers on the street regularly call out to Kuehl, addressing her by a name other than her own. That name is "Zelda," her TV role as the wannabe girlfriend of the title character in the popular sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which aired on CBS from 1959 to 1963. Although the show's original run ended more than a half-century ago, some people nonetheless vividly remember the character - and recognize Kuehl, who was in her early twenties when the show ended.

During the show's third season, the network shot a Zelda pilot for what it hoped would be one of television's first spin-off series. All signs were "go" until CBS President Jim Aubrey unexpectedly torpedoed the project, because, he said, "Sheila is a little too butch for me," according to her then-director, Rod Amateau.

"That scared me to death," Kuehl admits, "because I was deeply in the closet. Things were so hush-hush in those days. The [entertainment] trades didn't talk about people being gay." Kuehl can't state with certainty that she was blacklisted over her sexuality, but the fact remains that afterward, with few exceptions, the phone stopped ringing.

"I would have stayed in show business," she says. "It's all I ever wanted to do." Then she breaks into a broad smile. "But this is much, much better."

Needing a new line of work after Hollywood tossed her out, Kuehl eventually appealed to her alma mater, UCLA. She was hired and soon became an assistant dean of students - specifically, advisor to the student organizations on campus. Being that this was 1970, these groups included Students for a Democratic Society, the Progressive Labor Party, the Women's Liberation Front, and the Black Student Union. "They didn't want any advice except 'Can we burn down the men's gym and not get arrested?' " she laughs.

Kuehl was surprised to find herself identifying with the students, who were but ten years her junior. Before long, Kuehl's apartment became a late-night gathering spot for activists to rap about the community and the future. "They ended up changing my life much more than I changed theirs," she concedes. It was the students who suggested that she go to law school.

She entered Harvard Law School in 1975. During her second year there, her sexual orientation finally became clear when she fell in love with a woman. By then there was a fledgling gay right's movement, so Kuehl came out "to one person at a time. You just come out, come out, come out, come out, come out."

Kuehl earned her JD in 1978, becoming the second woman to win Harvard's prestigious Moot Court competition. The judging panel included Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who clasped her hand and said, "Lady, I like your style." That victory also earned her recognition in the ABA's Law Student Division magazine as one of the nation's top five law students.

Her law school years coincided with the growth of another movement that came to consume Kuehl: "Women were not being treated equally. Who knew?"

Heightened awareness propelled Kuehl to get involved with a battered women's shelter in Santa Monica and take a job at Richards, Watson, Dreyfuss & Gershon in Los Angeles, focusing on municipal law and litigation. Later she was an associate for Beverly Hills-based Bersch & Kaplowitz, practicing family, antidiscrimination, and civil rights law.

In the 1980s Kuehl moved back to academia as an adjunct law professor at the University of Southern California, and then became an associate professor at Loyola Law School.

In 1989 Abby J. Leibman, then on the board of the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and Jenifer McKenna, its executive director at the time, conceived the idea of a statewide policy and advocacy center for women's civil rights. Over dinner, they scribbled down a wish list of recruits using crayons the restaurant supplied for entertaining kids. "Sheila's was the first name on both our lists," Leibman says. When they contacted Kuehl about joining the new board, she asked, "What if I came and worked there?"

The three women formed what became the California Women's Law Center, and Kuehl was its managing attorney. The center focused on gender issues, including expanding the rights of divorced women to relocate with their children without the father's consent, and on reforming hiring procedures that discriminated against women in fields traditionally dominated by men, such as law enforcement.

Kuehl's recognition over the years as an expert on domestic violence, discrimination, and child support issues helped her draw up more than 40 pieces of legislation, many of which were put forward by lawmakers and enacted.

But she soon tired of sitting at the witness table in legislative hearings, and in 1994 declared her candidacy for state Assembly. Though Kuehl's sexuality was already an open secret, publicly declaring her lesbianism still carried a big risk. Oddly enough, her fame as Zelda paved the way.

"People magazine did a story: 'Zelda Leaps Out of the Closet and Into an Assembly Race,' " Kuehl says. "It was perfect. I didn't have to come out to anybody. I was free to talk about education, public safety, and all the things the voters were more interested in than this silly thing."

Kuehl's election to the Assembly coincided with the first Republican majority there in a quarter-century. When Kuehl proposed to add "sexual orientation" (a first) to an education bill's anti-discrimination code in 1995, reaction was fast and furious. She received death threats, and Republicans took to the floor to denounce her provision and fervently condemn homosexuals - before turning to reassure her, "Oh, not you, Sheila. Nothing personal."

Indeed, Kuehl made herself tremendously popular in the Legislature. Early in her first Assembly term, she was one of six reps from each party who pulled an all-nighter to work out new operating procedures. During a break, Kuehl and her fellow committee members launched a round of singing Motown tunes and country and western songs. The next morning, Jim Brulte, the Republican leader, paid a visit to her office and asked, "If you're gay, how come all my guys like you so much?" Kuehl replied, "That's what discrimination is for, Jim. It demonizes the truly fabulous."

Less than a year after Kuehl took office, a Los Angeles Times article quoted conservative Assembly members gushing over her, with Larry Bowler - described as "the GOP's most ferocious attack dog" - calling Kuehl "one of the most charming ladies I've ever met." George House, who'd referred to homosexuality as an "abnormal, unnatural lifestyle," exuded that "Sheila is just about my favorite person on [the Democrats'] side of the aisle."

Although her education bill, AB 1001 (1995-96 Sess.), was defeated, it had value. Kuehl maintains it helped get the ball rolling to address sexual orientation discrimination. And Kuehl persisted, trying again with AB 101 (1997-98 Sess.) and AB 222 (1999-2000 Sess.) before breaking through with AB 537, which took effect in January 2000.

San Diego's Christine Kehoe, who served in the Senate with Kuehl, describes Kuehl's bills on issues like drinking water and reproductive rights as "very specific, highly technical and tough."

Dan Grunfeld, former head of Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, regularly called upon Kuehl in Sacramento. "Anybody in the public sector dealing with issues of health or equal access to justice has at some point worked with Sheila," says Grunfeld, now a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Los Angeles. "She understood the value of the nonprofit sector to do things government couldn't, due to lack of funding or other constraints."

For a while in her campaign for L.A. County supervisor, Kuehl's early-lead strategy seemed to be paying off, but eventually seven other candidates threw their hats into the Third District ring, including three lawyers: West Hollywood city council member John J. Duran, former Malibu mayor Pamela Conley Ulich, and, most significantly, Bobby Shriver, former mayor of Santa Monica, son of Sargent and Eunice Shriver, and nephew of President Kennedy. Shriver, also a liberal, is generally regarded as Kuehl's biggest challenger, because of his name recognition and also because he decided to forgo public campaign financing limits and fund his campaign with at least $300,000 of his personal wealth. The remaining four candidates - environmentalist Douglas P. Fay, educator and business owner Yuval D. Kremer, laborer and artist Rudy Melendez, and writer and producer Eric Preven - filed just before the early March cut-off for the nonpartisan primary. A simple majority vote would settle the race June 3; otherwise, the top two finishers will face each other in a runoff on the November ballot.

However untraditional a candidate Kuehl may be, she isn't above a bit of old-fashioned mud-slinging. After Shriver announced his candidacy in January, a Los Angeles Times review found that he'd missed 46 of 244 meetings while on the Santa Monica City Council. Kuehl had sniped that her rival should have attended more of them instead of "spending so much time in Hyannis Port," the family's Massachusetts compound, and "off with [U2 singer] Bono jetting the world." (Shriver campaign staff responded that the city council was a part-time job; that Shriver had gone to Hyannis Port to attend the funerals of his mother and his uncle, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy; and that he traveled with Bono to attend to two global nonprofits they co-founded to fight AIDS and poverty in Africa.)

If, despite her fiercest efforts, Kuehl is handed her first-ever election loss, she won't lack for things to do. She is the founding director of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College, where she's helping draft model state codes on marriage equality as well as discrimination, bullying, and harassment in education.

And if she gets tired of all that ... well, there's always reading the Rings trilogy for the 28th time.

"I never expected to be this energetic or this healthy" in her seventies, Kuehl insists from her Il Forno campaign headquarters. "It's way too soon to stop."

Stan Sinberg is a San Francisco-based writer who has worked as a columnist, satirist, and radio commentator.

Reader Comments

Michael Petrelis - May 5, 2014
Terrific and balanced piece on this liberal Democrat, who seems to have a problem with political competition. Glad the article is well-rounded and factual. Very glad she's got challengers in her race and her effort to scare away competitors. Such thinking is bad for that little thing we call democracy! Here in San Francisco, in the November 2013 elections there were three city-wide offices on the ballot - city attorney, assessor-recorder and treasurer - and none of the incumbents faces any serious or protest candidates. Can we please get career politicians like Kuehl to drop their Soviet-style desires when vying for public office?

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