When Ken Edwards was elected mayor of Santa Monica in 1983, he pledged to restore “the politics of civility” to a city deeply divided over rent control. After his death late Tuesday from cancer complications, people on both sides of the political fence agreed that he had succeeded.
The 44-year-old Edwards, who remained on the City Council after his mayoral term ended last year, died at 10:20 p.m. at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. A spokeswoman there said he contracted pneumonia while undergoing treatment for the liver cancer that he had been battling for three years.
Edwards, a tenant advocate, had received more votes than any candidate in recent Santa Monica history in each of the last two elections. Friends and associates on Wednesday said his death cost the city its greatest statesman.
“He personified Santa Monica as much as any single person,” said Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). “He sought a balance which is important in politics. He was enormously appreciated as a person who could be an individual leader and also advance the larger causes of the city.”
Mayor Christine E. Reed said Edwards dedicated his life to the city. “We have all lost a good friend and a very fine man,” she said. “Ken will be greatly missed. His record of public service is well known. He gave his life to serving others. . . . He has been an example of courage for all of us.”
Councilman Dennis Zane, a longtime Edwards ally, said Edwards was gifted with a great sense of fairness. “He took things on their merits as he saw them,” he said. “In a community divided around difficult issues, he showed people how to be friends with each other. I think the whole council profited from his example.”
Councilman David Epstein, a political opponent, said Edwards brought sensibility to the office. James Baker, an apartment industry spokesman who opposed Edwards on rent control issues, credited the former mayor with helping to restore peace to Santa Monica.
“He did not subscribe to the idea of polarization,” Baker said. “He really believed in trying to communicate with everyone, including the people he didn’t agree with. Ken understood that anything really worth accomplishing had to be done by consensus.”
A county probation officer, Edwards had a reputation for being deeply committed to social and political issues. As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, he was sent with his sister to live at the Vista del Mar children’s home after their parents separated.
Edwards later graduated from Hamilton High School and attended Santa Monica College. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology-social welfare from California State University, Los Angeles, and a master’s degree in probation from Pepperdine University.
In 1964, Edwards moved to Venezuela to work as a job organizer. Later, back in the United States, he helped children of migrant farm workers while employed by a federal anti-poverty agency.
At other times he worked for Project Heavy West, a juvenile diversion program, and two other crisis centers.
Edwards once said social work gave him more satisfaction than politics. But his political commitment was longstanding. He worked for a series of Democratic presidential contenders, beginning with then-Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and was elected to head the Santa Monica Democratic Club in 1975.
Two years later, Edwards made an unsuccessful bid for the City Council. His political career gained new life, however, when he became affiliated with Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, a tenant activist organization that helped pass one of the nation’s toughest rent control laws in 1979.
Named to Commission
When a new council partly composed of tenant activists was seated that same year, Edwards was appointed to the city Planning Commission. Three years later, he successfully ran for the council, becoming a member of the first tenant majority at City Hall.
Edwards was elected mayor in 1983, after Ruth Yannatta Goldway lost her spot on the council. Presiding over a council that was bitterly divided on rent control (four members were tenant activists and three represented landlords and homeowners), Edwards pushed for compromise, saying political polarization was threatening to destroy the city.
He was easily reelected in 1984, but lost the mayor’s post to Reed when the opposing political organization assumed the council majority.
Edwards remained active on the council and in local politics until early this year, when his condition worsened. He had defied the odds in the past, with the help of author Norman Cousins, who advised him to battle the disease through positive thinking. But debilitating chemotherapy treatments forced him to miss a series of council meetings over the past few months.
Edwards’ last public appearance was in mid-July, when he was honored at a dinner hosted by Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy. Looking pale and fragile as he acknowledged the tribute, Edwards received a standing ovation.
“He was a great man who loved political battles and who never lost his sense of humor,” said David Shulman, a close friend who was with Edwards shortly before he died. “Fundamentally, he was a person of good will.”
Edwards is survived by his wife, Sue, and a 6-year-old son, David. A private funeral is planned.