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Kuehl’s Work and Wit Break Barriers in Assembly : Politics: The Legislature’s first openly gay member, assemblywoman gets raves even from conservative foes.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

More often than not, the Capitol is a place of predictable political relationships--us versus them, them versus us. That’s why the story of Sheila J. Kuehl stands out.

Kuehl is a liberal lesbian from Santa Monica--the first openly gay person to serve in the California Legislature. Before her debut in the Assembly late last year, conservatives shuddered--viewing her, one lawmaker recalls, as a “femi-Nazi” bent on ramming her “repugnant” beliefs down their throats.

Nine months have passed. And now those same conservatives are in love.

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Consider what Assemblyman Larry Bowler, a pro-gun ex-cop notorious as the GOP’s most ferocious attack dog, has to say about Kuehl:

“Sheila,” he gushes, “is one of the most charming ladies I’ve ever met. She’s a winner.”

Assemblyman George House, a die-hard Republican who views homosexuality as an “abnormal, unnatural lifestyle,” sums up his feelings this way: “Sheila is just about my favorite person on [the Democrats’] side of the aisle.”

That such ardor has bubbled forth is extraordinary. Many other gay politicians--Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, for example--become lightning rods and poster boys for the right, instant enemies reviled and showered with hate.

But Kuehl--mixing brains, an engaging manner and an impish wit--has smashed stereotypes to make a grand entrance in a club that is not easily impressed, becoming the unlikely darling of the state Assembly.

Recently, her name has surfaced on lists of potential future leaders of the lower house. And former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, not normally generous with compliments, once lavished this praise upon her:

“Sheila Kuehl reminds me more of myself than anyone I’ve seen in politics. Ever.”

Kuehl, 54, a pint-sized 5-foot-1-inch woman, did not capture such affections by chance. A born charmer, she works at it, cruising the Assembly floor in her colorful blazers, joshing and schmoozing up a storm.

She also has at her disposal a potent weapon that disarms many likely opponents before they can reach for their guns: fame.

Thirty-five years ago, Kuehl (pronounced Q-ull, rhyming with fuel) starred in the hit television show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” A teen-ager at the time, she played the irrepressible Zelda Gilroy, a brainy, exuberant sprite who competed tirelessly for the heart of the disinterested Dobie, who preferred more classically fetching gals.

Her celebrity, Kuehl concedes, is a powerful asset in the Capitol, one any alert politician would gleefully exploit.

“When I meet some of these guys for the first time, they get this funny little smile on their face that says, ‘I know you--you’re Zelda!’ ” Kuehl says. It’s an icebreaker, she believes, and, more important, it “jams the homophobic radar.”

“They’re prepared to feel one way about me because I’m a lesbian, but it’s hard for them to be knee-jerk when they have this other image of me from TV.”

Fondness, however, does not equal votes. And despite her popularity, Kuehl has encountered turbulence when it comes to passing legislation in today’s Republican-controlled Assembly.

Many of the bills most dear to her--including one banning on-campus discrimination against gay and lesbian students and another protecting pregnant women in the workplace--have died or stalled in committees. She could not muster enough votes for a simple resolution urging Congress to continue funding the school lunch program. And she holds the record among freshmen for the number of bills vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.

“It’s frustrating to see legislation I care deeply about die in this partisan atmosphere,” Kuehl says. “But I think it’s possible to be effective in any environment, no matter how hostile it is to the things you believe in.”

With Kuehl, such talk is not the naive blathering of a Pollyanna. For 15 years before her election, she worked as an advocate for domestic violence victims, pushing the once-unpopular message that battering is a crime. Little by little, opponents came to embrace her view and laws were changed. She expects the same inch-by-inch progress on topics close to her heart today.

As for her constituents, Kuehl’s most loyal boosters--California’s gays and lesbians--are generally giddy over her performance. Sure, her legislative record has been disappointing. But in their view, Kuehl’s mere presence in Sacramento has been a boon, both symbolically and substantively.

Indeed, gays and lesbians routinely stop by her Capitol office to shake her hand and wish her well. Others honk their recognition when they spot her on the street.

“Sheila is a true trailblazer. She’s like a beacon for gay and lesbian people,” says Eric Baumann, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club in Los Angeles. The surprising fact that her “star quality” has helped her make friends among conservatives, he added, “is just a huge bonus.”

*

It was one of those memorable moments on the campaign trail. Sitting in a Los Angeles restaurant, candidate Kuehl was approached by a constituent, who said that while he views most politicians as liars, he knew she could be trusted.

“I said, ‘Me? Why me?’ ” Kuehl recalls with a grin. “He said, ‘Well, you’ve already told us the worst thing about yourself. Why would you lie about anything else?’ The worst thing, of course, was that I’m a lesbian.”

Kuehl jokes easily about such matters today. But as a girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood near the Los Angeles Coliseum, her sexual orientation was a subject that caused great torment. The grimmest days came in 1963, with the end of an acting career that had appeared to be going nowhere but up.

The daughter of a window dresser and a factory worker, Kuehl got her first role--under the stage name Sheila James--on TV’s Stu Erwin Show, playing Erwin’s daughter. At age 18, she was cast as the smart and sassy Zelda Gilroy, and her sparkling personality soon made her a favorite among the cast of the popular Dobie Gillis sitcom. In between shoots, Kuehl found time to major in English at UCLA.

After four years, the program was canceled in 1963, but a spinoff based on Zelda’s character was launched. Kuehl figured she had it made. Here she was, scarcely 22, and already Hollywood had bought her a red Porsche convertible and a beach house in Malibu. What a life.

When the Zelda Gilroy pilot didn’t sell, Kuehl was broken-hearted but accepting. After all, she assumed, there would be other roles. But then she heard an ominous explanation: A top CBS executive had apparently killed the project, declaring its young star “a little too butch.”

“I figured the secret [about my sexuality] was out,” Kuehl says, noting that she had recently been expelled from her UCLA sorority after letters from her female lover were found in her room. She won a small part in a short-lived show about women in the Navy, and then the phone stopped ringing.

“I was totally panicked,” she says. “My life was over. Everything just dried up.”

Devastated, she contemplated suicide. Instead, she sold the beach house and rebounded, working in various administrative jobs at UCLA before enrolling at Harvard Law School at the age of 34. The law, it turns out, was a perfect fit. Kuehl excelled, becoming only the second woman to win the law school’s prestigious moot court competition. She still glows when remembering what one of the judges, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, told her at the time:

“He clasped my hand in his and said, ‘Lady, I like your style.’ ”

Back in Los Angeles, Kuehl began to reveal her sexual orientation to friends and family, little by little.

“It’s OK, honey,” her mother said. “We always knew you liked girls best.”

*

It was aggravation, more than anything else, that drove Kuehl into politics.

Through the 1980s, she moved from law practice to law school professor, becoming a national expert on domestic violence, sexual discrimination and child support along the way. Her work frequently brought her to the Capitol, where she lobbied for new laws to protect battered women and children.

“After a while, I got really tired of sitting at that little witness table and being unable to grab a microphone and say, ‘No, no, no, what you just said is really stupid,’ ” Kuehl recalls. “So I said, damn it, I’m going to get a place up there where I can push my button and talk into my own microphone and nobody’s gonna stop me.”

And so she did.

With her celebrity status--and the historic nature of her quest to become California’s first openly gay state lawmaker--Kuehl got a lot of attention in last year’s campaign to represent the 41st Assembly District, which includes Santa Monica and Malibu and a chunk of the more conservative San Fernando Valley. People magazine, for example, did a where-are-they-now piece, informing readers that Zelda was out of the closet and running for office. That sort of narrow, actress-turned-politician characterization irks her still.

“I feel like this is a job I’ve been preparing for all my life,” Kuehl says defensively after describing an exhaustive list of career achievements. “I’m not Sonny Bono.”

By most accounts, she has proved that in spades. She earns high marks not only for her intellect but also as someone willing to put in the hours necessary to grasp the 2,000-odd bills that come before the Assembly each year. While in Sacramento, her only refuge from work comes through visits to her younger sister, Jeri, in Davis, and in episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” to which she religiously devotes one hour each day.

Despite her focus, Kuehl does not hesitate to display a colorful side on the job. Three times this year she has burst into song on the Assembly floor, once using Joni Mitchell lyrics to rally support for a bill protecting the Santa Monica Mountains. (The bill failed, but not, critics said, on account of her voice.)

“She’s smart, passionate and she does her homework,” said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), who describes himself as a “big brother” to Kuehl. “Sheila’s a great example of the downside of term limits. She will grow tremendously but never reach her full potential because she’ll run out of time.”

Such reviews are to be expected, say those who have known her--and her work ethic--for years. More surprising are the quick friendships she has forged with conservatives whose political views are completely opposite her own.

“I think they expected an Amazon dyke with a chip on her shoulder,” Kuehl says of Republicans. “Instead, they got an Amazon dyke with no chip on her shoulder.”

Joking aside, Kuehl said she takes pains to be friendly with everyone and never burns a bridge. In politics, as any savvy person knows, success can often rise or fall on the strength of relationships.

Assemblyman Bowler of Elk Grove got to know Kuehl because both serve on the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee. He’s pro-gun, she supports gun control. He’s pro-death penalty, she is not. And so on.

“I can talk to Sheila. We disagree philosophically, but she’s reasonable,” Bowler says. “Every once in a while, I’ll vote for her bill or she’ll vote for one of mine. Then we exchange a little smile, knowing that our constituents would flip if they found out we supported each other’s bills.”

Assemblyman Tom Woods (R-Shasta) has also taken a shine to Kuehl, exchanging e-mail with her on the Assembly floor. An old fan of the Dobie Gillis show, Woods pestered her to wrinkle her nose in the peculiar way Zelda did on TV.

Kuehl refused, until one day when Woods upped the ante: Fulfill my request, he said, and I will give you my vote on your bill.

Kuehl did not pause for long. When it was time for the tally, Woods barked a loud “Aye.” And then the assemblywoman from Santa Monica--looking remarkably like young Zelda Gilroy, but without the ponytail--turned to him and proudly wrinkled her nose.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profile: Assemblywoman Sheila J. Kuehl

* Born: Feb. 9, 1941, in Tulsa, Okla.

* Residence: Santa Monica

* Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA. Law degree from Harvard University.

* Career highlights: Starred as Zelda Gilroy on television’s “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” from 1959 to 1963 before retiring from acting to attend law school. Co-founded the California Women’s Law Center and served as president of the Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles. National expert on domestic violence and sexual discrimination. Law professor at UCLA and Loyola Law School. Past chairwoman of the board of the Sojourn Shelter for Battered Women in Santa Monica. Elected to the Assembly in 1994.

* Family: Single

* Interests: Women’s issues, reading, watching “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

* Quote: “When I was 7 years old and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never would have said I wanted to be the first lesbian in the state Legislature. But here I am.”


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