In TV Interview, Wachs Reveals That He Is Gay
In a matter-of-fact response to a question on a cable television show taped this week, Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs publicly announced that he is gay.
While Wachs considered the move “natural and appropriate,” others viewed it as a potential boon to his political future, particularly as he prepares a run for mayor.
Wachs, a councilman for 28 years, said Friday that he answered the question for the first time because he felt it arose naturally within the context of the 30-minute interview.
It wasn’t, he said, “a National Enquirer-type question,” but one that followed a line of inquiry that he believed allowed him to fully present himself on a variety of issues.
“Are you a gay man?” asked host Bill Rosendahl, the openly gay moderator of a public affairs show on Adelphia Communications.
“I am and I’m very proud of what I’ve done for the community, and I’m also very proud of the fact that what I’ve done for the community is what I’ve done for all communities,” Wachs responded.
On Friday, Wachs refused other on-camera interviews, and was relatively low-key about the effect his announcement was having. He said he made three telephone calls after the taping, one to his chief of staff and two to friends.
“I really didn’t calculate how it would play,” said Wachs, 60. “I just felt that it was a fair, thoughtful program that allowed me to speak about who I am.”
Although Wachs said he is unsure of the impact on his political future, other lawmakers and political consultants said he will receive a substantial boost, both in votes and in donations, locally and nationally.
Until fairly recently, Wachs’ announcement would have been more widely viewed as a detriment to his career. But in contemporary Los Angeles, candidates’ sexual orientation is an issue of little concern to many voters, most political analysts say.
“I don’t think it has any impact one way or another, frankly,” said Ace Smith, a political consultant who is working for Steve Soboroff’s rival mayoral campaign. “I think being gay at this point is so accepted in the popular culture, I don’t think people make judgments based upon that anymore.”
Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who announced in 1992 that she is gay, said she believes, however, that Wachs’ openness will help him.
“I think it’s a good political move on his part,” she said. “The gay and lesbian community is not going to heavily support a candidate who isn’t out.”
Some analysts estimated that Wachs could receive a quarter of his campaign funds from that community. In the Los Angeles mayoral race, two other possible candidates stand well positioned to raise money from national interest groups: Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who announced his candidacy last month, is eyeing contributions from national Latino organizations, and potential candidate Kathleen Connell, the state controller, is poised to seek the support of national women’s organizations if she runs.
Never has an openly gay official held the mayoralty of such a large American city, so Wachs offers the gay community a rare opportunity to support one of its own for such a high-profile seat. That community’s influence is being seen now in San Francisco, where Tom Ammiano, an openly gay supervisor, has waged an extraordinarily effective grass-roots campaign to unseat incumbent Mayor Willie Brown.
“We’re finding that the climate for gay and lesbian candidates--who are open and honest about who they are--is getting better,” said Sloan C. Wiesen, a spokesman for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund in Washington, D.C., which gives money to openly gay candidates regardless of their political affiliations. “Each time we have a victory, we are moving toward the day when sexual orientation won’t be a barrier to public service.”
Wachs’ disclosure, observers say, will have another impact on the gay community: “When any public official comes out, it sends a wonderful message not just to the straight world, but also to gay closeted youth struggling with their sexual orientation,” said Scott Seomin of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. “The gay and lesbian community will rally behind him.”
In conservative parts of Wachs’ east San Fernando Valley district, however, the councilman’s announcement was greeted with some disappointment, even among supporters.
“I wish he hadn’t done it because I want to see him become mayor,” said Sylvia Gross, a former president of the Verdugo chapter of the National Federation of Republican Women. “I think there are a lot of people who will hold it against him,” though she said she would not.
Polly Ward, a Studio City homeowner activist, said: “I’m very pleased that he has done this because it’s honest and true and who he is.”
Both Ward and Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Assn., said Wachs will remain a highly popular councilman in his district.
Years of Fighting Against Discrimination
Wachs, a fiscal conservative, has a long, varied record on the council. He is credited with championing the city’s most comprehensive law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and other areas. He fought against what he viewed as entrapment by police officers in gay bars in the 1970s and he wrote the city law prohibiting discrimination of any kind against people with AIDS.
More recently, Wachs fought hard against public subsidies to the multimillionaire owners of the new downtown Staples Center and to the potential owners of a professional football team. He also succeeded in his efforts to create so-called neighborhood councils, giving residents more of a voice in planning decisions.
What remains to be seen is whether Wachs is viewed differently in the mayoral race. So far, Wachs, Soboroff and Villaraigosa are the announced candidates; Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky also is a possible contender.
“It is very significant that someone at the level of Joel Wachs, who has his political power and influence, has come out of the closet and is now a very powerful, very visible gay politician,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst and senior associate at the school of politics and economics at Claremont Graduate University. “We’re just going to have to wait and see whether the citizens of Los Angeles think lifestyle is a significant issue. At this point in time, I don’t think that it is.”
Rosendahl, the host of the cable show who has known Wachs for 19 years, said the question flowed from their conversation about the groups Wachs has supported during his tenure at City Hall.
“It was a natural flow to go into that question,” Rosendahl said. “It gave him an opportunity to say yes.”
The show will be repeated at 4 p.m. today, 8:30 a.m. Sunday, 11 p.m. Monday and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday on Channel 10 in Los Angeles and Channel 20 in Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.
Times staff writer Jim Newton contributed to this story.