His uncles have been a U.S. president and senators, his father ran for vice president, and his movie star brother-in-law was elected governor of California.
Now the political wasp has stung Bobby Shriver. At 50, the nephew of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and the late John and Robert F. Kennedy and the brother of Maria Shriver, wife of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is making his first bid for political office -- for the Santa Monica City Council.
Shriver decided to run after a dispute with City Hall over the height of the hedges at his home on ritzy Adelaide Drive. His candidacy in the Nov. 2 election has added a dose of star power as candidates have appeared at forums and key groups have handed out endorsements. Yet it is far from clear whether Shriver’s liberal pedigree and connections in Washington and Sacramento -- as well as friendships with celebrities like U2 singer Bono and Oprah Winfrey -- will be enough to win over voters in a city known for its intense politics.
“He’s a funny combination, a man of the people -- we’ve all had our version of the hedge problem -- and somebody who comes from privilege and is anything but your common man,” said Dana Cuff, a UCLA professor of architecture and urban planning who has studied neighborhood politics.
Much is at stake, political observers say. For years, five of the seven council members have been endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, a powerful organization that supports rent control. But since 2000, there has been a dramatic turnover among the city’s voters as housing prices and rents have soared. Shriver’s run comes at a time when many voters appear to have become more concerned about quality-of-life issues than liberal causes.
Shriver announced his candidacy after the renters’ rights group had endorsed four other candidates, but he said he hoped soon to reveal the backing of prominent members of the organization.
Still, Shriver’s biggest challenge may be introducing himself to voters, given that he is a newcomer to local politics.
“He was not a major player until somebody tried to fine him because his hedges got too high,” said Sarah Stegemoeller, a two-year resident and self-avowed political junkie. “If he’s really enthusiastic, that’s great. But his total motivation for doing this is sort of out of the relative blue.”
Mayor Richard Bloom, who is running for reelection, added: “Not a lot is known about Bobby beyond his last name. His challenge in the election is to inform people about himself.”
In a letter to constituents, Shriver said his interest in city politics sprang from the hedge citations he and neighbors received shortly before Thanksgiving. The city gave residents just days to trim the shrubbery or face misdemeanor criminal charges.
Though he persuaded the city to back down, in April, he and others received civil compliance orders, which gave violators a month to trim their hedges or face a $25,000-a-day fine.
City employees were “mean” in their handling of the situation, he said. But a group he formed called on the City Council to alter the 1948 ordinance governing hedge and fence heights. The council is expected next month to consider changes to the ordinance, some of them crafted by Shriver.
Like other candidates, Shriver has spent hours canvassing neighborhoods. His mother, freshly recovered from an illness, joined him on a walk down San Vicente Boulevard recently, along with Shriver’s fiancee, Malissa Feruzzi. The two women, Shriver said, persuaded 17 homeowners to put up lawn signs. He succeeded in installing just one.
Thirteen candidates, including four incumbents, are seeking four seats on the council. True to form for the eccentric coastal enclave, among them are a flight attendant and a data entry operator.
The issues seem to be nothing new -- traffic, schools, homelessness and development. But the chatty and personable Shriver is injecting some juice.
Shriver has won support from police and firefighters, the county Democratic Party and the Chamber of Commerce. He was spurned by a new municipal employees political action committee and by the Santa Monica Democratic Club, which pointed to his lack of experience in politics and his ties to Colleen McAndrews, an election law attorney who has backed local conservative causes.
In an interview Friday, Shriver said he had no patience with such divisiveness.
McAndrews “is my neighbor,” he said matter-of-factly. “When I decided to run ... I walked over to her house and knocked on her door. She picked up her purse and walked back across the street with me and spent the day filling out my papers.”
Later, Shriver said, a letter writer said he had fallen victim to the forces of greed and malevolence by associating with McAndrews.
At his campaign headquarters on Santa Monica Boulevard, Shriver vowed, if elected, to get diverse or even opposing groups together to discuss how to solve such problems as traffic and homelessness.
“We need a regional approach” to solve most of these issues, said Shriver, dressed in khakis, a blue shirt with rolled-up sleeves and black leather mules. In a letter to constituents, Shriver described himself as a problem solver experienced in bringing Democrats and Republicans together.
In 2002, he and Bono won over the likes of Jesse Helms, an influential Republican from North Carolina who was finishing his fifth and final term in the Senate.
Bono and Shriver, who had co-founded an organization called DATA to aid African nations, had been stymied in efforts to get lawmakers to appropriate money for a drug that could help prevent HIV-positive women in Africa from passing the virus to their newborns.
When the pair made their plea, Shriver recalled, a tearful Helms agreed to help and thus “saved thousands of people’s lives.”
A Yale-educated lawyer with a thatch of salt-and-pepper hair and that toothy Kennedy grin, Shriver is the oldest of five children born to Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. His father was the organizer and first director of the Peace Corps as well as George McGovern’s running mate in the 1972 presidential race. His mother is the sister of President Kennedy and founder of the Special Olympics.
A 17-year resident of Santa Monica, Shriver has devoted much of his life to public service and now heads the state Parks and Recreation Commission, to which he was appointed in 2000 by then-Gov. Gray Davis.
As Shriver hits the campaign trail, other candidates and their supporters are taking notice.
Herb Katz, an incumbent running for reelection, said the Shriver effect has meant a boost in contributions to his campaign as voters become more aware.
“It’s waking them up,” he said.