Harriett Wieder, a longtime assistant to former Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty who later became the first woman elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, died Monday at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. She was 89.
In poor health since a car accident six months ago, she was being treated for pneumonia and died of heart failure, according to longtime family friend Ed Laird.
Wieder was known as a maverick who was not shy about taking on the supervisors’ “old boys’ club,” a male-only bastion for almost 100 years until her election in 1978. A three-term supervisor whose 2nd District included her longtime home of Huntington Beach, where she had been mayor, Wieder was regarded by colleagues as a wild card, a Republican who backed Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and once compared a fellow supervisor to Adolf Hitler.
Known for her advocacy on healthcare, gang violence, women’s issues and air quality, she served as board chair three times. She also played a major role in settling a 15-year battle over development of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, led an effort to install emergency call boxes on Orange County freeways and spearheaded a controversial ethics reform package during her final year in office.
“She had a very strong independent streak,” said Assemblyman Jim Silva (R-Huntington Beach), who succeeded Wieder on the Board of Supervisors in 1995. He said she also “had a big heart and was always concerned about government creating a safety net for social programs.”
Wieder was born Harriett Pulvers on Oct. 7, 1920, in Toronto but grew up in Detroit. After marrying Irving Wieder in 1941, they moved to the San Fernando Valley, where they raised two children.
Her activities on behalf of groups such as the PTA and B’nai B’rith impressed Yorty, who was elected mayor in 1961. “It was garbage that brought me to his attention,” Wieder recalled in a 1982 article in Orange Coast magazine. As a mayoral candidate, Yorty had pledged to let Los Angeles residents incinerate their combustible and noncombustible trash together. Wieder became the leader of what she called the “ ‘combine your garbage’ brigade” in negotiations with the City Council.
She was Yorty’s executive assistant until he retired in 1973.
In 1971, after an unsuccessful run for the Los Angeles City Council, she moved with her family to Huntington Beach and quickly became involved in that city’s affairs. She won a seat on the Huntington Beach City Council in 1973 and was mayor in 1976.
In 1988, she lost to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) in a bid for an Orange County seat in Congress.
During the campaign, it was disclosed that Wieder had lied in court and on political resumes by stating that she had graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit.
She was the only female supervisor in Orange County during her entire 16-year tenure, which began shakily.
“She always had difficulty putting together three votes for any item,” recalled Stan Oftelie, who was chief of staff for Supervisor Ralph Clark when Wieder joined the board. “She had a completely different style . . . a more confrontational style than the board members were used to. She had the feeling that the boys didn’t like her very much.”
Her male colleagues stymied her efforts to become board chair for six years, until a rule change required a regular rotation of the largely symbolic leadership position. She eventually served as chair in 1984, 1988 and 1993.
“I don’t think I was ever a crybaby,” she said in a 1988 interview with the Orange County Register, recalling her early years on the board. “I never attributed my problems to the fact that I was a female, although if you analyze it, what else could you conclude?”
Since 1995, when she left the board, four other women have followed, including current board chair Janet Nguyen, who on Tuesday called Wieder “a pioneer in the truest sense of the word.”
Wieder is survived by a daughter, Gayle Wieder-Tauber; a son, Leland; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. A public memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 31 at University Synagogue in Irvine.