It was 1959 when Sheila Kuehl, an 18-year-old UCLA student, first fell in love with a woman. For a year, Kuehl stashed daily letters from her in a dresser drawer at her Westwood sorority house.
One day, Kuehl walked into the sorority den and was stunned to find about 10 members confronting her over the contents of the letters, now spread across a table. They told her to surrender her pin and kicked her out of the sorority.
“I couldn’t tell my parents, because I would have had to tell them why,” said Kuehl, then living at her family’s Crenshaw apartment. “So I pretended every Monday night to be driving to the sorority for Monday night meetings, and I would sit in the Ships restaurant in Westwood and eat tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and then drive home and make up stories about the meeting.”
That ordeal shaped Kuehl’s future as a lawyer and state lawmaker. The theme of her life’s work has been the fight against discrimination.
Term limits put an end to Kuehl’s tenure in the Legislature in 2008. Now, the former TV actress and California’s first openly gay state legislator is seeking a comeback with her run to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Kuehl, 73, wrote groundbreaking laws during her six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. One was the nation’s first law guaranteeing workers up to six weeks paid leave to care for a sick family member. Another barred discrimination against school staff and students on the basis of sexual orientation.
In the June 3 primary, the big question for Kuehl is whether voters in the vast district straddling the Santa Monica Mountains agree that her Sacramento record makes her better suited for the county job than her opponents.
“I think it’s important to have someone take Zev’s seat who already knows what they’re doing and is experienced in all of these areas — health and human services, transportation, foster kids,” Kuehl told a recent gathering of the Miracle Mile Democratic Club.
Kuehl’s more pointed argument is that her chief rival, former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver, lacks the government experience needed for the position. “This is not really an entry-level position, running a 10-million person county,” she told a Sherman Oaks homeowners group at a debate.
A longtime law professor, Kuehl, who lives in Santa Monica, was 53 when she was elected to the Legislature.
“She was an advocate for people who found themselves on the margins,” said Yaroslavsky, who is neutral in the race. “She’s smart. She’s analytical. She’s tough. Very tough. Some people think she’s stubborn.”
Kuehl steeps herself in public policy detail. Her most recent essay, a dense rundown of public health programs, was Part 7 of the “L.A. County 101" series on her campaign website. Kuehl’s 20-page curriculum vitae, most of it single spaced, lists all 171 of the laws she wrote, the 56 committees and boards that she’s served on, and her 200 awards, including “best oralist” at a Harvard moot court in 1977.
Kuehl grew up mainly in Exposition Park, near the Coliseum. During World War II, her father was an airplane inspector at the Douglas plant in El Segundo. He later built his own business staging storefront merchandise displays for mom-and-pop shops.
When she was about 8, a man showed up at the family’s front door offering acting, music and tap-dancing lessons at the Meglin Studios, where Shirley Temple had trained.
Kuehl — “full of personality,” by her description — was soon cast in a 1949 radio comedy. Under the stage name Sheila James, she landed a bigger part on “The Stu Erwin Show,” an ABC television series. Her best-known role, which lasted four years, was as the sassy teenager Zelda Gilroy on “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” a black-and-white CBS sitcom.
Kuehl’s TV career — she had guest roles on “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet,” “McHale’s Navy,” “Petticoat Junction” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” — was lucrative but short. The Malibu beach house is long gone, but she still drives the red Porsche convertible she bought in 1964. “It’s got 558,000 miles on it — all mine,” she said.
It was discrimination, Kuehl believes, that drove her out of show business. A “Dobie Gillis” director told her that he’d heard that a top CBS executive had rejected a “Zelda” spinoff series because “he thought I was just a little too butch.” The thirdhand account is unverified (“It’s sort of vague, but that’s the way innuendo works,” she said), but Kuehl has made it a central part of her life story.
“They found out I was gay, and my interviews went way down,” she told a group this month at a campaign lunch in San Fernando.
In the late 1960s, Kuehl went to work at UCLA as an advisor to student groups in an era of antiwar and civil rights protests. “They didn’t particularly want very much advice, except how do we burn down the men’s gym and not go to jail,” she joked.
Kuehl said UCLA denied her a promotion that went to a man with less seniority, which made her “incredibly depressed.” “When you think that there is discrimination, and you’re in the class that’s being discriminated against, it’s this incredibly helpless feeling, like no matter how good you are, you’re not going to get the job,” she said. She was eventually promoted to associate dean.
Kuehl went on to receive a law degree at Harvard, then returned to L.A., where she gravitated to family law and led an advisory board of a Santa Monica shelter for battered women. In 1989, she co-founded the California Women’s Law Center, which drafted legislation to strengthen protections against domestic violence, sexual assault and discrimination against women.
“We kept bumping our head against the law, and it seemed to me the real answer was you had to be in Sacramento and help change the law,” Kuehl said.
Her Sacramento work was prolific. Laws sponsored by Kuehl imposed new penalties on stalkers, gave businesses a tax break for using zero-emission vehicles, expanded parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains, gave prosecutors tools to enforce disabled-access rules and required histories of domestic abuse to be weighed in child custody disputes.
Kuehl hoped her top achievement would be universal health coverage for Californians, but she failed to win Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval. She also tried to persuade colleagues to elect her leader of the Assembly, and later the Senate, but lost both times when Latino lawmakers and organized labor offered crucial support to rivals.
In the supervisor’s race, Kuehl is competing with John Duran, a West Hollywood councilman, for gay voters, a longtime base for both candidates. Duran was a leader of the 2008 campaign to defeat Proposition 8, which sought to outlaw same-sex marriage. Duran accused Kuehl of providing too little help.
“I think Sheila could have played a bigger part,” said Duran, who bristles at what he calls Kuehl’s “armchair” critique of the campaign after Proposition 8 passed. Kuehl rejected the charge, saying she spoke out against the measure, which ultimately was struck down in court.
A key to Kuehl’s political success has been prodigious fundraising, an important asset against Shriver, a Kennedy heir who is tapping his personal fortune for the campaign. Kuehl has relied on a variety of donor networks — Hollywood, UCLA, the gay community, trial lawyers, unions and other groups that had a stake in her legislative work.
During her years in Sacramento, one of Kuehl’s biggest campaign backers was the union representing state prison guards. It donated $97,000 to her election efforts. She sponsored a bill pushed by the union to slow the opening of private prisons, but also a measure that it opposed, which would have prohibited guards from conducting initial medical evaluations of inmates.
In her campaign for supervisor, Kuehl’s biggest donor so far is the California Nurses Assn., , which has contributed $75,000 to her campaign. Kuehl sponsored California’s law establishing minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. Union president Deborah Burger said nurses were grateful for that hard-fought victory and for Kuehl’s work on universal health coverage, but had no interest in matters before L.A. County.
Asked about raising campaign cash from those with interests in government decisions, Kuehl suggested she’s different from some former colleagues in the Legislature who “don’t know what they think.”
“If you support them, they would be happy to do what you think,” she said. “I have never been that kind of person. You can tell, listening to me: I already know what I think.”
Kuehl describes herself as a progressive. She said her guiding principle, forged by personal experience, is that no one should be held back by prejudice. “I would like people to be able to live up to their full potential without artificial barriers,” she said.