Bobby Shriver wants to shake things up on Board of Supervisors

Bobby Shriver says the L.A. County Board of Supervisors' focus on the poor, foster children and the sick appealed to him.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

Bobby Shriver on Tuesday will formally jump into the race for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, injecting the Kennedy-family mystique — and possibly some of his own wealth — into the contest to replace termed-out Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Shriver, 59, the son of Sargent and Eunice Shriver and the nephew of President Kennedy, said he has been pondering running for a seat on the board for nearly a decade, as he watched Yaroslavsky work on helping the homeless while Shriver was a member of the Santa Monica City Council. The board’s focus on the most vulnerable — the poor, foster children, the sick — appealed to him more than seeking a more prominent position in Sacramento or Washington, Shriver said.

“This is a social innovation and serving-poor-people agency,” said Shriver, an attorney and philanthropist. “I want to shake it up a little bit, and I want to fix things. I’ve fixed a lot of things in my life.... I’m an entrepreneurial person, and I’m different. I’m not a career politician. I’m a problem-solver.”

“Fix it. Get it done. Don’t talk about it forever. Make it work, make it on time and on budget. Be smart with money. Be transparent about the money.”


Shriver’s announcement — along with former L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel’s decision this month not to run — brings into focus the race to represent 2 million people in a district that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the San Fernando Valley and the Hollywood sign. And it adds a little glitz to an important post often overshadowed by those at City Hall.

Two other candidates are running, but with Shriver’s entry, the race is effectively between him and Sheila Kuehl, a longtime state lawmaker. Kuehl has been hoping that the hundreds of thousands of dollars she has raised and the scores of endorsements she has garnered would stave off a serious threat to her bid. In recent days as it became clear that Shriver was getting ready to enter the race, Kuehl has telegraphed her fear of his wealth.

“A career of public service hasn’t given me a vast personal fortune to spend on this race, but it has provided me with things that money just can’t buy: Years of fighting for progressive values in Los Angeles County and fighting for YOU!” she wrote in a fundraising plea to supporters.

Shriver downplayed personal wealth as a deciding factor in politics, pointing to the failed California gubernatorial campaigns of Meg Whitman, who spent $144 million of her wealth on her 2010 run, and Al Checchi, who spent $40 million of his money in his 1998 bid.


“No has one ever succeeded in buying an election,” he said.

But Shriver, who said he does not actually know his net worth, said he was amenable to spending some of his own money.

“If I need to, I guess so,” he said. “Right now, I’m trying to raise money, but certainly I will make myself competitive. Sheila has a huge head start and is the front-runner, so I have to do some hustling to catch up.”

Shriver said the race would be determined by ideas and action, and that he would work as hard as he did in his first Santa Monica race to communicate with residents and earn their votes.


“I’m going to meet people, and if they meet me and they think I’m a millionaire jerk, I’m going to lose,” Shriver said.

Already, it is likely to be an expensive race. Outside groups, which cannot coordinate with a candidate but can accept unlimited donations, are said to be gearing up to support both Shriver and Kuehl. Candidates who agree not to spend more than $1.5 million for the June primary can raise up to $1,500 per donor. Those who do not agree to those limits can only raise $300 per person. Shriver, for the moment, is pursuing the latter route, a strong indicator to many political observers that he plans to spend a significant amount of his own money.

Sean Clegg, who led an outside group that supported Greuel’s unsuccessful run for Los Angeles mayor last year, said that contest showed the risk of a “big-money campaign strategy.”

“You look at the issues in the county right now, and pretty much across the board, every rock you turn over in county government there appears to be a different scandal festering,” he said. “This is an environment in which a candidate who can appeal to that insurgent, outsider vote is going to find the real advantage in the race. If you run a strategy that appears to be insider-driven, big-money driven, you face, I think, a real jeopardy.”


Clegg added that a critical task for the candidates will be reaching San Fernando Valley voters. Although Kuehl represented a portion of the Valley while in the Legislature, the area, which includes 60% of the vote, is up for grabs and could determine who wins, he said.

Despite both being Democrats, Kuehl and Shriver offer a sharp contrast in tone and resume.

As a child and young woman, Kuehl was an actress, best known as Zelda in “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” television series. She went to Harvard Law School, where she was the first woman to win the prestigious moot court competition.

Kuehl was the first openly gay person elected to the Legislature when she won a seat in the Assembly in 1994. She served there for six years and then eight years in the state Senate, where she was widely regarded for her intellect. After she was termed out, she became the founding director of the Public Policy Institute of Santa Monica College.


Kuehl, 72, has argued that her work at the state level, on issues such as the environment, healthcare and transportation, has prepared her to become a county supervisor.

Shriver didn’t seek elected office until he was 50, saying it had not interested him. A graduate of Yale Law School, he worked as a journalist, law clerk, venture capitalist, entrepreneur and film producer before running for the Santa Monica council in 2004, spurred by a fight over hedge heights. He has also spent considerable time working on philanthropy related to the Special Olympics, which his mother created; the AIDS crisis, and international debt relief.

Gov. Gray Davis appointed Shriver to the state Parks and Recreation Commission; Shriver’s then-brother-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger, reappointed him when he was elected governor. Then Shriver and actor-director Clint Eastwood opposed a toll road through a state park, a project supported by Schwarzenegger. Neither man was reappointed to the panel, creating interesting discussions at family gatherings, Shriver said. “I would say ‘Arnold fired me.’ Arnold would say, ‘I didn’t fire you — I just did not renew you.’”

As an elected official, he focused on homelessness, especially among veterans, along with environmental protection and affordable housing, issues that he would like to continue working on at the county level.


The contest comes at a pivotal time for the board. Long untouched by term limits, its five current members’ have a combined tenure of nearly a century. But voter-approved term limits are causing a major shift at the body, which has a $25-billion budget and makes decisions that affect a population larger than all but seven states. Two new members will be elected this year, and two more in 2016.

Shriver has spent time quietly observing Board of Supervisors meetings and says he would like to see changes in how it operates. It meets once a week, in downtown Los Angeles, where parking is expensive, and during the work day, all of which make it less accessible to the public.

Shriver said he would like to see the body meet in different parts of the county, and at different times, to increase public participation. He would also like to see board members discuss their actions more openly before voting.

“I grew up in a big family so people argued all the time, so I’m kind of fond of argument and I don’t mind being proven wrong,” he said, laughing. “As my brother likes to say, Bobby, you’re so full of … something. My mother would say malarkey; my brother would say something else.”