Column:  Choosing between Shriver, Kuehl for L.A. County supervisor

The race for the 3rd District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors began in earnest last week, as the contenders — Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver — faced each other in their first debate since qualifying for the runoff. They were hardly past the opening statements before their respective strategies and the choice offered to voters became clear.

Shriver is a former mayor of Santa Monica, and he views the supervisorial seat as an extension of that office. His ideas are local and district-oriented: He wants to reach out to companies to open or expand operations in the district; he highlights specific transit improvements that would relieve traffic on the Westside and in the Valley; he touts his support from local Chambers of Commerce and presents himself as the right guy to solve local problems.

Kuehl’s background is in state government — she served 12 years in the Assembly and the Senate — and she approaches the office with the recognition that California counties are entities of the state. Where Shriver focuses on district issues, she speaks a grander language — of reducing income inequality, tending to children in foster care, bolstering health options for poor people. To Kuehl, a county as large as the state of Ohio deserves a government that thinks big.


Here’s a rarity in local politics: Both of these candidates are right. The strange hybrid that is county government requires supervisors to manage their districts while also participating in the governance of a vast entity. So Shriver is correct to emphasize the local responsibilities of a supervisor, and Kuehl is equally correct to see the opportunities and duties of a board with great reach.

Mind you, that’s not the same as saying that either is terribly original or brave. Their worldview tends to reinforce their resumes. Shriver sees county government through his particular lens because that’s the one that favors his background. Same with Kuehl.

But their pitch to voters in their initial debate does suggest how differently these two moderate to liberal Democrats would approach the job.

Kuehl would enthusiastically seek to build out the county’s rail system — “connectivity across the county,” she calls it — and strongly favors extending the county’s existing half-cent sales tax to help pay for it. Shriver favors the tax too but does so more cautiously, wary of antagonizing the more conservative Valley areas of the 3rd District.

Shriver, a lifelong advocate for the homeless, is vexed by the huge number of homeless people, particularly veterans, camped in the 3rd District. Kuehl’s concern for the homeless, no less heartfelt than Shriver’s, is less likely to be centered on the plight of those who live in the district.

Kuehl thinks Nevada was foolish to cut carmaker Tesla more than a billion dollars worth of subsidies and tax breaks to land its battery factory; Shriver thinks the deal was worth it to secure the expected 6,500 jobs.

Curiously, their personal styles are not what one might expect given their approaches to issues. Kuehl comes off as warm and earnest; at the debate, she often sat with her hands folded in her lap, never taking notes and listening quietly when Shriver fielded questions. Shriver is big and gregarious. He laughed loudly at Kuehl’s jokes — even when they were made at his expense — and often waved his hands in the air or flashed a thumbs-up when someone made a point he agreed with. In this race, the local politician has the big personality while the big-picture candidate has the smaller personal profile.

Neither, it should be added, is to be taken lightly. They are focused, on-message and experienced at sticking to the point, as the debate illustrated. Even their digs at each other underscored their strategic objectives: Shriver winked at the “posturing” of Sacramento politicians. Kuehl countered with jabs at “part-time council members who work every Tuesday.”

In the end, either of these candidates will have to be a full-service supervisor, one who tends to the district and also helps run a very big county. But their campaigns, which will include another six debates as well as community meetings and a blitz of mailers and political advertising that will soon inundate the Westside and San Fernando Valley, will give voters a genuine chance to consider what kind of leadership their district most requires — and which of these contenders is best suited to deliver it.

Twitter: @newton_jim