Iconic Los Angeles politician Sheila Kuehl has been working for 73 years.

At age 81, the diminutive but outspoken Third District Supervisor Kuehl says it’s about time she adds free time to her lengthy resume. So she’s retiring.

“I started work when I was 8 years old as an actor. I’ve been working for 73 years. I think I’ve had enough of work life,” she said during an interview on Wednesday, Nov. 23. She retires on Dec. 5 from her job as one of five members of the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

  • Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger looks towards Supervisor Sheila...

    Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger looks towards Supervisor Sheila Kuehl during Kuehl’s last Board of Supervisors meeting as she retires on Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Los Angeles County Department heads attend Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s last...

    Los Angeles County Department heads attend Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s last Board of Supervisors meeting as she retires on Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl hugs her replacement Supervisor-elect...

    Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl hugs her replacement Supervisor-elect Lindsey Horvath during Kuehl’s last Board of Supervisors meeting as she retires on Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • A video plays during Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s...

    A video plays during Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl’s last Board of Supervisors meeting as she retires on Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger hugs Supervisor Sheila Kuehl...

    Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger hugs Supervisor Sheila Kuehl during Kuehl’s last Board of Supervisors meeting as she retires on Tuesday, November 22, 2022 with Supervisor Holly Mitchell, chair of the board, on right. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis gives Supervisor Sheila Kuehl...

    Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis gives Supervisor Sheila Kuehl a memory book during Kuehl’s last Board of Supervisors meeting as she retires on Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

She got her start playing the character Zelda Gilroy on the 1959 hit TV show, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.” As an adult, she wrote her own scripts, so to speak, during her eight years in the California state Senate and six years in the state Assembly, where she authored 171 bills that were signed into law. She was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.

Her colleague, Second District Supervisor Janice Hahn, called her “the smartest person in the room.” Hahn, who comes from a political family (her father Kenneth Hahn also served on the county board), remembers being grilled by Kuehl over motions Hahn was introducing.

During Sunday night phone calls from Kuehl, who graduated in 1978 from Harvard Law School, and later taught law at UCLA, USC and Loyola schools of law, Hahn kept her staff on the other line to counter Kuehl’s line-by-line probing. “You read everything and that held us all accountable for what we were proposing,” she said during Kuehl’s last Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 22.

First District Supervisor Hilda Solis, who has known Kuehl for more than 20 years, was emotional during farewell remarks at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. “I’m not a cry baby, but for certain people, and certain causes, yes, tears are flowing,” Solis said.

Supervisor Hahn said Kuehl, who was the first openly gay politician to run and win state office, would wear a bulletproof vest to the California State Capitol. “You led with a boldness and a fearlessness,” Hahn said.

Kuehl said she got hate mail and death threats, but overcame opposition by being open about her sexuality. “By being who you are, you gain a reputation of being honest and courageous,” she said during the board meeting.

Added Solis, as she turned to her on the dais, “You are not afraid to fight. To me, you are a profile in courage,” a reference to the John F. Kennedy Profile In Courage Award that Solis won in 2000 as a state senator.

In the state Senate and Assembly Kuehl drafted legislation, and more recently championed similar issues on the board, aimed at helping victims of domestic violence, aiding foster youth and helping create the county’s “Care First, Jails Last” policy. The policy is aimed at reforming the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and moving toward de-populating and eventually closing Men’s Central Jail by funding mental health care and alternatives to incarceration. She often took on L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in the process.

Those battles were fought by a short, lesbian woman who’d bring a box to press conferences to stand on but drove a powerful sports car, a car that echoed the spark and get-up-and-go of its owner. But now, as she eases into retirement, she may be letting go of those intense battles and returning to the creative side of herself.

She wants to play guitar again, write poetry, and visit old friends in Northern California and relatives in St. Louis. She will travel to Scandinavia in August to see parts of the world she’s never seen because, well, she was too busy working, she said.

“I think Zelda would be proud of me,” she said looking back on her long career. “She fearlessly tried anything that came along, like driving race cars. She had enormous confidence,” Kuehl said.

A progressive turn

Kuehl won’t take credit for leading the progressive approach the Board of Supervisors has taken in recent years. She points to First District Supervisor Hilda Solis and Second District Supervisor Holly Mitchell as leaders in the shift to the left, calling herself “a happy participant.”

“The Board of Supervisors did change while I was there, to a more progressive approach. You can see it in decisions made in criminal justice, both at the adult level and juvenile level. The five of us don’t want people to go to jail if there is an alternative,” Kuehl said in an interview.

Kuehl helped place Measure A on the Nov. 8 ballot, which was approved by 71% of voters. It gives the supervisors the power to remove an elected sheriff for specific wrongdoing such as blocking investigations into the department or violating laws.

She said Sheriff Villanueva’s widely reported raid on her house after he alleged a conflict of interest in a contract between LA Metro and a group battling domestic violence with which Kuehl was involved, would not qualify as a deciding factor for removal of a sheriff under Measure A. That investigation, which many including Kuehl called a political attack, was stripped from the Sheriff’s Department and taken over by the state Attorney General’s Office, which has not moved ahead on the probe.

“What is much more serious is his (Villanueva’s) failure to train his department about confrontation, resulting in every other week we are paying out $50 million (in court settlements),” she said. “Plus his failure to do anything about deputy gangs.”

Villanueva, who denied that deputy gangs existed in his department, lost his Nov. 8 bid for re-election to retired Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, who takes office Dec. 5.

Many credit Kuehl for greening the board. She pushed for the establishment of an Office of Sustainability and lobbied hard for Measure W, a voter-approved parcel tax to build more storm-water recycling to capture treated water for reuse that would otherwise go to the ocean.

“I see the movement toward progressive values continuing,” she said.

Redistricting

The Third District changed after redistricting. Iconic L.A. city venues, including the Hollywood Bowl, the Ford Theaters and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) were moved out of the Third, and its eastern boundaries crept more into the San Fernando Valley.

Kuehl supported West Hollywood City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath, who won the Nov. 8 race to take her place, over longtime Valley legislator state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. Kuehl said she originally thought redistricting gave Hertzberg an advantage.

“They misjudged the Valley. It is not the same Valley as it was 15 years ago,” she added. She said the Valley had changed, possibly becoming more progressive.

“Lindsey is far more progressive than Hertzberg. So I do think it is a continuing trend,” Kuehl said.

Horvath, 40, in a surprise appearance at the recent board meeting, described her predecessor as “knowledgeable,” “heart-centered” and “fearless.”

Parting ways

Kuehl says she’s leaving her efforts to combat homelessness undone. She said the board “has only made a dent” in the intractable problem. And she wants them to continue make inroads on environmental projects, such as water conservation and recycling.

When comparing a state lawmaker to a county supervisor, she put it this way: “In the legislature, you can make a law and walk away. That is just not the case here. We can make a policy, but we can’t walk away,”

As to those who criticized her for dressing down opponents by speaking bluntly, she said it’s how it is done that matters.

“I don’t understand people who don’t say what they think,” she said. Then added, “You also have to think about the consequences of what you say.”

However, Kuehl said she doesn’t leave office with bad taste in her mouth for politics and governing, as long as she avoids the national politics of the Republican Party, she said, coyly.

“I don’t have any cynicism, really,” she said. “I leave office with a lot of pride and satisfaction.”

California

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