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Schulte Reflects on Days as Council 'Voice of Dissent' : West Hollywood: The gay activist, a councilman since the city incorporated in 1984, looks back on his 5 1/2 years of service.

April 19, 1990|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Schulte, 44-year-old gay activist, packed up 5 1/2 years worth of political memorabilia this week and returned to private life.

Among the many files, old letters, photographs and reports was a faded handwritten note that the West Hollywood city councilman had pinned up in his office. The note, received from an anonymous constituent in 1985, offered a bit of political advice: "You must give interest to those in all groups, not just homosexuals."

It was a piece of advice he cherished. "At the time, the perception was that I was just a gay councilman," he said. "That perception, I believe, has changed now. I've expanded my base of support, and I have a broad network of support in this community."

Some of that support was evident Tuesday night when Schulte and Councilwoman Helen Albert retired from the West Hollywood City Council. A number of gays, homeowners, renters and others were on hand to applaud Schulte's accomplishments. With Schulte and Albert gone, John Heilman becomes the only council member to have served on the council since the city's incorporation in 1984.

Heilman, Babette Lang and Sal Guarriello, the victors in last week's election, were sworn in Tuesday night to four-year terms, joining Paul Koretz and Mayor Abbe Land on the five-member council.

For Schulte, the change of guard provided an opportunity to reflect on his tenure on a council in which he frequently found himself the single voice of dissent on many major issues.

The seeds for his dissent were planted early. Schulte was the only member of the council to be elected without the support of the powerful Coalition for Economic Survival, the architects of the city's rent control ordinance.

Not being part of the majority contributed to his growth, he said. "I figured I could find my own constituency and support," he said. "I wasn't knee-jerk; the council tends to have a lock-step approach to things, and you were considered heretical if you challenged it. I found it important to challenge it."

First elected to the council in 1984 and reelected in 1986, Schulte's base of support has been strong among gays and lesbians and many residents who considered themselves to be at odds with the council's views on development.

Schulte is credited with helping to put together a coalition of residents who last year successfully defeated a proposal supported by the rest of the council to build a $23-million civic center in West Hollywood Park. He was also instrumental in the creation of the city's Public Safety Commission, which reviews complaints of anti-gay behavior by sheriff's deputies, and the creation of a gay and lesbian task force to reshape city policies.

Critics on the council have accused Schulte of being a negative force. "Sometimes he'll vote against something to make points when deep down inside I know he agrees with the council's position," said one council member, who asked not to be named.

"Steve is very politically motivated," said Heilman, who has frequently been at odds with Schulte. "He will vote to fund an organization because it's an organization he likes or because there are people he likes associated with it, as opposed to how the group is trying to meet the needs of the community."

Schulte brushes aside such criticism. "Anyone on the opposite side of an issue can be accused of political opportunism," he said. "What I hope that I represented was an important balance on the issues."

However, Schulte said he is troubled by the city's failure to write an anti-discrimination clause against gays in the city's contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. And he said he is bothered by the lack of economic growth on the city's east end.

He said he is also troubled that his retirement leaves only one gay council member. Schulte, Heilman and Valerie Terrigno, who are gay, formed a majority on the council when the city was incorporated. Terrigno resigned from office in 1986 after she was convicted on charges of embezzling federal funds. With Schulte gone, some in the gay and lesbian community are concerned that one council member is not enough in a city with an estimated gay and lesbian population of 35%.

Christopher Fairchild, a member of the city's Public Safety Commission, said Schulte's decision to leave the council is a big loss to the gay and lesbian community.

"It means that there is one less openly gay person on the City Council," he said. "It means less protection of gay interests. He gave the gay community a sense of participation, empowerment. The feeling that we are equal people and deserve equal rights."

Still, some say Schulte did not do enough to ensure a strong gay turnout during the last days of the campaign. Schulte-backed candidate Steve Martin lost in a close election. During the last week of the campaign, Schulte was vacationing in Hawaii.

"I think that is sour grapes," Schulte said. "That's armchair quarterbacking by those who should have been working harder last week to get Steve elected."

The city's reputation as a place with a large gay and lesbian population led to national recognition. And Schulte, who served as mayor from 1987 to 1988, was often invited to speak to groups around the country in such places as Tampa, Fla., Boston, Knoxville, Tenn., and Seattle. "The message was usually about civil rights, about gays and lesbians involved in the political process, about the gay agenda," he said.

Gay rights will remain on his agenda even though he has hung up his West Hollywood political shoes and entered the work force. He has taken a job as a paid political consultant for Dianne Feinstein's campaign for governor and for Arlo Smith's race for attorney general.

Schulte said his primary reason for deciding not to run for reelection was more financial than political. "I have to eat," he said.

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