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DECISION '94: Spotlight on Local Elections : Child of '60s Faces Mainstream GOP in 41st Assembly District


No matter how you look at it, voters in the 41st Assembly District have a clear choice on Nov. 8: They can send Democrat Sheila James Kuehl, a child of the '60s, to Sacramento, or opt instead for Republican Michael T. Meehan, a member of Generation X.

Kuehl is unapologetically liberal, a feminist and a law professor. She gained early fame as the brainy Zelda on the television sitcom, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," and later acclaim as a nationally known expert on domestic violence.

Meehan is a mainstream, law-and-order Republican who works as a reserve sheriff's deputy. Though Meehan cannot boast of a hit sitcom, he did serve as student body president at UCLA, where Kuehl also earned her bachelor's degree.

The shared alma mater is a rare piece of common ground in their campaigns for the open seat in the sprawling 41st, which hugs the coast from the southern border of Santa Monica to the Ventura County line, pairing Westlake Village and Calabasas with Pacific Palisades and Malibu. They are joined in the race by a third candidate--Libertarian Philip W. Baron of Tarzana.

Recent records from the county Registrar-Recorder's office show 51% of 41st District voters are Democrats, 36% are Republicans, with the remaining 13% either independents or members of small parties.

Considered a swing district in which either a Republican or Democrat could win, voters two years ago supported liberal Democrat Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood) against moderate Republican Christine Reed, a former mayor of Santa Monica, who is directing Meehan's campaign. Friedman gave up the seat to run for a Los Angeles County Superior Court judgeship.

Kuehl, who steamrollered over her five male opponents in the Democratic primary, is widely considered the favorite over Meehan, who is campaigning vigorously but so far lacks the money for a single districtwide mailer.

If elected, Kuehl will be the first openly lesbian or gay member of the state Legislature, a point that does not come up on the campaign trail--nor should it, both candidates say.

"Sexual orientation is not relevant," Meehan said.

Kuehl agrees, though she has drawn much of her campaign funding from the gay and lesbian community, which provided about 40% of her primary war chest, she says.

"Being a lesbian is not a qualification for office," she said. "I'm not running as a lesbian candidate."

Kuehl does, however, think it is imperative that voters know about her sexual orientation. She has gotten the word out in news interviews.

Instead, Kuehl trumpets her accomplishments on women's issues--nearly all California legislation on spousal abuse bears her mark--as well as a slew of endorsements ranging from Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina to Sheriff Sherman Block.

While Meehan has a decidedly shorter resume, he, too, has law enforcement support, notably the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which speaks for the LAPD rank and file.

Meehan hopes to paint Kuehl as a leftist, pointing out she was quoted in a book describing herself as a "radical." Kuehl says she never made the statement, but Meehan says he would use it as the centerpiece of a campaign mailer--if only he had the money.

Even if he were to send such a mailer, it would backfire among district voters, responds Kuehl, who refers to her political stance as "progressive."

"It's amazing that people call the kinds of issues I work on 'radical,' " she said. "My ideas are not radical. . . . If you're calling me a 'lefty,' you're saying women's issues are 'lefty.' "

Kuehl opposes both Proposition 187, which would deny state services to illegal immigrants, as well as the "three-strikes" initiative aimed at repeat felons because it is not limited to violent crimes. Meehan is hoping these positions will become her Achilles' heel.

Meehan, who supports both propositions, is also trying to make an issue of Kuehl's conflicting statements on Proposition 186, the single-payer health care initiative. In one debate she spoke against it, in another in favor.

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