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California Elections : Kuehl Clinging to Narrow Lead : Assembly: Republican Michael T. Meehan is running a close race with the feminist lawyer in the 41st District.


Feminist lawyer and former actress Sheila James Kuehl held a sliver-thin lead Tuesday in a contest for the state Legislature, where she would be the first openly lesbian or gay member.

Early returns showed Kuehl, a liberal Democrat, barely ahead of law student and reserve Sheriff's Deputy Michael T. Meehan, the Republican candidate in the contest to represent the 41st Assembly District.

The district stretches along the coast from Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades to the Ventura County line, covering the Santa Monica Mountains and stretching into the southwesternmost corner of the San Fernando Valley, including Westlake Village, Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Woodland Hills, Tarzana and Encino.

Kuehl--who played the brainy Zelda in the 1960s TV series, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"--defeated five opponents in the June primary and was widely considered the favorite over Meehan. Both are Santa Monica residents.

A third candidate, Libertarian Philip W. Baron of Tarzana, was also in the race.

Two years ago, the district's voters supported liberal Democrat Terry B. Friedman (D-Brentwood) against moderate Republican Christine Reed, a former mayor of Santa Monica who managed Meehan's campaign this year. Friedman gave up the seat to run for a Los Angeles County Superior Court judgeship.

Kuehl is staunchly liberal, a feminist and a law professor who, after graduating from Harvard Law School at age 37, became a women's rights attorney and nationally recognized authority on domestic violence.

She obtained a bachelor's degree from UCLA and later served as associate dean of students there during the turbulent early 1970s. It was after graduating from law school that she embraced what became her life's work: trying to improve women's lot in the legal system.

In 1989, she co-founded the California Women's Law Center, a nonprofit group she left last year.

During the campaign, she was an outspoken opponent of Proposition 187, the measure to deny state services to illegal immigrants. She also opposed the "three strikes" initiative aimed at repeat felons because it was not limited to violent crimes.

Meehan, a mainstream, law-and-order Republican, supported both propositions.

He sought to make an issue of Kuehl's conflicting statements on Proposition 186, the single-payer health care initiative, after she spoke against it in one debate and in favor during another.

Meehan, a former student body president at UCLA, sought to portray Kuehl as too liberal for a district that includes such suburban enclaves as Calabasas and Hidden Hills.

But unlike Kuehl, 53, the 28-year-old Meehan had trouble raising funds, conducting his campaign without significant help from the state's GOP heavyweights.

Kuehl had a seasoned political consultant in Parke Skelton and a campaign fund that exceeded $400,000 as the campaign entered the final two weeks, compared to Meehan's $40,000. In addition, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district by 51% to 36%.

Kuehl emphasized 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.

A brochure extolling her expertise on the issue of abused women, however, brought Kuehl criticism in the final days of the campaign.

Meehan accused her of exploiting the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson for political gain after the brochure, mailed to voters last week, carried a color reprint of a Newsweek cover photo showing Nicole Simpson, with a smiling O.J. Simpson at her side. The brochure touted Kuehl as leading the fight against domestic violence.

Kuehl said the point of the mailer was that helping battered women has been her life's work. Meehan criticized it as being in poor taste.

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