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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : Kuehl Supporters Celebrate Assembly Victory That Bucked Conservative Trend

November 10, 1994|JON D. MARKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pine tree strung with multicolored lights marked the home of Sheila James Kuehl in Santa Monica on Tuesday night, an appropriate beacon for the rainbow coalition found inside.

Volunteers, staff workers and politicos of every hue--gay, Republican, Latino, labor, lesbian, Democrat and more--were sipping Chardonnay and Scotch and brandishing cigars to celebrate what one called "the one glimmer of hope" for right-thinking liberals on a night of conservative election victories nationwide.

Kuehl, 53, a feminist lawyer and former actress, had just won the election that will make her the first openly homosexual member of the state Legislature, trouncing Republican Michael T. Meehan for the 41st Assembly District seat by 14 percentage points.

Wearing a red blazer and a nonstop smile, she schmoozed the crowd of supporters and media like a practiced pol.

In fact, however, this was her first run at office after three previous careers: First as the brainy Zelda in the 1960s television series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," next as a college administrator, then as an attorney, law professor and co-founder of the California Women's Law Center.

In her new role, she vowed Tuesday night to continue her work on women's equity issues--nearly all of California's spousal abuse law already bears her stamp--but said she also wanted to work on education, the environment and parkland acquisition.

Her district covers much of the western Santa Monica Mountains, stretching from Encino to Westlake Village and from Santa Monica to Malibu.

Kuehl, who earned her law degree at Harvard University at age 37, said her first aim is to get on the Assembly's Judiciary Committee and work with Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) to revive the domestic partnership law vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson this year.

Despite her substantial credentials in law and public policy, her campaign mailers relentlessly, incongruously featured black-and-white photographs of her as the TV character Zelda--a tactic she partly credited for her victory.

"People loved her!" said Kuehl, contending polls showed 76% of the district's voters had seen "Dobie Gillis" and liked her character--a quick-witted fast-talker determined to snare the hero.

"They saw her as someone smart and someone they liked. They had to reassess their negative feelings toward me as a gay person. It jammed their homophobic radar."

Kuehl's election cheered the gay and lesbian community. Said real estate investor and lesbian activist Gwen Baba: "The Republicans can try to turn back the clock, but they can't tell us we can't run for office. Now we know we can run and we can win."

Paris Poirier, who worked phone banks for Kuehl, said that many voters' stereotyped image of lesbians worked in the candidate's favor. "People said they thought she was a roll-up-your-sleeves kinda gal," said Poirier. "It was like they figured, if she's lesbian, she must be hard-working."

Kuehl raised nearly $500,000 from almost 5,000 individuals, according to her campaign manager, a remarkable total for a first-timer. She also collected endorsements from many law enforcement leaders, including Republican Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, and from a broad range of Southland politicians.

Among the donors was Assistant U.S. Atty. Lee Michaelson, a lesbian who said she was almost barred from her current post because of her sexual orientation. Kuehl impressed her with one phone call. "Most candidates ask for money, but Sheila asked for my ideas too," Michaelson said.

John A. Perez, a Burbank-based trade-union organizer, said the importance of her victory would come in humanizing gay issues in the Assembly.

"They can no longer gay-bash in the Legislature," Perez said. "From now on, there will be a face to our community when they talk about our issues on the floor."

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