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Trend Breaker : Assembly: Sheila James Kuehl celebrates what one supporter calls a 'glimmer of hope' for liberals on a night of conservative wins.

November 13, 1994|JON D. MARKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

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

Kuehl, a feminist lawyer and former actress, had just won the election that will make her the first openly gay member of the state Legislature. She trounced 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 the 53-year-old assemblywoman-elect's first run at office after three previous careers: first as a TV actress (she was the brainy Zelda Gilroy in the 1960s series "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"), then as a college administrator, attorney, law professor and co-founder of the California Women's Law Center.

In her new role, she vowed to continue her work on women's equity issues--nearly all of California's spousal abuse laws already bear 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 was 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. Wilson this year, even though she believes it may be doomed to another Wilson veto.

Despite her substantial credentials in law and public policy, her campaign mailers played up, with photographs, her role as 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 hapless 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 images 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. She also collected endorsements from many law-enforcement leaders, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, a Republican, 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," said Michaelson.

One idea: that Kuehl supplement her advocacy of women's issues with gender-related issues in health care, housing and employment. Michaelson said that lesbians have been turned away from battered-women shelters, and that same-sex couples had trouble with insurance companies after the Northridge earthquake because few firms allow gays to share a homeowners' policy.

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," said Perez. "From now on, there will be a face to our community when they talk about our issues on the floor."

As the party wound down around midnight, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg rushed into the house to give Kuehl a hug. Asked how the new assemblywoman will advance the gay agenda, Goldberg countered: "The gay agenda is a figment of the radical right's imagination. The only thing gays do is remind people that we don't have rights under the law. There's no agenda other than equality, and that's the message that Sheila will take to Sacramento."

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