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Profiles in Power : Can Jackie Goldberg Teach L.A. a Lesson? : Experiencing One of the Hottest Political Debuts in City History, the Councilwoman is Calling for an Urban Vision That's Defiantly Liberal

March 05, 1995|JAMES RAINEY | James Rainey is a Times staff writer who covered Los Angeles City Hall for four years.

"She had camouflaged herself so well, in a sense she gave us respectability," says fellow Free Speech Movement leader Michael Rossman. "She managed to retain her integrity while working in the heart of the system."

The greatest misconception of that romanticized era, Goldberg says, is that the rebellious students were alienated and cynical. "We were the exact opposite of that," Goldberg once told an interviewer. "We were willing to take risks . . . because we were so tied into the system and we felt it was worth the risk to change it."

If in college she was the radical who was not radical enough, in her later political life she would become the lesbian who was not out enough. As Goldberg prepared to run for the City Council in 1993, it was not the religious right who objected to her candidacy. It was two gay men who planned to run against her who suggested in gay political circles that Goldberg had not been forthcoming about her sexual orientation.

The dispute created a storm in Los Angeles' close-knit gay and lesbian political world, as Goldberg balked at publicly identifying herself as a lesbian. She had promised her son, Brian, a senior in high school, that she would not raise the issue until he graduated. Brian, now 20, has been a focus of Goldberg's life since 1975, when she flew to Florida to adopt him. She had vowed that her political life would not become his burden. But when the political pressure from gay activists increased, Brian gave his blessing.

Goldberg then told the press what had long been an open secret--that she and Sharon Stricker had been lovers for more than a decade. While pleased that the world knows about the woman she loves, she is still disturbed that she wasn't allowed to approach the issue in her own time. She sees a culture all too intent on cataloguing its citizens. "I personally think most human beings, not all, are bisexual," says Goldberg, acknowledging that many people would be disturbed by her theory. "Culture makes it impossible for most of us to look at more than one (sexual orientation) or another."

Goldberg and Stricker were teachers nearly 20 years ago when they met in the campaign to integrate Los Angeles' schools. For the past 15 years, they have shared an airy, hilltop home in Echo Park. Everyone who knows them agrees that Stricker, a poet, writing teacher and sometime performance artist, has brought balance to Goldberg's life. Now the two women often finish each other's sentences, or communicate without speaking at all. And since the inauguration, when the two walked down the steps of City Hall hand in hand, she has played an integral role in Goldberg's public life. "They complement each other so well," says Rose Goldberg, 84, who had worried her daughter might never find love. "Sharon has been the other half of her."

Although most people identify Goldberg with the '60s, she says she was never tempted by the counterculture. "I wanted to be involved," she says. "I wanted to be a teacher, like my mother." For nearly 25 years she was one, first in suburban Chicago and then in the Compton high schools, where she was acclaimed for creating a program that taught students how to read during every class period, not just during their one hour of English. But classroom reform didn't go far enough for Goldberg and a close circle of friends in Echo Park, many of them veterans of 1960s activism and the school desegregation battles of the 1970s.

This left-wing cadre mustered enough votes in 1983 to push the little-known teacher onto what had long been a centrist Board of Education. Her first years on the board, unlike her fast start on the City Council, were rocky. She eventually launched initiatives that boosted the pay for bilingual teachers, restored sixth period in high schools, and opened campus health clinics that offer condoms and AIDS counseling. Her tenure, though, was marked by endless rounds of budget cuts--reducing the number of nurses, counselors, music instructors and playground directors--that left her dispirited and exhausted.

But critics say that a more important, and disturbing, legacy comes from Goldberg's support for a three-year, 24% pay raise for teachers. She argued that the money was needed to settle a strike and to hire more teachers, but state legislators never came through with the financing. The raises are still widely viewed as deepening the school district's financial crisis. "It was a lack of understanding of the fiscal element," a former school official says of Goldberg. "You don't spend bucks that aren't in the till. It's irresponsible."

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