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The Unsinkable Roz Wyman

She's Been a Power Player in Democratic Politics for 50 Years. And Nothing--No Lincoln Bedroom, No Soft Money, Not Even Monica--Can Get Her Down.

August 13, 2000|DAVE LESHER | Dave Lesher is an Assistant Political Editor on the National Desk

I'm trying to get Roz Wyman to crack, to join the rest of us in our rant about a political system that has run amok.

* What about the Buddhist temple? I ask. And soft money and impeachment and independent counsels and PACs and the Lincoln Bedroom? I could keep going, but this isn't making a dent. * What about Social Security, she counters. And what about Medicare? What about my senator--Dianne Feinstein? "Do you want a hero? Feinstein pushed through an assault weapons ban when it was going nowhere; she got the desert [protection] bill that will leave all of that land for my grandchildren. And the breast cancer stamp, for God's sake. For the first time in history a U.S. postage stamp has gone for research. You don't think I feel a little piece of being proud of that? I do . . . I do."

Wyman has the voice of a performer and her hands--waving, chopping, pounding at the air--are part of the show. She's been sitting back on the living room couch in her Bel-Air home. But now she's moved to the edge of her seat, and when I glance down, she taps my knee for attention. She's passionate, her friends confirm, and then they smile as if there must be a better word for a senior citizen who is pulling late nights at Feinstein's campaign headquarters just as she did for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her race against Richard M. Nixon in 1950.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 10, 2000 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Unsinkable Roz Wyman" (by Dave Lesher, Aug. 13) incorrectly stated that in 1953 Wyman became the first woman elected to the Los Angeles City Council. Journalist Estelle Lawton Lindsey won a City Council seat in 1915.

Actually, what Wyman's passion needs is an adjective: boundless, perhaps, or bulletproof; maybe legendary. She made Los Angeles history nearly 50 years ago when, at 22, she became the first woman ever elected to the City Council. Then, pregnant with her first child, she led a cliffhanger vote in 1957 that brought the Brooklyn Dodgers to Chavez Ravine. "What this lady did for baseball in this city, they should erect a monument to her," says Tommy Lasorda. That was back when there wasn't even a women's bathroom in the council chambers and official city meetings were regularly held over drinks at the Jonathan Club, which was off limits on two counts for a Jewish woman.

Surely, having invested so much of her life in public service, she should be outraged that politics these days seems to be money, money, money. So I try again. And I suggest a scenario aimed at her soft spot as an old-style, New Deal liberal. Doesn't mental health suffer when it has to fight for attention against a Goliath like Big Oil?

"Sure mental health is going to have fewer advocates," she shoots back. But she also warns that too many Americans sell their politicians short. "Well over the majority of them are there to serve," she says. And, she insists, they will listen to mental health advocates because it's the right thing to do. "You just don't go into public life without wanting to serve. And most people don't come out rich."

The mental health vs. Big Oil scenario does resonate, though. Wyman has seen both sides--the powerful special interests and the grass-roots crusaders. She is a renowned fund-raiser who's had more access to Democratic presidents than any oil company could hope for. Back in the '70s, she set a national record for the biggest cash haul at a single event. A grateful Democratic Party named her president of its 1984 national convention in San Francisco, the first woman ever put in charge of such an event. But when Wyman fights for a cause, it's usually one that has "fewer advocates," as she puts it. Judging by the 18 boards on which she serves, most of her battles are for the poor, the disabled, women and the arts.

"The system is not perfect," Wyman concedes. "It is way off from being perfect. But at least 51% of the time it is right. . . . And [politicians], even the ones I work so hard against, are basically there to do a good job. If I lost that belief, whoa. That would really be horrible."

*

ROSALIND WIENER WYMAN IS ONE OF THE LAST TRUE BELIEVERS. And after what she has seen--from the days when money was secret and newspapers were partisan, to the crackdown of the Watergate reforms and the gaping loopholes today--that is strong testimony.

This fall, a few weeks before Election Day, she'll turn 70. And she still lives life just as she drives her white American-made sedan--pedal to the floor and grumbling about people in her way. "Come on, lady, have some guts, have some guts," Wyman barks to a compact that's attempting a rush-hour merge onto a busy street. Wyman has lived in four homes her entire life, all of them in West Los Angeles. She knows these streets well, and to avoid three minutes of stalled traffic, she will swerve onto side roads in search of a clear patch. Finally, on the way to her front-row Dodger seats, she blows past a warning sign: "No Stadium Access." "I don't sit still very well," she explains.

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