Political Notebook: Kuehl plans return to TV, politics
by Matthew S. Bajko
Sheila Kuehl, the first out lawmaker to serve in California's legislature, had to resign her state Senate seat this year due to term limits but has no plans to retire from public view.
The former television star – Kuehl played Zelda Gilroy in the long-running 1950s TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – has been offered a role as a judge in the NBC crime drama Law and Order SVU. And the 67-year-old has her eyes on the Los Angeles County supervisor seat held by Zev Yaroslavsky, who is termed out in 2014.
"You don't get back into acting because you think you might like to. It is a difficult arena," said Kuehl, adding that the judge part would likely be a one-time appearance since the show films in New York.
Kuehl, who lives in Santa Monica, was first elected to the state Assembly in 1994, breaking through a glass ceiling for out politicians. She again made history by becoming the first woman to serve as speaker pro tempore during the 1997-98 legislative session. After three terms in the Assembly, she won election to her Senate seat in 2000 after beating back a challenger in the Democratic primary.
She championed bills that protected LGBT students, provided for paid family leave, required more nurses in hospitals, and demanded developers of large projects to pinpoint a water source in order to receive building permits.
"I really liked being an elected. I prefer being accountable to the people in my district rather than one boss," said Kuehl. "It is a much freer but more public role and one I felt very comfortable in."
While she sold her Land Park home in Old Sacramento, Kuehl will still be spending plenty of time in the capital. Her appointment to the Integrated Waste Management Board will require her to regularly fly back to Sacramento for meetings.
She scoffed at criticism that the job is merely a plum political assignment and a way for her to continue to draw a state salary. Members of the board are paid $132,178 a year.
"I was very fortunate to be appointed to the waste board. Apparently, people are saying it is a place where retiring legislators get to go. In and of itself that wouldn't be bad; they don't pay us retirement or benefits as soon as we are termed out," said Kuehl. "But the waste board is a lot of work. It is extremely challenging and means I will be in Sacramento two weeks a month."
Joining her on the board will be two other out lawmakers, former Assemblyman John Laird from Santa Cruz, who was termed out this year, and former Senator Carole Migden from San Francisco, who was defeated in her party's June primary. Migden received word last week that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had named her to a seat.
Kuehl joked, "This is lavender waste, instead of green waste."
Speaking by phone with the Bay Area Reporter Tuesday, December 9, Kuehl said she was already enjoying being able to remain in Los Angeles instead of shuttling between her district and Sacramento each week. But she also was missing the camaraderie she shared with her fellow lawmakers.
"I am happy to spend more time at home but I really miss my colleagues. It is a really small kind of intimate group of people you serve with. We know a lot about each other," said Kuehl. "I miss the friendships already; it is just like after college graduation."
Kuehl and Migden's departure leaves one lesbian lawmaker remaining in Sacramento: Senator Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego). She said the number of female lawmakers seems to be cyclical, and more lesbians would likely be elected in the next election cycle in 2010.
"When I was elected to the Assembly in 1994 there were at least six, maybe eight African American women. It went down to zero, and they were replaced by men. The same thing happened with Latinas and Asian women as well," said Kuehl.
While there may be only one woman running at a time, there are always two or three men who "feel they have come along or take a flying leap at running," noted Kuehl. "I hope to see women running for Assembly in 2010 and 2012. I am doing my very best to talk to lesbians about how important it is to be at the table."
In the meantime, Kuehl said she is confident that the LGBT community will be well represented by the two new gay assemblymen, John Perez from Los Angeles and Tom Ammiano from San Francisco.
"I am delighted John Perez is there. He is our first out person of color and that is wonderful. Tom is our first truly gay man. I love Tom so much," she said. "It is all so important for them to see the great variety in our community."
And Kuehl said she is hopeful that openly gay Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) will be able to carry forward her universal health care bill that the Legislature twice passed only to be vetoed both times by the governor.
"Mark's first year with the bill is going to be truly critical to the state and national conversation about the appropriate way to bring universal health care to California and the country," said Kuehl. "Every time you have a bill, you have the ability for people to focus on the issue."
Leno said he is honored to be championing the bill and hopes to use the same number, SB480, next year.
"She has moved the issue forward significantly," said Leno, who added he will miss working with Kuehl. "She is universally respected for her intelligence, her abilities as a legislator, and her great humanity. She is a rare individual and has been a mentor and friend to me."
Kuehl proffered some friendly advice for the new crop of state lawmakers who were sworn-in December 1.
"Pick one or two things to be very, very good at and have an opinion about everything else," said Kuehl.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check http://www.ebar.com Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column looks at what LGBT issues could come before state lawmakers next year.
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