SUSAN CLOKE, Mirror Contributing Writer
You may have seen the 1964 red Porsche Cabriolet 356C being driven around Santa Monica by a short-haired woman with an impish smile. Originally bought when she was Zelda on the Dobie Gillis Show, it now has 523,000 miles on it. If you’ve seen the car, you’ve seen Sheila James Kuehl.
Many of you know her as the Assembly Member and State Senator representing Santa Monica. “Being in the legislature was the best job I ever had. It was an opportunity to do big, overarching change in family law, domestic law, and environmental law. The canvas is so huge. The sheer variety of the issues is compelling.”
When she was in the Senate, Kuehl twice introduced a bill for single payer health insurance, once in 2006 and again in 2008. Each time the bill passed out of both houses of the California Legislature. Each time Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.
“We moved the concept of single payer insurance from a pie-in-the-sky idea to a credible, well drafted, fully developed, serious concept. And our work has had an effect on other states. Now California needs a governor who will sign a single payer health insurance bill.”
When asked about working with Governor Schwarzenegger, Kuehl said, “He is an irresponsible governor because he doesn’t understand the virtue of the law. His administration is chaotic. And, unlike the Wilson or Davis administrations, his staff doesn’t work with legislators to resolve differences in bills.”
Kuehl’s path to acting and politics started when her family moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Kuehl was two. By the age of eight she was taking lessons in drama and tap dancing. The instructor told Kuehl’s parents that their child was talented and asked if Kuehl could read for a part on the Penny Williams radio show. That was the beginning of Kuehl the actor. She loved acting and she loved school.
Acting gave her confidence. She went to public school and she had a teacher on the set. She worked 16-17 weeks out of the year, earning $275 per week. Encouraged by her teacher at the studio, Kuehl enrolled at UCLA in 1957 with a major in Theater Arts, the first in her family to go to college.
She became famous playing Zelda on the Dobie Gillis Show. That job ended and the pilot for a show written especially for Kuehl wasn’t picked up. “I worried that my acting career was over and I was devastated. It was the lowest point in my life. Since I was 8 all I had ever wanted was to be an actress.” The gossip in Hollywood was that the network executives thought Kuehl seemed ‘too gay.’
“ I was in my late twenties and, like most humans, I didn’t know much about myself then. My sexuality was confusing to me and my political ideas unformed.” Needing work, she took a job at UCLA, at the height of the student movement, advising student organizations and said she felt “it kind of saved my life.” Her students advised her to go to law school. She started Harvard Law in 1975.
“Harvard was a revelation to me. It was the best intellectual training of my life. I became a disciplined thinker, thinking clearly and creatively. Justice is an exciting endeavor.”
Thurgood Marshall was the Presiding Judge at the Harvard Moot Court when Kuehl was awarded ‘Best Oralist’ and Justice Marshall came off the bench and said to her, “Lady, I like your style.”
Also, at Harvard, she had a relationship with another law student who was openly lesbian. It was because of that relationship that Kuehl felt “she was able to come out, slowly, to family and friends, one at a time.”
She returned to L.A. and a series of jobs in law firms working on family law, domestic violence, and other legal issues where she could combine her love of the law and her commitment to social justice. But it was the California Women’s Law Center, which Kuehl co-founded, whose purpose was to develop feminist theory and apply it to the law, that gave her a place to use all her legal and organizing skills working with local, state, and national organizations on shaping laws regarding domestic violence.
Kuehl and her then partner, Torie Osborn, lived on Pearl Street, where she still lives. She volunteered for the Sojourn Shelter for Battered Women. In 1979 she was asked to form the Sojourn Board, which she chaired for 15 years.
“Late January1994 Assemblyman Terry Friedman announced he wouldn’t run again. Filing date was two weeks away, on February 9. Folks were encouraging. Feb 9 is my birthday. I decided it was a good omen.”
Kuehl served for six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. “Because I had a safe seat, I raised money for other Democratic candidates. The most fun was when I wrote the lyrics for a “Wizard of Oz” fundraiser. Even the Los Angles Times pronounced it ‘very clever’ and we raised lots of money.”
“My plan for the far future is to run for Zev’s seat when he is termed out in 2014. Right now, I’m looking for my next job. But I will always be committed to the issues of social justice.”
Contact Susan Cloke