Interview with Sheila Kuehl | Politics | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Interview with Sheila Kuehl 

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WEEKLY: As you look back on five years in the legislature, what are your greatest hits, what are your frustrations? What did you learn?

KUEHL: Well, for most of my adult life, and certainly for the five years that I’ve been in the Legislature, I’ve really been a fighter for the underdog or people who don’t speak for themselves, or can’t. People who don’t have the power, really, to get something done. I’ve felt they were one of my main constituencies. And I’ve taken on a number of very powerful interests. I took on the DAs to overhaul the child support enforcement system in the state. For 25 years, no one had been able to really take hold of it and turn it inside out and I did this past year. I took on the hospitals and got a very difficult bill through -- to establish nurse to patient staffing ratios, every floor, every hospital, and every service on every shift. I also took on the insurance companies in doing the HMO reform bills. And beyond even the bill that I was co-authoring with Liz Figueroa, which allows you to sue your HMO for harm if caused by their delay or denial of care. [Assemblyman] Antonio Villaraigosa also chose me and [Assemblyman] Marty Gallegos, as the Chair of Health, to be the two people to negotiate the entire HMO reform package with the Governor. So we got the inclusion of contraception, the inclusion of mental health parity, the inclusion of services and equipment for diabetics mandated on the HMOs. We got a very widespread independent external review procedure in place. We got a whole new department set up, the Department of Managed Care.

This year, I’m taking on the banks and I’ve put in a bill to prohibit the banks from selling your personal information or giving it away, even to their own subsidiaries. Because, as you know, the new federal law allows them to have subsidiary brokerages and insurance companies, and my bill would say, you need an affirmative consent from the consumer before you can give that personal information to anybody, and certainly, before you can sell it. Each time you do it, you have to inform the consumer that you’re doing it to whom, for what purpose, which information. And I have another bill to bar mandatory arbitration clauses in health care contracts, which says you can sue your HMOs.

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I’ve had 55 bills signed into law. I don’t want to bore you with all of them, but they’re all on my web site. I’m very proud of the bill that it took me three different sessions to get through to protect students in public schools all the way up through the universities from discrimination and harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. And the thank you letters that I’ve gotten have been almost entirely from parents of straight students. Kids were getting beat up because the boy wanted to play the violin or the girl wanted to play basketball, and other kids were calling them "faggots" and beating them up, and they’re not. So we’ve got some very important language in there about "actual" or "perceived" so they wouldn’t end with some anomalous result that the court would say, "Well, they’re not really gay so it didn’t break the law."

WEEKLY: Okay. In your six years in the Assembly, what have you learned?

KUEHL: It takes a majority to pass a bill. There’s a difference between Democrats and Republicans -- not always across the board in every single way -- but the Republican leadership that was in charge of my first term had a very, very different agenda. And so I made myself a promise, and other people, that I would work very, very hard in ‘96 to win back the State Assembly to what I called a "human-friendly majority." And we did and I became speaker pro-tem in ‘97. And that was an important lesson to me, because it taught me that you have to participate. You have to take leadership. You have to volunteer to do the work of crafting whatever we’re going to call the Democratic agenda. You have to go to meetings early in the morning and late at night -- very much the way we have in every movement that I’ve participated in— in order to have a strategy. If you do, you can win. But not always just because you’ve got one party or another. The gay student bill was a very difficult bill. The nurse-to-patient-ratio bill was very difficult. I only got 41 votes for each of them.

And what I also learned is that every person has an opinion that must be respected. And that if you want to get people to understand your issue or vote for a bill, you need to meet them where they are. You need to respect their point of view and try to move them off the dime. And, I think, I got actually very good at that. And that is somewhat of a difference, I think, because when the California Journal did a survey in ‘98 of all the legislators, all the legislative staff for the state in Sacramento, and lobbyists and asked them to rank legislators in various categories, they chose me as the most intelligent, but also the member with the most integrity. And I think that’s because I learned that the truth is very useful. Just tell the truth. You know, if you have a good reputation, even when people disagree with you, they will respect that you’re telling them the truth, that you’re not leading them on or bullshitting them, and that’s a very good lesson. The best lesson was, it works. The stuff that your mother tells you to do, it works.

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