Is Sheila Kuehl or Bobby Shriver Less Bad at Handling $26 Billion?

Is Sheila Kuehl or Bobby Shriver Less Bad at Handling $26 Billion?
Illustration by Fred Noland

Sheila Kuehl and Bobby Shriver don't seem to like each other much.

The two candidates vying to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the powerful L.A. County Board of Supervisors appeared on KCRW's Which Way L.A.? broadcast last week. Reporters were allowed to remotely listen in to the recording session. Before the broadcast began, Kuehl, her mic already turned on, could be heard bickering at Shriver:

"No wonder your initials are B.S." she said to Shriver, whose response could not be heard. "You're a younger brother, aren't you?"

The candidates' styles could not be more different. Both are charming in their own way. The 73-year-old Kuehl is Zev-esque in her blunt, brusque demeanor, her prickliness and her irritability. One might say she doesn't suffer fools; one might also say she feels a sense of entitlement, as if she deserves the job and Shriver doesn't.

The 60-year-old Shriver exudes buoyancy and boyishness. He can appear excitable, almost manic at times. Where Kuehl is detail-oriented, Shriver is big-picture. Kuehl speaks of the enormity of the job of managing the county's gargantuan $26 billion budget. Shriver speaks of bringing in new blood and new ideas.

Kuehl has dismissed Shriver as a lightweight. "Sheila called me an amateur," Shriver says, sounding almost wounded. "She said ... that I was an entry-level person. I'm really not an entry-level person at all. I've worked with George Bush. I've done a lot of stuff."

Indeed, Shriver has done a lot of stuff. The eldest son of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy (sister of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy), he began as a journalist, then went to law school. He later moved into finance, working at a venture capital firm. From there it was on to entertainment — he produced an ABC prime-time special on the Special Olympics (which his mother founded) and later produced the 1994 box office hit True Lies, starring his then–brother-in-law and future governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Shriver says he decided to run for Santa Monica City Council in 2008, after the city informed him he had to trim his hedges under a Santa Monica law.

That led Kuehl to quip, on Which Way L.A.?: "I ran for office because I wanted there to be more justice and more fairness in the world. But he ran for office because the city of Santa Monica told him he had to cut his hedges."

As a city councilman, Shriver was known as more of an agitator than a collaborator, good at calling attention to problems but not necessarily finding solutions. That's in contrast to Kuehl, a successful Sacramento legislator.

Kuehl came to politics via Hollywood, too. She was a child actress in the 1950s, playing Zelda Gilroy on the TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Toward the end of the show's run, she attended UCLA, where she wanted to run for class president — except back then the school didn't let women to run for that job. So she ran the UCLA campaign of Joel Wachs, who would later become a Los Angeles city councilman, while she ran for vice president. Her slogan: "Get cool with Kuehl."

In 1994, she became the first openly gay member of the state legislature; she later was chosen by the assembly leader to be second-in-command as its first female Speaker pro tempore.

The foundation of Kuehl's political base during her 14 years in Sacramento was built on women's and environmental groups. In this election, she has added a third and far more monied group: the big government-employee unions.

She's quick to say she's never been endorsed by public employee unions before. But now they are spending close to $1 million to see her elected.

That has led some to worry — much as they worried about L.A. mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel and her DWP-union backing — that Kuehl would be a tool of wealthy unions who represent L.A. County's system of 101,000 public employees, enough workers to be a city unto itself.

"The county board is very fiscally responsible," says Ruben Gonzalez, vice president of public policy at the L.A. Chamber of Commerce. "They haven't given away the store to public employee unions. We firmly believe that Sheila Kuehl would change the course on that."

After the early-1990s recession, when L.A. County faced bankruptcy and had to get a bailout from President Bill Clinton, the Democrat-majority Board of Supervisors became impressively good with the public's money. While the L.A. City Council handed city workers big raises on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007, the county board held the line. At the depth of the recession, L.A. County was among very few governments in California to not lay off or furlough a single worker.

It didn't need to. That's due in large measure to supervisors Gloria Molina and Yaroslavsky — a self-described "liberal who pays his bills" — two Democrats who stayed independent from the government labor unions and held the line on employee spending.

Gonzalez worries that's all about to change.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is pro-union — unions spent $8 million to get him elected in 2008 over budget-watching City Councilman Bernard Parks. Molina soon will be replaced by Hilda Solis, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor and a union ally. If Yaroslavsky is replaced by somebody who votes the labor agenda, the board will have a majority far less devoted to fiscal prudence.

Kuehl claims labor's money in her campaign doesn't mean it has bought her vote, and anyway, it's not like union spending on her has reached Ridley-Thomas levels, at least not yet.

But Kuehl has done some things and said some things to make some wonder just how firm she'd be.

In 1999 in Sacramento, she voted with Democrats to pass SB 400, a now-infamous pension hike that allowed CHP officers to retire by age 50 and be paid up to 90 percent of their salary for life. The generous formula broke a psychological dam, spawning laws across California that handed billions in new benefits, early retirements and higher salaries to all sorts of public employees.

It's not so much that Kuehl has a history of doing what these unions want. It's more her New Deal–style ideology, which believes in the power of government employment for the sake of workers. At a UCLA debate, she said Nevada was "a fool" to offer a $1 billion tax break to Tesla to woo its new battery plant there. The Nevada legislature, she said, would have better spent the money hiring 6,500 more government workers.

"I think a public-sector job is better than a private-sector job these days," she tells L.A. Weekly. "I have always thought the public sector was a very good and vibrant place for people to earn money. So it seems like a win-win to me."

"Her answer for everything is more government," Gonzalez says, aghast.

"It's a huge financial commitment," Shriver says. "Once you've hired [thousands of new government workers] under the current system, you have very significant financial obligations."

At the same time, a number of private-employer unions are supporting Shriver (longshoremen, ironworkers), and plenty of business groups endorsed Kuehl, such as the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Outgoing L.A. County CEO Bill Fujioka, who has never endorsed a candidate, said in a statement, "I trust Sheila Kuehl to be a powerful and effective voice for sound fiscal and budgetary practices."

Nevertheless, Shriver is the "business" candidate. In truth, he's a rich guy who has many rich friends, who funded an independent expenditure campaign on his behalf. Bill Clinton's former secretary of commerce, Mickey Kantor, founded a law firm with Sargent Shriver and now is running the independent campaign for Bobby Shriver. Its contributors include Warren Buffett, Richard Riordan and Jimmy Iovine, who produced a string of Christmas albums with Shriver to benefit the Special Olympics.

Shriver is the de facto candidate for anyone worried that organized labor is about to gain control of the Board of Supervisors, in much the same way labor already controls the 15-member L.A. City Council.

Kuehl, on the other hand, is strongly backed by the Democratic Party establishment, with its local county committee voting nearly 90 percent to endorse her.

That, along with her name recognition, makes her the favorite.

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