Ed Edelman, 85, retired supervisor and LA councilman

ed-edelman-cello-grab.jpgEdelman plays the cello in "The Passions and Politics of Ed Edelman," a 2013 PBS SoCal documentary.

Retired Los Angeles County Supervisor Edmund Edelman died Monday at the age of 85. He had been incapacitated by Atypical Parkinsonism, a neurodegenerative brain disorder that gradually impairs mobility and muscle function, after a lengthy career in public service.

He was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1965, defeating Rosalind Wyman to become, at 34, the youngest council member at the time. He won reelection twice in the Westside's 5th district. In 1974 Edelman was elected to the Board of Supervisors, defeating another City Council member, John Ferraro, and succeeding Ernest Debs on the board. He remained on the board until 1994, when he was succeeded by Zev Yaroslavsky, who also had followed Edelman to the City Council.

"Los Angeles has lost a true giant of a public servant," Yaroslavsky said in a statement tonight. "Few persons had as profound an impact on the history of our city and county as Ed. His contributions to child welfare, transportation, mental health services and the arts are second to none in our region."

Edelman was a liberal who took on homelessness, public transportation, public health services and parks. He led the push to establish the county Department of Children and Family Services, to protect abused and neglected children, and the children’s dependency court in Monterey Park bears his name. So does a county mental health center in West LA. Edelman was an outspoken supporter of the gay community and advocate for AIDS services and treatments when that was a controversial position.

He also was a big supporter of the arts, known for playing the cello himself and feted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for his backing of the orchestra. A 1987 profile in the Los Angeles Times Magazine by Patt Morrison revealed this side of Edelman.

"It's the relaxation, the joy of it--feeling you're somehow participating in the great beauties of music. It provides a break from what I'm doing every day--speaking, reading, meeting with people. You're completely absorbed by it. The demands it makes come from within me rather than from others, and it's cut off from daily distractions."

The performing arts were not always this elegant for Edelman.

He took up the cello eight years ago, after being persuaded diplomatically by his wife, Mari, a psychologist, to give up his childhood musical legacy, the accordion. Actually, "Stop playing that instrument, " is how she put it, or at least how he recalls it.

A PBS SoCal documentary by his wife Mari Edelman, narrated by Tom Brokaw, credited Ed Edelman with re-establishing the Pilgrimage Theater (renamed the John Anson Ford Amphitheater), establishing a live music series at LACMA and the Clark Library Chamber Music Series, and with the planning of Disney Hall. He authored a bond measure that raised funds for renovation of the Hollywood Bowl and played a pivotal role in the successful completion of the Colburn School of Music on Bunker Hill.

Trailer for The Passions and Politics of Ed Edelman:

LA Observed columnist Bill Boyarsky wrote in 2013 that he had his battles with Edelman while trying to open up the secrecy of the county supervisors, but he said that Edelman "got a lot done behind those closed doors."

Patiently working with his supervisorial colleagues, some of whom were incredibly bull headed and backward, he pushed through one of the most important reforms in county history, the children’s court, where children, caught in the juvenile justice system, face the judges in surroundings that are much more child friendly and humane than they were in the past. It’s named after him.

And today, as the U. S. Supreme Court ponders same-sex marriage, it’s timely to remember how he stood up for gays and lesbians in a time when they hovered in the shadows. A great civil libertarian, he forced the West Hollywood sheriff’s personnel to stop their overbearing, often brutal treatment of gays and lesbians, who were scorned or ignored by most political leaders.

Joel Bellman, a contributor to LA Observed who worked for Edelman and for Yaroslavsky, wrote in a piece for us in 2013 that Edelman was ahead of his time and that his accomplishments are not as well known today as they should be.

Ed came of age in the pre-Watergate and pre-Vietnam era before politics acquired its current toxic reputation for little more than empty gesture, wasteful self-aggrandizement, and cowardly abandonment of all principle. In those days, an idealistic young man of modest means could attend a fine public university, serve in the military with his liberal politics intact, gain a law degree and practice in the public sector as part of an apprenticeship to a respectable career in elected office.

Ed was first elected to the City Council in 1965, the year of the Voting Rights Act, the initiation of Johnson's Great Society programs - and, fatefully, the first major escalation of the Vietnam War, the Watts riots, and the onset of a period of urban unrest that encompassed more riots, assassinations, domestic terrorism and student protesters gunned down in the street by the National Guard.

It was a tumultuous era, unimaginably challenging for elected officeholders - but there were no term limits, no tax revolt, and most importantly, as yet no stigma to political aspirations. Ronald Reagan was just a has-been minor actor, and most people still believed that government was a solution, not the problem.

By 1989, Ed was a veteran six-term elected official. I was a veteran journalist, having spent the previous decade in radio news and on a newspaper editorial page, a career I had every intention of continuing. But that year, neither of us could have known that his chance phone call would completely change my life.

That November, my newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, ceased publication after 86 years. Never having recovered financially from a devastating nine-year strike more than a decade before, the closure came as no surprise. But with my most promising post-Herald job opportunity having unexpectedly just fallen through only days before, I found myself on that final day of publication miserably cleaning out my desk with no viable prospects for continued employment in journalism.

Then the phone rang, and I heard the voice of the County's Public Information Officer on the other end, telling me that Ed had always admired my work - apart from generally similar politics, we particularly shared a deep antipathy toward Prop. 13 and everything it represented - and if I didn't have anything else lined up, would I consider applying for a job on his staff as press deputy?

Born in Los Angeles in 1930, Edelman attended Burnside Elementary School, Los Angeles High and Beverly Hills High, and earned his BA in political science and his law degree from UCLA. Edelman lived in Westwood, close to the UCLA campus.

Funeral services will be held at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City on Thursday, September 15 at 1 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Ed Edelman Endowment for Chamber Music at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and the Ed and Mari Edelman Chamber Music Institute at the Colburn School of Music.

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