Ed Edelman and his sense of decency

ed-edelman-1974-huntington.jpgEd Edelman, the former city councilmember and county supervisor, served in public office in Los Angeles for 29 years before retiring in 1994. His policy accomplishments ranged from traditional Westside preoccupations like support for the arts, preservation of open space, environmental protection, mitigating traffic and increasing mobility, to less instinctively popular concerns such as sheltering the homeless, shoring up health and mental health funding, caring for people with AIDS, protecting abused and neglected kids, and challenging the Sheriff's use of deadly force.

Despite an extensive record of achievement that in many respects was far ahead of his time, Ed today remains largely unknown to the general public. An effort to remedy that situation comes in a new documentary currently airing on PBS SoCal, "The Passions & Politics of Ed Edelman," written, produced and directed by his wife Mari, a psychologist and filmmaker. It offers both an affectionate personal tribute and a substantive portrait of her husband's lengthy career in public life. Yet as I watched a recent screening for Ed's friends, colleagues, and former staff at UCLA, where he earned his degrees in political science and law, the vanishing world of public service that he exemplified seemed more exotic and remote than ever. [Watch the documentary]

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?

It took me a day to get over my shock, set aside my qualms, and call back to explore the offer. Within a week I had a new job, and though I initially thought - and frankly, hoped - that it would be only a temporary detour, that call completely and permanently redirected my career from commercial journalism to public service in government. I was lucky enough to continue my work with his successor at both the City and the County, Zev Yaroslavsky, who has in every way carried forward and expanded the mission and policy goals that characterized Ed's time in office.

Ed's tenure in public service spanned the 40 years between the Korean War and Bill Clinton's first presidential term, an incredibly eventful time in modern history, and continued 15 years beyond that as a mediator, think tank scholar and policy consultant.

Today, sadly, the man who shunned elevators and always took the stairs for exercise, who excelled at tennis and practiced his cello at every opportunity, suffers from a rare degenerative neurological condition called atypical Parkinsonism, virtually immobilized and confined to a wheelchair, yet with his mind intact.

It's a terribly cruel and unjust fate for a man who showed us how politics can help protect the most vulnerable, lift up the disadvantaged, empower the dispossessed, improve the human condition, elevate public discourse and inspire future generations of leadership. As a member of his staff, I saw firsthand what courage, patience, and tenacity can accomplish, and in former staff colleagues who continued in public service, I've made some of the most cherished and enduring friendships of my life.

In his modest, soft-spoken way, Ed consistently demonstrated the abiding sense of fundamental decency that seems to elude so many politicians today. I like to think I'm a better person for having had the opportunity to serve in his office, but I know for certain that our community is a better place for his efforts.

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