City councilman Bill Rosendahl, who decided not to seek reelection in order to focus on his fight against stage four ureter cancer, speaks candidly about his time in office, the public figures who have let him down, his personal regrets, and what his district—and L.A.—needs in a leader now
You’re leaving public office after serving as the city councilman representing the 11th district for seven years. Looking back, what do you feel were your greatest accomplishments?
Everybody has had my cell phone number—you could be homeless or you could be Eli Broad and anybody in between. Nobody was left out in my mind and I was open to absolutely everybody.
I ran on a platform with the people against the special interests, and the first thing I told the developers after I was elected was real clear: come to me last. Go to the immediate neighbors, go to the homeowner groups, go to the neighborhood councils, and then come to me. Don’t come to me with your plan and wink and expect me to go for it and then throw money at me like I’m some sort of shower kick getting wet with money. No way! They learned and now nobody comes to me first.
I also believe in neighborhood councils. If people want to spend their time and energy for free to be concerned about their community, my hat goes off to them. I don’t have to agree with them half the time—you know, people get threatened by that kind of stuff, but I don’t. When people feel empowered and they feel they are part of the process, they step closer to the plate. I have eight neighborhood councils. I came out of the private sector, so when they start screaming about career politicians I look around and say, well, that ain’t me. I joined this place when I was 60.
When we got into this terrible national and international crisis of the economy, I was one of the first to say look, we have to have pension reform, we have to have health care reform, but I don’t want to beat these government workers to the pulp like these other people do. They’re not the problem. The problem is the money that used to come in to provide services and do the thing that needs to be done isn’t coming in anymore. I believe in giving workers packages of support as they go through life. The middle class matters! That’s my overview concept.
As I was announcing my planned retirement I told my colleagues the four jobs they have to do. One, they make laws. Two, there’s a link between the bureaucracy and the constituents; You have to work with the bureaucrats. You gotta kill them with kindness. The third thing is land use. Developers should come to you last. And fourth, you are the visible presence of government. Everywhere I go—Whole Foods, Ralphs, and Vons are my three stores—everybody comes up to me and so I always findd myself doing constituent hours. To be approachable and accessible is important.
You were chair of the transportation committee and pushed for the completion of the Green Line and the expansion of the Expo Line. Are you happy with the difference either has made so far to L.A. traffic?
Well—I’m thrilled that we’re in the process of solving our gridlock. I’ll be candid about it: It’s a disaster. Measure R was a blessing and I hope the extended measure on the ballot passes as well so we have all the money to do these projects simultaneously, and that we’ll be able to accomplish a good 12 different projects tying things together, which will truly give L.A. County the kind of mass transit that it deserves and should have. We have 10 million people in gridlock coming from every part of the place. The 405 and the 101 are the worst [in terms of traffic] in the world right now, and the additional lane [being built] will help. I’ve got my fingers crossed. When we get the Expo Line to Santa Monica, then I’ll be happy. You know I want it eventually to go to Venice Beach, but golly-golly, if we get it by January 2016, that will be certainly a joy. But there better be bathrooms on it. I’m screaming at these people about bathrooms.
You have the distinction of being the first openly gay man to join the Los Angeles City Council. Have you seen attitudes towards minorities—either in office or running for political office—change since then?
Yeah. America has come a long way. I’m pleased.
What changes have you seen here in L.A.?
I don’t see the open discrimination anymore. Gay people are open and out there. Our gay pride festivals are always a joy. People are free with each other, they get empowered with each other—it’s really nice. But of course I was really upset with Bill Clinton. The jerk did this DOMA business and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which meant you had to lie as a gay person. I thought that was outrageous. He should have been focusing on AIDS when he was focusing on gay people and DOMA, which you know means we couldn’t marry. So I’m not too thrilled with his leadership when he was president.
I was going to ask you about him. When you announced that you would be leaving office, you complained openly about a number of public figures—Clinton, President Obama, Phil Anshutz…. Did it feel good to get all of that political baggage off your chest?
It’s all true and I don’t regret anything that I said. It was the wrong time to say it—I should have just talked about the four points to being a council member—but I took advantage of the moment and threw in a half-a-dozen politicians that have talked the talk in different ways. How do you think we feel when Bill Clinton says inhaling, hahaha and then put about 400,000 kids in jail and they get a stamped FELON. These kids are ruined. I’ve toured the jails with [Sheriff] Lee Baca. It’s an outrage! Marijuana should be legal. It’s less harmful than alcohol and prescription drugs and these kids’ lives are destroyed. We have 2.3 million people in prison. We have more people in prison than communist China. Isn’t that an embarrassment? We spend $70 billion a year on prisons and building prisons and keeping kids in. I’d rather spend that $70 billion on education and infrastructure and health care. Our priorities are screwy! And this president [Obama]—I supported him early. I took a big risk, and what does he do? The guy ups the ante in Afghanistan. For god’s sake, no one can win in that crazy country. So, I’ve got my problems with him. I’m certainly going to vote for him over the other guy, but I’m not impressed. When he talked about marijuana and all of a sudden [dispensaries] pop up like crazy and he sends his DEA to shut them down and my cops have to waste their time on closing pot shops when they should be dealing with real crime? Our priorities are wrong. And let me tell you about rich people. I had the pleasure of being a corporate executive. Little by little over twenty, thirty years with smart tax attorneys the rich chipped away their fair share of taxes. They don’t pay the capital gains tax they used to. They don’t pay the dividend tax they used to. The graduated income tax was one of the levelers in our country. The rich are richer than ever. Now that I’m going to the private sector I’m expressing what I’m calling my true ‘Robert F. Kennedy’ feelings.
How does it feel not to have to be politically correct?
Good. When you’re in government you have to work with these people, and when you’re outside, you have the ability to appreciate the fact that truth is what matters. I’ve never had to lie in my life and I never have to worry about what I say. You know, we got this big VA property, and it’s sitting there like it’s a museum for God’s sake, and we’ve got 10,000 homeless vets out there! We have guys and women coming back from Afghanistan that really have issues. I don’t know if you know my military background—
You served in Vietnam.
I mean, my God. I did that and I turn around and look in political office—I’m the only one of my generation who’s been in the military. They’re all draft dodgers!
When you look back over the last seven years, what was one challenge of being a councilman that you had not anticipated?
I worked 24/7. The demand for our time and our decision making power is phenomenal. I had more decisions to make than I did as an executive of a cable company. In my cable days, I didn’t have to work weekends or evenings. I had time to myself, drove a big Buick that was given to me every year, that kind of thing. I had a big lavish expensive account. I’ve never worked harder [than as a councilman] and I’ve always worked hard. People say we’re the highest paid council. There are 18 of us that run this town. We literally run it. We have to make all these decisions and then you get about ten feet of paper every day. How are you going to read it all? So that’s the biggest thing. I never thought I’d have to put in from 6:30 in the morning when I turn my phone on to 11:30 at night when I turn it off.
You are about to get a little more free time. What do you look forward to doing with it?
There are two things. One, I’m going to express my Kennedy Democrats issues and feelings. I might do a national show talking to people about it—
Are you thinking radio? Television? You are of course a cable man.
I’m looking at both. And I’m also looking at taking some money and buying these foreclosure properties and creating more housing for people—middle class housing, low-income housing— and, frankly, making some money with my nephews and family on that. You know one of my legacies is homelessness. I’ve created a lot of different housing plans and permanent housing for the homeless and I’m proud of that. Overall I intend to be active and engaged and making a difference.
As you look back over your time on the council, is there anything that you would go back and do differently if you could?
No. You know, I made mistakes, everybody does. If you heart is in the right place and you are coming from a position of trying to make it better then you learn along the way. I have no regrets about anything.
Very shortly, someone is going to fill your seat at City Hall. What would you hope the they focus on first for the district?
Well the most beautiful part is my chief of staff Mike Bonin, who was my campaign manager, is brilliant, and he’s got great ethics and values. He happens to be a gay guy, too. He’s going to replace me, I hope, and I’m thrilled. I don’t have to tell him anything.
Is there a project or an area of the district you hope that he or whoever else it may be devotes some real time to?
I just hope we can modernize LAX so it becomes a jewel, and I hope we can get the AEG project. I’d love to see a new team come in and not steal one from other towns and create issues there. I’d love to see that happen. And then there’s the veteran issues, the homeless issues, the quality of life issues—obviously [I’d want someone to] get the mass transit in place. I put in a bike ordinance, the first in the nation, where you can’t harass a biker. We gotta give our cycling community a lot more support. We gotta get out of our cars, and we are. I even rode the other day—the first time in thirty years!
You endorsed Wendy Greuel for mayor. Why?
I’ve worked with her for seven-and-a-half years. She’s a straight shooter, honest, hard working, fearless, not afraid to take on anybody or anything, and she’s a woman. All of that adds up to a really exciting plus for me.
You announced in August that you would be undergoing treatment for ureter cancer. How have you lived differently since being diagnosed?
Oh God, it’s a whole other world. You’re told you have cancer and that you’re stage four and you’ve lost 45 pounds and you’re in tremendous pain. They give you a diagnosis and a prognosis gets more positive, but I don’t have a timetable. I’ve living day by day in the sense of encouragement and hope and a belief that I can pull it off. But I just lost my dear friend Jackie Guthrie. She and I were like brother and sister, so I’m in mourning. When that happens, you think of other people, you think of yourself, and you realize we’re all vulnerable. I have a line I’ve used my entire life: All we have is the moment. That’s all we have. Take advantage and be blessed and grateful for the moment. We have a lot to be grateful for.