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Honoring Ed Edelman: A man of vision

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 6, 2013 | 3:26 pm

Ed Edelman speaking at his swearing-in

Ed Edelman speaking at his swearing-in

During the 30 years Ed Edelman spent serving in public office — first as a member of Los Angeles City Council and then as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — he consistently fought on behalf of L.A.’s least fortunate residents. A staunch liberal, Edelman found himself in the legislative minority for most of his time on the Board of Supervisors, but he still managed to marshal enough support to post an impressive list of accomplishments — including setting up the first County Department of Children and Family Services, establishing a commission to oversee the county Sheriff’s Department, and strengthening government support for some of the region’s most beloved cultural venues, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Hollywood Bowl. 

On Nov. 13, Edelman — who also created Los Angeles County’s Commission on Disability — will receive an award from Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC), a public-interest law firm that Edelman himself helped found in 1975.  

The Founder’s Award, to be presented at DRLC’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Dinner, will celebrate Edelman’s achievements on behalf of the disabled — but it is hard to ignore the cruel irony of his receiving such an honor today. 

Edelman, now 83, once played tennis and the cello with the same passion he brought to his work as a lawmaker, but over the past eight years, he has suffered a slow deterioration in his physical abilities, the result of a rare disease, Atypical Parkinson’s.

Yet his wife of 45 years, Mari Edelman, who will accept the award on her husband’s behalf, said in an interview last month that despite his not being able to move his body and having recently lost the ability to speak, she still sees him demonstrating his care for others. 

“When he’s trying to articulate something, almost invariably, what he’s trying to do is ask how people are,” Mari Edelman said in October, speaking by phone from their home in Westwood. “Did such a person find a job? Did so-and-so get out of the hospital? Are they going to be OK? Whatever it is, he wants to know how other people are doing.”

Over the last few years, in addition to increasingly speaking for her husband, Mari Edelman also has been learning about his political journey, which she chronicled in “The Passions and Politics of Ed Edelman,” an hour-long documentary she wrote, directed and produced and that aired on PBS in Southern California in January. (It is currently being picked up by stations around the country for a showing in February 2014, she said.) 

Ed Edelman got his start in a Democratic Club in the 1950s, as an undergraduate at UCLA, where he also earned a law degree. He went on to work for the Kennedy administration and, in 1965, mounted a successful challenge to the incumbent councilwoman representing the 5th District, Roz Wyman, also a Democrat — and in 1973, won election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. 

While he was growing up, Edelman’s family belonged to Congregation Mogen David, then a traditional synagogue. Mari Edelman, who came from a less Jewishly affiliated background than her husband, said that Edelman’s mother, “a dynamo and very gregarious,” probably helped him win his first election by pushing his candidacy within Los Angeles’ Jewish community. 

After the couple married in 1968, Mari Edelman mostly steered clear of her husband’s political world, focusing instead on her own career as a clinical psychologist and on raising the couple’s two daughters. Today, after spending two years poring over Ed Edelman’s archived papers and interviewing nearly 100 people who knew him professionally, she has a better idea of the kind of politician Ed Edelman was. 

“His humanity never surprised me,” Mari Edelman said. “That, in a way, is why I wanted to do the film.”

“What surprised me,” she added, “was how much he did and how clever he was, what incredible political instincts he had. He’s a people person, but I was blown away by his strategies.”

He advocated for the homeless, for children involved with the justice system, for the mentally ill and the disabled — people without strong constituencies. 

Although she attributes Edelman’s work on behalf of those less fortunate in part to the Jewish values inculcated in him during his upbringing, Mari Edelman said that her husband confessed to having a “Walter Mitty complex,” believing “he was or could be anything he wanted.” But while the fictional James Thurber character lives out his triumphs only in fantasy, Ed Edelman realized his own, refusing to give up on causes that others might have abandoned. 

In office, though, Ed Edelman was not a liberal firebrand. His style of leadership more often involved hashing out differences with his political opponents behind closed doors. And though he had his critics, Edelman’s method produced results, and between 1973 and 1993, he orchestrated the renovation of the Edelman Westside Mental Health Center, the construction of the Edmund D. Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park and the preservation of the land in the Santa Monica Mountains that became Summit Valley Edmund D. Edelman Park. 

“For Ed to do what he did on the losing end of a minority on the board was extraordinary,” said Joel Bellman, spokesman for current L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Bellman worked for Edelman from 1989 until 1994. 

Edelman also set himself apart with his willingness to take on tough issues like the AIDS crisis; he also favored gay rights far earlier than many other leaders did and worked consistently for the socially marginalized. 

“The county government is really the social services arm of the region; the city [of Los Angeles] is sort of secondary in that,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “The ability of the county to take the lead to help the people who have the greatest needs but don’t have the strongest constituencies presents a real challenge, and that’s really where Edelman made his mark.” 

Some of Disability Rights Legal Center’s biggest cases involve suing the very arms of government in which Edelman served; in 2003, for instance, DRLC successfully sued to stop the county from closing the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, which provides rehabilitation services to Medi-Cal patients. Yet it’s entirely understandable why this public interest firm would want to honor the former county supervisor.

“There’s a degree of callousness and indifference to people with disabilities,” DRLC Executive Director Paula Pearlman said. “There’s a perception that nobody’s going to represent them, nobody’s going to stand up for them. There’s a belief that you can get away with discriminating against them.”

For DRLC, honoring Edelman is a way to remind his successors of his example in advocating for the voiceless — including the disabled. 

“Even elected officials need advocates to point them in the right direction, to remind them of what the right thing is to do,” Pearlman said. 

In the documentary film, Ed Edelman summed up just what doing “the right thing” meant to him. 

“Don’t give up hope,” he said, speaking directly to the camera in a halting voice. 

“Keep striving. Keep trying to improve yourself and your community. We need people that care for one another.”

The Passions and Politics of Ed Edelman will begin airing on PBS stations nationwide in February 2014.

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