By Gary Walker
People in high-profile positions can often trace a roadmap to how they arrived at where they are and the circumstances that led them to pursue their chosen career.
Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, known for his energetic personality, his ever-present smile and passionate advocacy for his constituents, was led to a life serving the public due to events as a teenager and as a young adult. Shaped by these life moments, some of them fraught with tragedy, he built a legacy on the City Council as a champion for veterans, local grassroots democracy and citizen empowerment.
Set to run for a third term last year, Rosendahl learned nearly a year ago that he was afflicted with cancer of the ureter. Already a diabetic and well into the sixth decade of his life, Rosendahl, 68, announced his retirement from public office in September to fight the cancer, which is now in remission.
He leaves office with a slew of accomplishments during his time representing Council District 11, which includes Venice, Del Rey, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista and Westchester, many of which will continue beyond his tenure on the city’s governing body.
In an interview with The Argonaut days before his last council meeting, Friday, June 28, the councilman reflected on his eight years in office, his highs and lows and his plans for the future.
Like a number of baby boomers that chose politics as a profession, Rosendahl began at the grassroots level, getting involved in civil rights protests beginning in the early 1960s in his hometown of Englewood, NJ.
“As a teenager, I noticed that African-Americans, who made up a quarter of the city, were being abused,” the councilman recalled. “So I got involved in the civil rights movement because social issues do impact me and I feel a responsibility to get engaged when there is an issue that I don’t like.”
After graduating from Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania with a degree in political science and economics, Rosendahl was chosen as a field director at age 22 for the presidential campaign of Sen. Robert Kennedy, where he cut his teeth on national politics.
The future city councilman was at the former Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night that Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California Democratic primary in 1968, an event that still haunts Rosendahl today and had a hand in shaping his political career.
1968 was also the year another leader was assassinated, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., another of Rosendahl’s heroes. But their deaths did not dim his optimism for the future; instead they fueled his passion for public service and he began to contemplate a future run for public office.
“That soaring energy from those great men, who I had the honor of meeting, has stayed with me,” he said. “I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to meet them and learn from them.”
His career trajectory took him from counseling veterans during the Vietnam War as a psychiatric counselor to a broadcaster and later an executive at Adelphia Communications, where Rosendahl hosted a public affairs cable television show for 16 years.
Elected to the City Council in 2005, Rosendahl said one of the accomplishments that he considers to be among his finest is assisting a high-ranking member of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe in reburying his ancestors, whose remains were languishing in a storage container at Playa Vista.
The developer of the planned community came across the sacred remains during construction and a stalemate over what to do with them created a well of animosity between the tribe and Playa Vista.
“We really needed someone who could talk to the opposition, and that person was Bill Rosendahl,” recalled Robert Dorame, the most likely descendent of the Gabrielino/Tongva Native American tribe. “He was the mediator between all the Indians and Playa Vista.”
After learning about Dorame’s ancestors, Rosendahl used the power of his office to force the developer to help obtain a burial site, which is located in Phase I of Playa Vista. Over 1,320 bundled ancestral remains reentered the ground Dec. 13, 2008.
“When I found out that there were sacred remains in cardboard boxes in a trailer, I knew that the Native Americans would be very upset, and I knew I had to act,” Rosendahl remembered.
Dorame said Rosendahl was the only elected official who ever listened or cared about his plight.
“There’s only one politician who reassured me that this would take place and that we would rebury our ancestors, and Councilman Rosendahl has earned the reputation of being a man of his word,” he said.
Rosendahl has presided over a number of environmental projects, two skateboard parks, has helped place dozens of homeless in temporary and permanent shelter and shepherded the creation of a number of affordable housing units.
One such project is at Del Rey Square on Culver Boulevard in Del Rey that bears his name, the Bill Rosendahl Senior Housing Community. The building has Section 8 units, tax-credit and public housing units, as well as spaces dedicated to transition for 31 formerly homeless civilians and veterans.
Mark Redick is a former Del Rey Neighborhood Council president and was on the board when the project was greenlighted. “There was a token opposition to Del Rey Square, but they are now in support if it,” said Redick, who worked in conjunction with the councilman on the project. “It would not have happened without Councilman Rosendahl.”
Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks called Rosendahl a “larger than life figure whose presence fills a room.”
Lucks pointed out that the councilman had been a television broadcaster and she feels that helped him make the transition to the council.
“Having been a TV celebrity, the City Council bully pulpit was a perfect vehicle for him to use on behalf of his constituents and for other causes he championed,” she said. “Bill and I have had a good working relationship even when we disagreed on policy issues, which happens when people are opinionated and passionate about their communities.”
Like Lucks, David Ewing, another Venice resident, disagreed with the councilman’s position on the city-driven attempt to implement overnight parking districts in Venice, which was unanimously rejected by the California Coastal Commission earlier this month. “I think he thought that it would be an easy fix and then it seemed like he felt betrayed,” Ewing said.
The Venice resident said he found it “absurd” that Rosendahl framed the fight for the parking districts as a “civil rights issue.”
“This was especially absurd coming from someone representing some of the most privileged people in the city who have a number of protections by living in the coastal zone,” Ewing added.
Rosendahl was the first Westside councilman to have signs installed identifying his communities, and neighborhood leaders say it has proven to be much more than a symbolic gesture.
Redick says the signs that Rosendahl had installed gave Del Rey, a community that was previously relatively unknown, a sense of identity.
“I give a tremendous amount of credit to the councilman and (former Del Rey deputy) Nicole Velasquez for what they did getting the signage identifying Del Rey,” said Redick, who is now vice president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa. “Not only did it give a huge boost to the community’s spirit, it also built a sense of community equity.”
A staunch supporter and outspoken advocate of neighborhood councils, Rosendahl had the reputation of insisting that all potential projects come before the community’s respective neighborhood boards before the applicant approached his office.
“Bill listened to the concerns of the neighborhood councils in Council District 11 and required most development projects and issues of community concern to be vetted through our councils,” Lucks said.
Despite their opposite positions on the overnight parking districts, Lucks said they were still able to work together on other important neighborhood concerns, including allowing homeless men and women to store their belongings in Venice while they entered the county winter shelter.
“Even when we disagreed, he was always available to meet and talk and I appreciated his candor,” said Lucks. “Bill Rosendahl will be long remembered and we in Venice wish him good health and joy in the coming years and know he will stay involved.”
Asked if he was leaving office with any regrets, Rosendahl responded, “None at all. And that’s the best part of it. The joy of relating, interacting and then becoming friends with complete strangers and building positive energy and trying to do things better is what kept me going during those eight years.
“So there are no regrets at all.”
The soon-to-be ex-councilman said his world will definitely be different after June 28. “It will be traumatic because I loved it and I love my constituents,” he admitted. “My goal is to continue to function and to help people as much as I can.”
While Los Angeles City Hall may be the last stop on the legislative line for Rosendahl, the curtain has not drawn on his final engagement with the public. He has been in touch with many well-connected friends and contacts made over a lifetime in public service and the private sector and is considering his options after he leaves office.
“I’m not finished yet. At least I hope I’m not,” he said with the ever-present Rosendahl smile. “I’m going to take it one day at a time and I want to continue to be engaged in the world around me.”
He said he has been approached to start a foundation. “So that’s a possibility, with a mission statement that I believe in, that might be a direction where I go,” the councilman said.
Another possibility is a return to broadcasting. “I’ve been approached by a university to possibly do public affairs shows again,” Rosendahl said.
“Every day is a blessing. And all we have is the moment. So I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m looking forward to it with a positive attitude.”