In Memory of an Honest Man
Los Angeles mourns the death of former City Councilman Bill Rosendahl
By Gary Walker
Over eight years as the Westside’s voice on the Los Angeles City Council and 16 years hosting a local public affairs television program, Bill Rosendahl built the kind of reputation that can’t be taken for granted in politics: that of an honest man.
Rosendahl, who was battling cancer, died today in his Mar Vista home. He was 70.
The candor that family, friends and public figures remember of Rosendahl can be traced to formative experiences with America’s most-storied political dynasty — a brush with history that Tom Rosendahl says activated his older brother’s innate political drive.
As a student coordinator for Sen. Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Bill Rosendahl organized supporters in Indiana (where Kennedy prevailed in the Democratic primary) before being tasked with a similar mission in Oregon.
Paul Schrade, who was Kennedy’s labor chair, still remembers a brief exchange between the senator and then 22-year-old Rosendahl as campaign brass traveled to the West Coast:
“Bill, how are we doing in Oregon?” Kennedy asked.
“Senator, you’re going to lose,” Rosendahl answered, which Schrade recalled with a laugh.
“That was not what you were supposed to say to a Kennedy, because Kennedys didn’t lose. But that’s how Bill is,” Schrade told The Argonaut when Rosendahl’s death became imminent in late February.
Rosendahl and Schrade were at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated there on June 5, 1968.
The slaying motivated Schrade, who was wounded by one of gunman Sirhan Sirhan’s bullets, to help launch the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools on the former hotel grounds.
It spurred Rosendahl to pursue a life in public service.
“That image has been with me for the last 42 years of my life,” he told The Argonaut in 2011.
Tom Rosendahl picked his brother up at the airport when the future councilman returned to the family’s modest suburban home in their native New Jersey.
“He was devastated. And that was really the beginning of Bill’s political career,” Tom Rosendahl said.
Bill Rosendahl went on to become chief Illinois fundraiser for Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign and a Carter administration appointee to the State Department’s U.S. Trade and Development Program before relocating to his future council district in the late 1970s.
“He was a real political animal,” Tom Rosendahl said of his brother. “He always mentioned that he wanted to model his political life after Kennedy and how he wanted to carry on the work that Kennedy was doing. I think he saw Kennedy as his political idol.”
MAN IN MOTION
Rosendahl won his council seat in 2005 despite being financially outgunned in a hotly contested runoff election. For the next seven years he appeared to be a man in perpetual motion, logging work hours on weekends and racing from one community engagement to another.
“He’s this big guy with this very strong voice, and he could really light up a room,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who knew Rosendahl for more than 30 years.
The sixth of eight children to German-Catholic immigrant parents and the student body president of his high school, Rosendahl seemed to have been born with a personality tailor-made for the retail-style politics of local government. As his brother recalled, “There was some occasion where my family was together, and someone had a microphone or a Dictaphone and they were asking everyone to say something. When they came to my mother, she said in this German accent, ‘I have nothing to say. Bill does all the talking around here.’”
In the summer of 2012 Rosendahl was diagnosed with cancer of the ureter, a tube that connects the kidneys to the bladder, and announced that he would not seek a third term. Doctors initially gave him only months to live, but radiation and chemotherapy treatments sent the cancer into remission until last fall.
Under home hospice care since Feb. 7 and at times unable to walk or talk, Rosendahl spent his final days not chasing people around town but having friends and former constituents flock to see him.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who was Rosendahl’s chief of staff and ran for council with his blessing, said Rosendahl’s compassion for others — especially the less-fortunate — is what drew others to him.
“The thing that has always stuck with me about Bill is how big his heart is,” Bonin said. “He stood up for the voiceless, the underdog and for social justice.”
Congresswoman Janice Hahn, with whom Rosendahl served on the council, recalled Rosendahl’s passion for helping the homeless and others living on the city’s margins.
“He was always, always an advocate for everyone but especially for people who were homeless, who needed help and who felt they didn’t have a voice in city government,” Hahn said.
THE OUTSIDER’S INSIDER
Rosendahl’s advocacy included political interventions to facilitate the reburial of Native American remains that had been exhumed for construction of Playa Vista and stored in a trailer for several years.
Robert Dorame, the appointed Most Likely Descendant of the Gabrielino-Tongva people, said he had almost given up hope of seeing his ancestors reinterred before he met Rosendahl.
“Without Bill Rosendahl’s willingness to support and fight for our ancestors that had been removed from their burial site and placed in storage, they might still be in boxes,” Dorame said. “Before he offered to help me, I felt bulldozed by some powerful interests.”
In 2008 the Gabrielino-Tongva reinterred those remains in what’s now Discovery Park during a private ceremony to which Rosendahl was invited — an honor few non-Native Americans can claim. Rosendahl frequently called the burial his most poignant achievement.
Rosendahl, who was studying social work when he joined the Kennedy campaign, worked as a psychiatric counselor for soldiers, sailors and airmen returning from the Vietnam War.
His advocacy for veterans continued on the council. That included facilitating a public-private partnership to build the 124-unit Del Rey Square affordable housing complex for ex-military, low-income or formerly homeless senior citizens.
“I consider it an honor, but [doing] these kinds of things — helping to bring affordable housing to my communities — is part of my job,” Rosendahl said after a 2013 ceremony naming the building the Bill Rosendahl Senior Housing Community.
Former state Assemblywoman Betsy Butler recalled working with Rosendahl to install new lighting and make other improvements in the tunnel at Lincoln and Sepulveda boulevards near LAX.
“He helped bring together 14 different agencies to finish that project, and it says a lot about any legislator who can bring that many agencies to the table and get things done,” Butler said. “He was a true public servant. He was such a big part of the community and it was easy to see why his constituents loved him.”
Rosendahl backed Westchester and Playa del Rey residents in their fight to prevent an LAX runway from moving closer to homes, and he was also an advocate for mass transit — especially light rail, said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who served on the council with Rosendahl.
“He favored a strong transportation network and rightly voiced his disappointment with the lack of a rail connection to LAX. We will make that connection [by completing the Crenshaw/LAX Line], and I thank Bill for never allowing the city council to forget that glaring mistake,” Garcetti said.
A VOICE FOR EQUALITY
By virtue of being the first-ever openly gay member of the Los Angeles City Council, Rosendahl’s very presence in local politics was a beacon for equality.
“He was one of the earliest and bravest voices for equality for the LGBT community. He was a staunch defender of workers’ rights. He is a decent and compassionate human being. Even during times when we disagreed on policy issues, Bill would always bring [wife] Amy [Wakeland] and me eggs from the chickens he keeps,” Garcetti said.
But it was in his person-to-person interactions that Rosendahl cast out a lifeline to other gay men, even though — or perhaps because — he struggled to be open about his sexuality early in life.
Rosendahl waited to come out to his family until after his mother died in the 1970s.
“My brother would always have these tall, gorgeous women following him around and going on dates with him, so no one suspected anything,” his brother said. “It floored me when I found out, but I think my mom knew. Mothers always know.”
Kuehl, who is L.A.’s first openly gay county supervisor, said Rosendahl was still struggling with the issue when she first met him.
“He was going through a rough time and doing a lot of soul-searching. I thought he was very courageous when he did decide to come out,” she said.
Tony Arranaga, who was Rosendahl’s communications director and now works for L.A. City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, said it was Rosendahl who convinced him to be open about his sexual orientation.
“When I first started working for Bill, my friends and coworkers knew that I was gay but I hadn’t come out to my family yet. I was trying to find myself as an openly gay man, and he really helped guide and advise me on my journey,” Arranaga said. “Sharing that experience with my parents helped motivate me to help my younger gay brothers and sisters who are considering coming out. He was more than just a good boss— he was a mentor and a friend.”
Arranaga said Rosendahl gave him frequent pep talks that would all come back to the same theme: “It is our nature. It isn’t something we prefer or choose. It is something we are. Let me tell you something about God: God created nature, and it is our nature, and God makes no mistakes!”
“He has given inspiration to so many. I’ve had many young gay men come up to me and tell me how he has been their role model,” said protégé Bonin.
THE MAN TO TALK TO
When Rosendahl left the East Coast for Los Angeles, he began what would become a storied career hosting public affairs programs on local cable television.
Loyola Marymount University honored Rosendahl’s journalism legacy in 2013 by creating the Bill Rosendahl – Adelphia Communications Collection of Public Affairs Television Programs, an archive of more than 3,450 hours of his interviews from his 16 years of broadcasting.
“Everybody who was in public office or wanted to be in public office wanted to be interviewed by Bill. He was unique in the sense that he would ask insightful, probing questions without interrupting you,” Kuehl said. “Bill always did his research, so the questions that he asked always seemed to solicit the most detailed answers.”
Rosendahl’s who’s who list of political guests included California Gov. Jerry Brown back when he was chairman of the state Democratic Party.
“Bill is a wonderful guy. I’ve had many good TV conversations with him,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a brief statement to The Argonaut during Rosendahl’s time in hospice.
Former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a frequent guest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Rosendahl did a good job of representing his council constituents but will be remembered most for his talk show.
“Bill is a larger-than-life figure, a real force of nature. But his real legacy is the TV program. And the archive at LMU is one of the most important set of public affairs archives in the history of Los Angeles. The repository of interviews, the topics that he talked about and the guests that came on his program is one of the richest compilations that we will ever see,” Yaroslavsky said.
Yaroslavsky said Rosendahl’s show was a “must stop” not only for officeholders but others engaged in social issues as well as the environment, public finance and transportation.
“He was an engaged and politically savvy host,” said Hahn, “and many of us knew that he would do very well if he ever decided to go into public service.”
CATALYST FOR COMMUNITY
Another legacy of Rosendahl’s time on the council is that his enthusiasm was contagious, said Mar Vista Community Council member Sherri Akers, a cofounder of the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase.
“Bill is 100% the reason that I became engaged in the community. From the moment that I met him, he was so open and accessible and supportive. He convinced me that we could be heard, and that it would be time well spent,” Akers said.
Rosendahl also backed up community opposition to selling off the former Mar Vista fire station, Mar Vista Community Council member Sharon Commins said.
“Councilman Rosendahl’s greatest strength as a leader blossomed when the fire station issue surfaced. Once he realized Mar Vistans wanted the station preserved and placed into further service as a community center, he was on board. He kept the station out of auction and backed our efforts 100%,” Commins said.
To boost community identity, Rosendahl had the city post neighborhood-identifying signs throughout his district — signs that have come to represent more than where one community begins and another ends, former Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Mark Redick said.
“It created community currency, a newfound reservoir of community pride that you can see at our schools, neighborhood organizations and businesses. It helped us market our community more effectively,” said Redick, now vice president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa.
A PROMISE KEPT
Rosendahl did bump heads with constituents and business leaders on occasion.
Community activist David Ewing opposed sweeping overnight parking restrictions in Venice that Rosendahl supported, Ewing being among those who felt the rules were designed to target homeless people living in their cars.
After the California Coastal Commission sided with parking restriction opponents, relations cooled between Rosendahl and some of his Venice constituents, including Ewing.
“But I never got the impression that I couldn’t talk to him about other things after we won at the Coastal Commission, and I still respected him,” Ewing said.
Roughly two years after the 2008 reinternment of Gabrielino-Tongva remains in Playa Vista, approval for the second major phase of development in the planned community came before the city council.
Rosendahl had long been publicly opposed to those development plans, but announced two weeks before the vote that he had changed his mind and would cast a vote of support.
The Argonaut reprinted a pledge to vote against phase two of Playa Vista that Rosendahl had made during his initial city council bid, prompting a flood calls and letters to his office.
And when it came time to vote, Rosendahl kept his original promise.
The seesaw took Steve Soboroff, head of developer Playa Vista Capital at the time, by surprise.
“There were times that I didn’t like Bill Rosendahl, but there was never a time that I didn’t love him. He was always there to make things better for the people who he represented,” said Soboroff, now a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission. “He had a lot of chefs throwing a lot of ingredients at him — including me — but at the end of the day the cake tasted great.”