In continue our series of profiles of influential West Hollywood residents, WeHoNews.com sits down with California State Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), a man with influence extending well beyond WeHo’s borders.
Mr. Koretz was elected to represent the 42nd Assembly District on November 7, 2000, and was re-elected in 2002 and in 2004. The 42nd Assembly District includes the cities of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills and the area of Los Angeles comprised by Hollywood, Hancock Park, Los Feliz, Westwood, Brentwood, Universal City, Studio City, Encino, Sherman Oaks, North Hollywood and Valley Village.
Mr. Koretz was exposed to politics and social causes at a very young age, having accompanied his father to a 1960 rally for John F. Kennedy, and also joining his father on picket lines for the hotel and restaurant workers union. Mr. Koretz’s early political career began while he was a student at UCLA in the 1970s, when he ran for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. Mr. Koretz served as an aide to then-Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky in 1975, and then to then-L.A. City Councilman Marvin Braude in 1984.
Late in 1984, Mr. Koretz had the unique opportunity to help build the new City of West Hollywood. He worked for the City’s incorporation while managing the City Council campaign of Alan Viterbi and served as Mr. Viterbi’s Council Deputy after his election. Upon Councilman Viterbi’s retirement in 1988, Mr. Koretz was elected to the West Hollywood City Council. He proudly served as Mayor and City Councilman for 12 years before being elected to the State Assembly.
While on the City Council, Mr. Koretz played a key role on many high profile issues, foremost among them gun control issues. In 1988, Mr. Koretz sponsored a ban on military-style assault weapons, which built momentum for a subsequent statewide ban. In 1996, Mr. Koretz co-sponsored the City’s ban on “Saturday Night Specials.” West Hollywood was the first city to enact such a ban, which survived various legal assaults by the NRA. Mr. Koretz also sponsored an ordinance limiting handgun purchases to one gun per month, to cut the resale of guns on the black market.
Assemblyman Koretz has also devoted much of his time to anti-tobacco advocacy. He introduced legislation in the State Assembly to increase the smoking age to 21 in order to make it harder for young people to gain access to tobacco products and prevent people from becoming addicted to tobacco. As a City Councilman, Mr. Koretz authored West Hollywood’s ordinance banning smoking in restaurants, and developed the strategy of making it a regional ban by having neighboring cities pass the same ban at the same time. This provided momentum to help pass Assemblyman Terry Friedman’s AB 13.
The Koretz family history in West Hollywood dates back more than 50 years. Mr. Koretz’s father escaped Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews in 1939 by emigrating to America. Mr. Koretz grew up in West Hollywood and was educated at local schools, graduating from Hamilton High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA in 1979, where he was a founder of the “Bruin Democrats”. A lifelong democrat, Mr. Koretz served on the Los Angeles County Democratic Committee for more than 10 years.
Mr. Koretz also owned his own business, which for several years was one of the largest sellers of American historical and political memorabilia in the country. Mr. Koretz’s wife Gail serves as Director of Public Affairs for Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. They have one daughter, Rachel.
WeHoNews.com caught up with Mr. Koretz on one of his few extended visits home. We spoke in his office atop Luckman Plaza at the very edge of West Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. Joining us was his brand-new West Hollywood-area deputy, Josh Englander and his District Director, Rebecca Wayne. We had all just come up in the elevator shaking out jackets and umbrellas after a gentle rain shower, the first after the summer.
WEHONEWS.COM: At last night’s (Sept. 19, 2005) City Council meeting you were awarded the Rainbow Key from the city for your work on LGBT issues throughout your career; how did a straight man come to be such a rock-ribbed gay rights activist?
Mr. Koretz: I really became active in gay issues when I became active in the Democratic Party. I …realized how terribly [my gay friends] were discriminated against. I got involved with the Stonewall Democratic Club as it was forming in 1975; in fact I think I was the first straight member of the club.
In the 1980s during the cityhood campaign, I came up with the idea to write an anti-discrimination ordinance, which Alan Vitirbi did when he was elected and which led to the well-pictured first action of taking down that Barney’s Beanery “Fagots stay out” sign.
I saw every kind of discrimination and got more and more involved while serving as a city staffer and then council member. The city of West Hollywood, I think, has set the tone in fighting anti-gay discrimination across the country since incorporation 20 years ago, and I am proud to have participated in that.
Being in the legislature has given me an opportunity to do more on a larger scale. I co-authored AB 1338, the first stab at civil unions, and was co-author of AB 205 [Domestic Partnership] and joint author along with Mark Leno of the latest bill giving [same-sex couples] actual married status and is now on the Governor’s desk.
WEHONEWS.COM: How do you feel about his veto threat?
I’ve never seen someone who I believe is a moderate pander to the right wing as Arnold Schwarzenegger has from the moment he campaigned for George Bush in Ohio…he’s acting way to his own right. I don’t believe he has anything against gays and lesbians; he’s worked with so many folks in the entertainment industry – there’s no sign of prejudice or bigotry in the man. If he wasn’t pandering to the right wing he’d sign it in a heartbeat; unfortunately that’s what he’s done for the last year and it looks to be where he’s headed for the rest of his time as Governor. The only way we’ll pass a marriage bill is once we’ve gotten rid of him…
WEHONEWS.COM: Your work hasn’t been, of course, limited to LGBT issues, you’ve done a great deal of work on health and safety issues. Which specific issues are of concern to you now that need legislative remedies.
Mr. Koretz: In health I’ve tried to focus on a few areas, mostly HIV – a direct result of my experience here in West Hollywood in the 1980s as we struggled with the outbreak of AIDS just as we’d gained cityhood.
I’ve probably done half of the HIV bills that have come up in the State Assembly on HIV/AIDS.
Probably the most important one right now is AB 1677, which would allow for the distribution of condoms in prisons. Since the prison population has about ten times the rate of HIV as the general population because of the lack of protection; because most of that sex is between straight men who then get out, go home to their wives and girlfriends and infect them unknowingly, and because minority populations are so heavily represented in prison, this is devastating the African American community and getting to be a problem in the Hispanic community and the unwitting victims in all this are the women.
We expect this will stop thousands, if not tens of thousands, of infections. Since we can’t cure this disease, we have to stop it through prevention and this is one of the best prevention opportunities we have.
WEHONEWS.COM: You’ve done a lot on firearms, what’s new on that front?
Mr. Koretz: We have a new bill that requires a new technology that stamps fired rounds with a unique identifier. What it means is that law enforcement could, within minutes, discover the identity of the person who bought the gun. It won’t solve a lot of crimes because we won’t get the ID of the users, but of the staw-purchasers of the guns who re-sell them to criminals. So when you find that Joe Smith owns guns used in crimes in Fresno, West Hollywood and Oakland, you know quickly who the gun suppliers are. It’ll make it easier to go after gun-traffickers…What’s surprised me about this is that the NRA [National Rifle Association], which I thought would be at least neutral if not supportive of this idea, has fiercely opposed it. They’re so tightly connected to the gun manufacturing business…and it seems that much of their trade is people who are selling them and buying them illegally.
WEHONEWS.COM: What’s most enjoyable.
Mr. Koretz: The most enjoyable part is when I get back here to visit with the friends and neighbors and constituents. I liked that about being on the city council and miss it in Sacramento. I’m distant, being up there five days a week…
WEHONEWS.COM: Sacramento not as fun?
Mr. Koretz: [laughing] It’s different [fun]. I always enjoyed the fact that no matter what you did in West Hollywood people were engaged. They’ll stop you in the supermarket and talk to you about ‘Well, I thought that was a great ordinance you sponsored there, or that was a terrible bill, why did you let that development get through.’ Sacramento is more distant. The fascinating part about the job in Sacramento is that you can impact so many people, and make such dramatic change. There are bills I’ve sponsored like the condom in prison bill that, if passed, will save thousands of lives. It’s hard to have that impact at the city level. The difference is that people will never realize it because they don’t always see the connection [between state legislation and the impact on their lives]. Senator Keuhl’s bill, for another example, the universal health care bill, that one bill would instantly change everybody’s life so dramatically…
WEHONEWS.COM: What do like least about being West Hollywood’s assembly member.
Mr. Koretz: [laughing] I think I probably answered that. It’s not the part about being West Hollywood’s assemblyman in particular [more laughter], but about being in Sacramento and in the legislature in general. You’re further removed; people don’t connect the impact of what you’re doing to their lives, unless they think you really screwed something up, and then they’re angry. That doesn’t happen much; we do our jobs and people think we’re doing a good job and know that we’re fighting Arnold and being called girly men for it.
WEHONEWS.COM: That leads to the next question well. The Governor is engaged in a high-stakes battle with the legislature, by way of attacking unions, in this next special election. His advisors and he hatched a plan in hopes of, according to the LA Times, “creating a phenomenon of anger” against the Governor’s opposition. What do you think of his strategy?
Mr. Koretz: His political consultants should be sued for malpractice, because they haven’t been looking out for him; they’ve been looking out for the right wing agenda. Unfortunately, he’s probably one of the least politically and governmentally knowledge people in the state of California. I would wager I could pick five people at random, in West Hollywood especially, and at least one of them would know more about what’s going on in the state and do a better job as governor.
The problem is his advisors have led him off on this right wing direction, which hasn’t done anything for the state, and certainly not for him. They’ve recycled every failed, turned down right wing proposal that’s ever been and tried to put it on one ballot. It’s the Bush/Pete Wilson agenda all over again…The worst of them is the redistricting, which sounds fair on the face of it but would lead to Texas-style mid-decade redistricting and a loss of Democratic seats…
There are all these terrible initiatives on the ballot; everyone has to remember only one thing – go to the polls, vote no on everything and send Arnold a message.
WEHONEWS.COM: How’s your daughter Rachel doing after last year’s illness? Is she running around yet?
Mr. Koretz: She’s doing really well. It’s hard to believe that at this time last year she was at Children’s Hospital and she was completely paralyzed. She runs a little bit but not for three miles. She did make the high school volleyball team, which is very exciting… She’s back in school, doing well there after catching up, has lots of friends and is just doing really well.
WEHONEWS.COM: This next year’s legislative session will be your last; you’ll be termed out next summer. What are you going to do then? What’s next for Paul Koretz?
Mr. Koretz: I’m still thinking about that. Most likely I’ll run for State Senate in 2008, which gives me a couple years off. I’ll probably work for another public servant. I suppose I could go make money in consulting or private industry, but that’s not me.
WEHONEWS.COM: If Mayor Land wins your seat, would you return to the council?
Mr. Koretz: There’s the remotest chance of that. Once in a while I see issues come up and I think, ‘Well, I’d like to be on that council right now’ to offer a different point of view. Since I left the council I’ve tried my best not to get too involved with city business and let the council do what they want to do, but, like with any other constituent, they sometimes do things that make me crazy…[overall]I think it’s unlikely, though, that I’ll return.
WEHONEWS.COM: When you look forward another 20 years, to 2025, what do you see here in West Hollywood?
Mr. Koretz: I don’t think there will be that many obvious changes. Because of our taking control of the city and improving its care, cleanliness, the gentrifying of it, making it an entertainment hub, more and more people want to live here. That drives property values up and, because of the Costa-Hawkins Bill, if a senior leaves a $600-month apartment, landlords can command $2-3,ooo for rent. So I see that in 2025 we’ll see a city that is probably all upscale except for the low-income housing we build [between now and then]. It’s unfortunate because seniors created the city, largely, to protect themselves from the rent increases under the LA County rent control laws. I don’t think there’ll be any sign of them in 2025…In a way we are a victim of our own success; it’s good and bad. We’ll still be a very progressive place, an entertainment hub, and one with a very strong business community. Other than the unfortunate loss of the low-income seniors, we’ll see pretty much what we see now.