When West Hollywood City Councilmember John Heilman is sworn in as mayor later this month, it will be the seventh time he has held the position — more than anyone else in the city’s quarter-century history. Of the city’s five councilmembers, Heilman alone has been continuously involved in city government since before West Hollywood even incorporated as a city. As such, his career in the city council offers a kind of parallel with the history of the city itself, as it has grown from infancy to a well-entrenched municipality.
Heilman first settled in West Hollywood in 1981, after he moved from Cleveland to attend law school at the University of Southern California. He quickly became involved in political causes, working with the Harvey Milk Democratic Club and the Coalition for Economic Survival (CES), which advocates for affordable housing. Before long, he became involved with the campaign for cityhood.
Even when the cityhood campaign proved successful, Heilman said he never intended to run for office.
“I had always been involved in political work,” Heilman said. “I interned for a congressman in college, and worked on the McGovern campaign as a kid. I never really thought about running for office, though. But when we were trying to put together a slate to represent the diversity of the community, some people asked me to do it, and I thought it would be fun. I certainly never thought I would be doing it for this long.”
Larry Gross, who is now the executive director of CES, was among the group that encouraged Heilman to run for city council.
“He was a natural candidate,” Gross said. “Based on his commitment to the issues, based on his involvement in the fight for rent control and the establishment of the city, he was a great fit.”
With support from CES, Heilman ran, and in 1984 he won a seat on West Hollywood’s inaugural city council. At first, Heilman said, the council faced challenges that seem very antiquated.
“When we first incorporated, there were lots of questions about whether the city would even work at all,” he said. “Critics were asking questions like, ‘Can gay people run a city?’ That was the kind of stuff we faced in the early days. I think that question has been put to bed.”
Still, for Heilman, the city’s core values, and many of the city government’s goals, remain the same as they were 25 years ago.
“We were very concerned about social services, and affordable housing,” he said. “Obviously public safety and LGBT rights were real concerns. Those were all major topics that were part of the founding of the city, and I don’t think those priorities have changed.”
Within its first several years of existence, West Hollywood passed several pieces of legislation that, though they now seem quite ordinary, were groundbreaking at the time. The city council passed a non-discrimination statute based on sexual orientation, and another non-discrimination statute based on HIV-status, in 1985 and 1987, respectively. And in 1985, West Hollywood also became the first city in the country to set up a domestic partnership registration.
“John has been an elected official that we can always count on in support of the LGBT community, whether that is connected to civil rights or the social services we need,” said Darrell Cummings, chief of staff at the L.A. & Lesbian Center. “When he really became a hero to us was when he worked to establish the Jeff Griffith Youth Center on Santa Monica Boulevard. John was a real champion for the center. He advocated for it and made sure it was funded, helped us negotiate with the landlord and continues to offer support, even though it’s just outside West Hollywood city limits.”
Affordable housing, in particular, is another cause Heilman has personally championed. In 1987, Heilman helped establish the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, a non-profit organization, funded largely by the city, which builds and maintains affordable housing in West Hollywood.
“The city is about 85 percent renters, and we became a city at a time of intense real estate speculation,” Heilman said. “In our community, we had seniors living on fixed incomes, people with disabilities, and AIDS was just starting to become an issue, so we had people living with the disease who had lost their jobs and had no income and no place to live. Rent control was important to a huge part of our population.”
Gross called Heilman the “main architect” on the council of the city’s rent control law, which was one of the strongest in the nation when it was adopted in the late 1980’s. Robin Conerly, executive director of the West Hollywood Community Housing Corporation, said the city continues to make affordable housing a priority.
“West Hollywood has really put its money where its mouth is in terms of affordable housing,” Conerly said. “The buildings they support are usually architecturally significant, with multiple objectives. The new project on Sierra Bonita, for example, has 42 units of affordable housing, but it’s also a green project, and it’s right on a transportation corridor, to encourage the use of public transit.”
Still, it is the city’s physical changes in its first 25 years of which Heilman is most proud.
“When you look at Santa Monica Boulevard, if you looked back at what it looked like 25 years ago, and compare it to today, that’s a huge accomplishment,” he said. “It’s a real transformation, much more pedestrian-friendly. I’m also proud of the work we’ve done on the east side with the La Brea Gateway project, which was big in terms of making the east side feel like part of the community.”
In his seventh stint as mayor, though, Heilman admits that several of his prorities for the city have changed since he first held the position in 1985. In particular, he is more conscious of trying to create a positive environment for the city’s businesses.
“Probably in the early days, I didn’t see the importance of economic vitality for a community as much as I do now, and the importance of helping promote businesses,” Heilman said. “Businesses create most of the tax revenue for a city. The city can play an important role in making sure the businesses in a neighborhood are working together to promote the whole area, like we’ve done on Sunset with the business improvement district.”
Learning how to get businesses to work together productively has been part of a maturation process for Heilman, for the city’s businesses, and for West Hollywood itself. To those who charge that the councilmembers are too entrenched, and have been in office too long, Heilman acknowledges the need for change, but also points to the positive effects of the government’s stability on the city’s bond rating.
“There have been changes on the council over the years,” he said. “Some change is healthy, but some stability is also healthy. I definitely see a time when I won’t want to do this any more, but right now there are a lot of things coming forward — the library, expansion of the parks. I see some good things on the horizon for the east side, and I’d still like to be a part of that.”
He also hopes the city will continue to mature — in a characteristic West Hollywood way, of course. Though business promotion remains an increasing priority for him, there are some businesses that Heilman doesn’t think are appropriate for West Hollywood. For example, he said he hopes that a plating business, which he said uses toxic chemicals, would find another home outside West Hollywood. The adult shops, on the other hand, can stay.
“Some of the adult uses are perfectly fine,” he said. “It’s more about how the business operates. Like Pleasure Chest, for example, has been there for a long time. It’s not offensive to the community, and it’s part of what makes West Hollywood a unique place.”
Heilman will be sworn in as West Hollywood’s new mayor, again, on April 19.