Our mountains lost a great friend last week with the passing of Tony Beilenson, the former congressman, state senator and assemblyman.
I learned the sad news—as I so often have—from a news editor looking for a quote from my former boss, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was a longtime friend, mentee, and colleague of Tony.
Later that day, I spoke at some length with Zev about Tony’s contributions, and thought it would be appropriate to share it here.
Zev told me that in his experience, Tony’s career was distinguished by three key elements: integrity, independence and class. He was a man of personal and political integrity. His word was his bond. There were no carefully parsed positions; he was motivated by the purest principles.
Tony’s key legislative priorities throughout his 34-year tenure in elective office were reproductive choice, foreign policy and environmental protection. His views were his own, and they didn’t always comport with the predictable position. Tony always called them as he saw them, and when his positions didn’t square with those of his constituency, rather than caving or pandering, Tony engaged his community and tried to persuade them to his side. He advocated fiscal responsibility and entitlement reform, not notably popular or conventional positions for a Westside liberal.
He was never afraid to cross the aisle and talk with ease to members of the other party, nor was he afraid to break ranks occasionally with his own political allies. See, those were the days when you could do that in safety, without being fatally “primaried” during the next election cycle by an opponent from the left or the right who stood ready to cut your throat as a “deviationist” from the political orthodoxy
Tony’s principal legacy largely rests on two major legislative accomplishments: as a freshman state senator, he wrote California’s “therapeutic abortion” law, one of the most progressive in the nation at the time, which then-Governor Ronald Reagan signed into law with bipartisan support in 1967.
Those were the days! And here’s a funny story that Tony always loved to tell: In a 1980 presidential campaign spot, candidate Ronald Reagan utilized footage shot while he was governor of California, signing legislation, while a voiceover credits Reagan as a great “tax reformer” who saved the state from bankruptcy. But the footage actually shows Reagan, who by then was running for President as a staunch abortion foe, signing Beilenson’s 1967 bill liberalizing the state’s abortion laws, as Beilenson proudly looks on. Check it out here: Living-Room Candidate, “Reagan’s Record.”
His other principal accomplishment, of course, was to protect the Santa Monica Mountains, teaming with Howard Berman in the Legislature to create the Santa Monica Mountains Park, and later, in Congress, he successfully carried legislation to establish the larger Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which enabled the National Park Service to leverage federal funding and acquire private parcels to assemble the largest national park near an urban area in the entire nation.
Though he was elected and re-elected 10 times to Congress, Tony did not rest on his laurels—representing a progressive district that had his back, he didn’t squander the opportunities his Westside constituency gave him to take risks and show true leadership.
But by 1996, Tony found that it had become impossible to collaborate with Republicans, after the Newt Gingrich sweep during the 1994 mid-term elections. He had served his 20 years, and realized it was no longer the Congress he was elected to serve in. It had become excessively, extraordinarily partisan. That was not who Tony was. He was about getting results, which meant compromise and cooperation.
Zev remembered his great sense of humor—what Tony himself used to call his “constructively cynical” attitude. But he also recalled how much Tony always treated people with respect. Tony didn’t take himself seriously—just his legislative responsibilities and his dedication to serving his constituents, protecting the environment, and leaving the world a better place.