Sen. Henry Stern didn’t start the fire, but he knew it was his job to take the heat.
He stood in front of hundreds of angry, distraught people that night at Taft High School in Woodland Hills — families he knew and had grown up with who had lost everything in the Woolsey Fire that destroyed 1,643 structures, killed three people, and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people in Fall 2018.
He felt their pain and their anger first-hand — his home was also lost to the fire
“They were just so mad and they wanted to scream at somebody,” he remembers. “Well, they wanted to scream at Sheila Kuehl, but she didn’t show up, and I had to go, and I was like, ‘Don’t yell at the fire chief or the police chief right now because they’re busy fighting the fire, busy trying to evacuate people.”
“People need some place to put that energy. It’s OK to be pissed off. I’m not trying to beg them to like me. I just try to fix their problems as best I can.”
Chill, casual and unflashy, Henry has nevertheless grabbed the spotlight since being elected in 2016, when he became the first Millennial in the California Senate. The son of actor Daniel Stern, Henry knew Hollywood wasn’t for him at an early age. Instead, he went to Harvard, became an environmental lawyer, taught civics, and worked for Rep. Henry Waxman on the House Energy & Commerce Committee constructing clean energy projects for businesses. As senator, he’s taken the lead in closing the controversial Aliso Canyon gas facility, and his new bill outlaws risky new development in wildfire zones while doubling housing production outside of those zones.
Now, just a few days shy of his 40th birthday, he’s aiming to become the first Millennial and the only male on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, replacing Supervisor Kuehl, who announced her retirement last year in the wake of a political snafu on par with Gov. Newsom’s unmasked trip to the French Laundry.
In Fall 2020, Kuehl voted to ban outdoor dining throughout L.A. County, describing the risk posed by unmasked patrons to their servers as “a most dangerous situation.”
“This is a serious health emergency and we must take it seriously,” Kuehl said. “The servers are not protected from us, and they’re not protected from their other tables that they’re serving at that particular time, plus all the hours in which they’re working.”
Hours later, she was caught dining outdoors at Il Forno Trattoria in Santa Monica. The scandal drew protesters to her doorstep and invited deep scrutiny of the county’s strict COVID stances.
“For me it’s just proof of the continuous hypocrisy and just the lack of leadership and education as to what’s happening right now in this sort of shoot from the hip mentality that’s not doing anybody any good,” Josiah Citrin, a restaurateur, told FOX 11.
Stern gets it.
“The people of West Hollywood and the people of L.A. aren’t dumb,” Stern said. “They’re eating in a restaurant with masks off but then they’re picking up the kids at a soccer game with masks on. The risk comes from a resentment that people have about their leaders when they say one thing and do another.”
“We can’t just say ‘Follow the science.’ We can’t just hide behind Dr. Ferrer. As elected officials we need to own the hard parts of the decisions, too, and show the math behind them.”
The public’s distrust over COVID restrictions is just one symptom of a greater malady plaguing L.A. County.
“I really care about L.A., and … it’s a walking tragedy every day,” he said. “People are losing faith in Democratic government. We’re the liberal hub of the whole country and yet people are like, ‘Yeah but Democrats are in charge here and none of this seems that functional.'”
How did we get here?
“There’s some arrogance that always happens when you’re in charge — self-satisfaction and never wanting to admit mistakes. We got really dug in — like, there’s one clear answer for all this, because we’re fighting the Trump machine, so there’s a right, and clearly there’s a wrong. There’s a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ side. And we got so binary in that way that we stopped fixing problems.”
Elected officials, he believes, have become blind to just how little people actually believe in government.
“Local government defies politics. It doesn’t care about any of that stuff.”
“No one’s gonna pick up the phone and call the county for anything unless they are desperate,” he said, “because they have very little faith that anybody’s going to pick up. And if you are one of those people who have to pick up that phone and call, you’re going to be on hold for a while. You may never get through, depending on what your issue is. I’ve seen it. I’ve been on hold on Medi-CAL and enrolling in IHSS and dealing with all core social and human services just from taking care of stuff on my home front.”
If elected, Stern would face two immediate, hydra-headed challenges: the ongoing standoff between the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Department, and a metastasizing public safety crisis.
He sees connections between them.
“The broader beef is so unproductive,” he said. “We have politicized public safety, and it just is not healthy. I think that we’re all responsible for doing that. I think once we start to show that we’re not at odds with public safety, that our goal is not to ‘defund the police,’ that there are lots of reforms and lots of important work we have to do, but that that no one out there is saying actually, ‘let’s dismantle the public safety system.’ Let’s do super, abundant, relentless, compassionate social services but there’s still got to be 9-1-1. You definitely want that number to be there.”
He’s concerned by some of the proposals West Hollywood City Council is currently tossing around, like cutting the sheriff’s budget to spend on novel, non-police services like crisis response teams.
“We have a surplus right now. Why do you have to pick?”
“Unfortunately, there’s plenty of that work to go around. There’s a lot of need. Violent crime is way up. Yes, property theft on the whole net is not as bad as it looks — but the violent property theft is up. The really brazen stuff is what’s really throwing people for a sense of, ‘Is there any order here?’”
“There’s a lot of people hurting out there in places that have had a history of gang violence and activity like Canoga Park where I represent. Canoga Park needs a presence; they do not want the police to go away.”
His current Senate bill directly addresses the homelessness crisis that is tangled up in public safety.
It reads: “Any person that lacks supportive housing and behavioral health care and is otherwise not living safely in the community has a right to mental health care services, housing that heals, and access to a full-service partnership model, including access to treatment beds and a recovery facilitator that shall navigate access to appropriate resources for the person.”
The Los Angeles Times said this about the bill:
“It doesn’t sound like much, but there’s a ton of innovation packed into that sentence — and a ton of controversy because it opens a backdoor for building housing (by requiring a place for people to receive treatment) and a front door for involuntary treatment. Similar to the “right to shelter,” it’s a right that would come with an obligation to accept help at some point (just as CARE Court would). It would also guarantee funding by the state because of the mandate (and would need federal approvals to revamp some Medicare rules).”
“What I’m trying to do with my bill,” Stern said, “is a whole paradigm shift where we guarantee mental health care plus supportive housing.”
“We don’t currently guarantee mental health-care for people on the street, so there’s 30 people doing that job when it’s really a 3,000-person job.That level of service is its own injustice, because we’re literally letting people die in our streets.”
He envisions a region-wide approach.
“We can’t just be town-by-town, city-by-city. We can’t have that bubble attitude.”
Stern is campaigning for the position against one of West Hollywood’s own — Councilmember Lindsey Horvath, who was endorsed early on by Supervisor Kuehl.
How does he hope to appeal to voters over someone who’s already represented them for years?
“Maybe they like that I’m not part of the system. With all due respect, I wasn’t trying to get the endorsement of the incumbent. I’m not happy with how things are working right now, so I think that’s the contrast. If you’re satisfied with how things are going, then you would want Lindsey. But if you want to see some change, and you think that there’s a progressive way to do that, but you still don’t like the way things are going, then I think I’ve got something to offer.”