Ed Edelman was the kind of politician that seems to be in short supply these days. As a city councilman and then county supervisor in Los Angeles until 1994, he was a public servant who truly cared about the greater good, even if it meant putting aside his own narrow political interest. And he played an unheralded but crucial role in launching LA’s Metro Rail system.
I got to see this integrity and public-mindedness first-hand in researching the history of the Los Angeles Metro Rail. As a law student at UCLA in 2004, I was busy writing about this history for a seminar paper in Professor Susan Prager’s California legal history class. Prager knew Edelman, then-retired, and recommended I meet with him to discuss this history. Over a warm beverage on campus that he insisted on treating me to, he spoke at length about the history of LA’s rail effort and offered to refer me to others who were involved.
I was just a student, and there was no glory or self-promotion at stake for him. He just wanted to help, and he cared about the issue of transportation in Los Angeles.
Based on his referrals, I got to interview a number of other key people involved in the early history of rail in LA, including Bob Geoghegan, Edelman’s former chief deputy (“if Ed thinks you’re a good guy, I’m happy to meet with you,” Bob told me beforehand by phone) and Marv Holen, who served on the early transit agency board.
Ed also gave me access to his donated papers at the Huntington Library, an institution that normally only allows PhD students to research in the archives. When the Huntington gave me some difficulty getting access that first day, Ed told me, “Just let me know if they give you any more trouble, and I’ll take my papers out of there!”
Between Ed’s papers, and Supervisor Kenny Hahn’s (also in the Huntington and accessible to me because of Ed), I found invaluable documents telling the story of LA’s early attempts at a modern rail system. My interview with him and his colleagues, as well as those archival documents, eventually led to the completion of my 2014 book Railtown. In short, I couldn’t have written it without him.
But lest you think my respect for Ed is all about these favors, my real admiration for him was actually inspired by what I saw in those documents. Time after time, the archival letters, articles, and memos revealed local politicians bickering and grandstanding about rail, so often just trying to serve their narrow interests and gain political support.
Yet it was clear from the internal debates and votes cast that Ed was a quiet and staunch supporter for a system that wouldn’t benefit his constituents much in the near term but would serve the greater good in Los Angeles. His district was not part of the densely populated core where the first lines would go. But he recognized the need to improve mobility across the region. He knew his constituents would benefit indirectly, even if there wasn’t a ribbon cutting in his district in the near future.
And when the time came in 1980 to vote in committee on a proposed ballot measure for rail, Ed was with President Carter at Camp David but jumped on a call from Geoghegan, his voting appointee. He took time out of that meeting to instruct Geoghegan to support it. The measure, Proposition A, passed by one vote in committee, and it eventually launched Metro Rail in Los Angeles.
With so much parochialism and selfishness these days, we should not forget the quiet example and leadership of Ed Edelman. For those who care about transportation and mobility in Los Angeles, he was a true founding father of the modern rail system, alongside Supervisor Hahn and Mayor Tom Bradley. And of course he championed other important causes during his time in office, as his obituaries recount.
On a personal level, I will always be indebted to him for helping me tell the story of Metro Rail. And I will remain inspired by his selfless example and the legacy he leaves behind for the people of Los Angeles and beyond.
Rest in peace, Mr. Edelman — a life well lived, in service to others.