Brand New Day – Redondo Beach’s new Mayor’s views shaped by surf, travel and activism
by David Mendez
It always seems to come back to surfing with Bill Brand, even with his campaign literature.
One of Brand’s political mailers depicts Brand in what seems to be a familiar state for him: sandy, sodden with saltwater, wearing a wetsuit and carrying a surfboard. The Pacific Ocean looms in the background, while text overhead proclaims that “it’s time for a new mayor!”
Fifty-one percent of Redondo Beach’s voters on March 7 agreed, making Brand, 59, the new Mayor of Redondo Beach as of April 4. To get there, he traded on his record standing firmly against what he characterizes as overdevelopment, and its attendant traffic increases in Redondo Beach. His stance, he said, has always been about preserving residents’ quality of life.
It’s also about preserving the Redondo Beach that people came here for, he said, and have repeatedly voted to keep.
“People move here for a reason; they get here and they like it,” Brand said. “I think that’s the message you see time and time again…they don’t want these big changes.”
A spirit having human experiences
Brand’s conservationist roots date back to far before he became embroiled in Redondo Beach politics, and can be seen as a direct result of his relationship with the water.
Brand and his family moved to Palos Verdes from Texas when he was eight years old, as his father followed his career as a marketing executive.
His youth was centered around surfing, “going from surf spot to surf spot with a crew of people,” he said. “The dynamic of that and how it all moved in tandem ultimately centered around surfing.”
When he was 19, he left home for Santa Barbara on the encouragement of friends.
“It was my kind of town…it’s a cool place, and it’s ocean-centered,” Brand said. “I would’ve stayed there, but I took a good job at American Airlines.”
It was an entry-level gig but it paid well, earning him $8.25 an hour in the 1970s.
“Back in the day, if you worked for an airline, you were immediately hired into the middle class,” Brand said. “Then I had a flight pass and started flying all over the world, surfing mostly.”
He still surfs, and bikes and swims regularly.
“He’s a big outdoorsman,” said Jim Light, Brand’s friend and frequent political partner. “He works out all the time, swimming, surfing, riding bikes, stand-up paddleboarding, and he’s religious about it, at least half an hour of exercise a day.”
The term “religious” seems accurate for its rigor, but not necessarily its sentiment.
“If you think about surfing, you’re developing a close relationship with nature; you’re not in control, you’re trying to enjoy what it has to offer…and sometimes, it’s punishing,” Brand said. “Sometimes it’s joyous, but you learn about having that sort of experience…it forces you to think about the source of that power, and why it’s changing.
“You notice the wind rushing off of the face of a wave, the way a pelican soars, that a seal is looking at you trying to figure out what you’re doing in the middle of their life,” Brand said. “You’re more apt to develop a relationship with an inanimate object that feels every bit as real or animate as anything else in your life.”
It feels, Brand said, that nature itself is trying to converse with you.
“You realize that almost everyone around the world is more or less the same, spiritually. Everyone is just spirits having human experiences, not humans having spiritual experiences,” Brand said, reciting a favorite phrase lent to him by a friend.
“I think most surfers feel the same way,” Light said. “I know very few people who do that regularly who aren’t affected…but a lot of them don’t do anything about it. When he sees something that’s wrong, he tries to do something about it.”
So it seems ironic that Brand’s political career got its start because, of all things, channel surfing.
Determined and dogged
It was 2001. Brand and his then-wife were flipping through TV channels at their Broadway home, which was purchased just three years earlier, when they stumbled across a Redondo Beach Planning Commission meeting.
It was a hearing about Heart of the City, another attempt to redevelop the waterfront area, including the tear-down of the AES power plant — and Brand had no idea what was going on.
“I had seen these flags flying around town, saying ‘Heart of the City’ but I didn’t know what that was. That’s when we started taking more interest,” Brand said. “Before that, we were like those people with their faces in the sand; we didn’t know what was going on, and we didn’t care.”
Hundreds of people were before the planning commission, screaming that they didn’t want the Heart of the City plan, which included the development of up to 2,998 condo units, and Brand was aghast at what he was hearing. But he held off on action until Chris Cagle’s letter to the editor, proposing a citywide referendum, was published in the March 14, 2002 edition of the Easy Reader.
That was the catalyst, and Brand was on board, one of many volunteers working stop the Heart of the City plan from moving forward.
“That was the beginning of my activism, gathering signatures…I only gathered about 25,” Brand said, laughing. “But that’s when I really got involved, and I helped get Chris Cagle elected to his council seat.”
But when Cagle won a special election to replace the District 2 council seat vacated by Kevin Sullivan’s resignation, Brand saw a change.
“As soon as he was elected, he did a 180 and started endorsing land uses that allowed…all of the same land uses that he thought were so objectionable just a year prior,” Brand said.
Instead, Brand pushed for a plan called “Heart Park,” stating that Redondo Beach is park-poor. An advisory vote on Heart Park won, but AES did not support the idea of turning their land into a public park, and the plan eventually withered away.
In 2005, Brand ran against Cagle for the District 2 seat, and lost.
“I learned that you need to elect the right people,” Brand said. “Once people are in office, many of them will do whatever they want anyway; many politicians think, because they got elected, whatever their policies are, they’re ok.”
Cagle feels that the two simply walked two different paths toward the same end.
“Ultimately, we wanted similar outcomes, which is to find another use for the land and to regenerate the area…but part of the challenge with all of that, especially with the waterfront, is it costs a lot of money to prepare the site,” Cagle said. He felt there needed to be an economic engine behind redevelopment, while Brand banked on obtaining grants and subsidies.
“We couldn’t make something more come together,” Cagle said.
But Cagle’s perceived about-face solidified two beliefs for Brand: First, that his activism didn’t end when the election did.
“I got singularly focused on a destination, stopping overdevelopment…it’s a continuous practice,” Brand said. “I think it’s something a lot of activists don’t realize. You don’t just get a big public park on the AES site, you have to work to get it, and work to protect it.”
But that, he said, burns out many in the movement.
“Frankly, the only people left from 2001 are myself and Jim Light; most people fly in and out,” Brand said.
Light and Brand met years before, at Surfrider meetings, but grew closer when they began fighting against Heart of the City. In the years since, the two friends have partnered on initiative after initiative, rallying residents to vote on multiple land-use-related measures. The movement’s most recent victory was with Measure C, a further rezoning of the Redondo waterfront, which just so happened to step in the path of the planned CenterCal redevelopment project.
In 2009, Light stood alongside Brand as the latter won the District 2 council seat, even as Light’s own City Council runs fell flat.
Over the last eight years, Brand frequently butted heads with then-Mayor Steve Aspel and was often the single vote against in many 4-1 decisions, including those which ended up bringing the CenterCal project to the forefront.
That ties to the next belief.
“Often, the community in Redondo votes a certain way on an issue and elects someone who has an opposing viewpoint,” Brand said. “Measure B is a great example; District 3 opposed Measure B and elected Christian Horvath.”
There’s often disconnect between who Redondo elects and the leadership they want, Brand believes. “And that’s the fault of the residents; this public service stuff is a two-way street,” Brand said.
But there are two sides to that street, and Brand has often acted that if you’re completely not on his side, you’re against him.
Horvath, for example, has shown himself to be a progressive on many environmental issues, from support for renewable power initiatives to securing funds to increase and renew park space in Redondo’s neighborhoods.
“But if you’re so progressive, why allow huge overdevelopment projects and act like you’re a conservationist?” Brand asked. “[Development] is the only controversial issue in the community…I’m happy to be the slow growth candidate and carry that policy forward.”
It’s that hard-line stance that causes critics to see Brand as a one-issue candidate, focused solely on development issues.
“I’ve been very successful at the polls and I think it’s because of my position on slow growth and stemming the tide of overdevelopment,” Brand said. “But I’ve done a lot of things unrelated to simple land use — I’ve worked hard to make sure there’s not a new power plant, I’ve supported hotel development [in North Redondo], I’ve worked closely with a lot of community members…the whole single-issue thing is just absurd.”
City Attorney Michael Webb noted that Brand is just as passionate as when first elected, and that he continues to fight for the issues he views as important. He noted that Brand’s opposition to the AES power plant, which is now up for sale, may have been the pinnacle of the last four years.
“We had a united mayor and council in favor of opposing a new plant, and he brought an extra level of passion and devotion to that project,” Webb said. “I think that’s why we don’t have plans for a new power plant now, and hopefully that will continue into the future.”
Brand, Light said, is relentless in his pursuit of his beliefs.
“The difference, when talking to Bill about the issues, is that there’s an understanding of underlying issues and details behind them,” Light said. “He’s dogged when he finds something he thinks is good or bad for the city.”
What’s bad, Brand believes, is adding major housing developments, squeezing city resources and roads, to Redondo Beach. The city already has approximately 10,400 residents per square mile; adding more, he feels, just isn’t feasible, and trying to fix a perceived housing crisis just isn’t Redondo’s job.
“We have an incredibly diverse mix of housing in this community, from single apartments, two bedrooms, single family homes, condos…and we have Section Eight housing,” Brand said. “Of course people are disappointed with rising rents, but…we can’t fix this housing crisis. Redondo Beach has done more than their share and we’re never going to fix the idea that more people can to live here.”
Brand acknowledges that he can’t solve every problem, but he can try standing in the way of forces that would change Redondo’s beach town soul.
“Some people are trying to turn this into Santa Monica; that’s the tide I’m trying to stem. But I’m not trying to stem the tide of reasonable economic growth and quality of life,” Brand said. “I want to accomplish those things without overdevelopment projects like CenterCal, or allowing AES to build hundreds of condos.”
In the early morning hours of March 8, after election results showed his lead over Aspel was near insurmountable, Brand was asked what he planned to do the next day.
As any political or volunteer knows, the days leading up to an election are long and arduous, filled with walking and get-out-the-vote events. The stress is multiplied when work duties and civic responsibilities are stacked atop that. His response was unsurprising.
“I’m going surfing,” Brand said. “I haven’t been able to do that for a long time.” ER