Bobby Shriver, Sheila Kuehl

L.A. County Board of Supervisors candidates Bobby Shriver and Sheila Kuehl take part in a debate at UCLA in March. Kuehl, a former TV actress and California’s first openly gay state legislator, is seeking a comeback with her run to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the board. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / March 20, 2014)

It was 1959 when Sheila Kuehl, an 18-year-old UCLA student, first fell in love with a woman. For a year, Kuehl stashed daily letters from her in a dresser drawer at her Westwood sorority house.

One day, Kuehl walked into the sorority den and was stunned to find about 10 members confronting her over the contents of the letters, now spread across a table. They told her to surrender her pin and kicked her out of the sorority.

"I couldn't tell my parents, because I would have had to tell them why," said Kuehl, then living at her family's Crenshaw apartment. "So I pretended every Monday night to be driving to the sorority for Monday night meetings, and I would sit in the Ships restaurant in Westwood and eat tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and then drive home and make up stories about the meeting."

That ordeal shaped Kuehl's future as a lawyer and state lawmaker. The theme of her life's work has been the fight against discrimination.

Term limits put an end to Kuehl's tenure in the Legislature in 2008. Now, the former TV actress and California's first openly gay state legislator is seeking a comeback with her run to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Kuehl, 73, wrote groundbreaking laws during her six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. One was the nation's first law guaranteeing workers up to six weeks paid leave to care for a sick family member. Another barred discrimination against school staff and students on the basis of sexual orientation.

In the June 3 primary, the big question for Kuehl is whether voters in the vast district straddling the Santa Monica Mountains agree that her Sacramento record makes her better suited for the county job than her opponents.

"I think it's important to have someone take Zev's seat who already knows what they're doing and is experienced in all of these areas — health and human services, transportation, foster kids," Kuehl told a recent gathering of the Miracle Mile Democratic Club.

Kuehl's more pointed argument is that her chief rival, former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver, lacks the government experience needed for the position. "This is not really an entry-level position, running a 10-million person county," she told a Sherman Oaks homeowners group at a debate.

A longtime law professor, Kuehl, who lives in Santa Monica, was 53 when she was elected to the Legislature.

"She was an advocate for people who found themselves on the margins," said Yaroslavsky, who is neutral in the race. "She's smart. She's analytical. She's tough. Very tough. Some people think she's stubborn."

Kuehl steeps herself in public policy detail. Her most recent essay, a dense rundown of public health programs, was Part 7 of the "L.A. County 101" series on her campaign website. Kuehl's 20-page curriculum vitae, most of it single spaced, lists all 171 of the laws she wrote, the 56 committees and boards that she's served on, and her 200 awards, including "best oralist" at a Harvard moot court in 1977.

Kuehl grew up mainly in Exposition Park, near the Coliseum. During World War II, her father was an airplane inspector at the Douglas plant in El Segundo. He later built his own business staging storefront merchandise displays for mom-and-pop shops.

When she was about 8, a man showed up at the family's front door offering acting, music and tap-dancing lessons at the Meglin Studios, where Shirley Temple had trained.

Kuehl — "full of personality," by her description — was soon cast in a 1949 radio comedy. Under the stage name Sheila James, she landed a bigger part on "The Stu Erwin Show," an ABC television series. Her best-known role, which lasted four years, was as the sassy teenager Zelda Gilroy on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis," a black-and-white CBS sitcom.

Kuehl's TV career — she had guest roles on "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," "McHale's Navy," "Petticoat Junction" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" — was lucrative but short. The Malibu beach house is long gone, but she still drives the red Porsche convertible she bought in 1964. "It's got 558,000 miles on it — all mine," she said.

It was discrimination, Kuehl believes, that drove her out of show business. A "Dobie Gillis" director told her that he'd heard that a top CBS executive had rejected a "Zelda" spinoff series because "he thought I was just a little too butch." The thirdhand account is unverified ("It's sort of vague, but that's the way innuendo works," she said), but Kuehl has made it a central part of her life story.

"They found out I was gay, and my interviews went way down," she told a group this month at a campaign lunch in San Fernando.

In the late 1960s, Kuehl went to work at UCLA as an advisor to student groups in an era of antiwar and civil rights protests. "They didn't particularly want very much advice, except how do we burn down the men's gym and not go to jail," she joked.

Kuehl said UCLA denied her a promotion that went to a man with less seniority, which made her "incredibly depressed." "When you think that there is discrimination, and you're in the class that's being discriminated against, it's this incredibly helpless feeling, like no matter how good you are, you're not going to get the job," she said. She was eventually promoted to associate dean.