By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. April 22, 2019

When someone close to you passes away, you often think about how to keep them in your heart and mind.

Three great Santa Monicans passed away recently – Beth Leder-Pack (March 30), Blase Bonpane (April 8) and Gary Stewart (April 12).  All three lived progressive values in their daily lives and in their activism – and sometimes both were one and the same.

Beth Leder-Pack

Beth made her mark locally in Santa Monica.  An Ocean Park resident from the Borderline Neighborhood, Beth practiced her values working in Santa Monica’s Rent Control Department for 25 years, patiently and thoughtfully providing comprehensive information to people feeling vulnerable in their tenancy and their homes, about how rent control laws applied to them.

Outside of her day job, Beth was a board member for a range of community organizations,  pursuing issues of social justice and affordable housing in a classic, bottom-up way: on the board of her neighborhood organization (the Ocean Park Community Organization), her neighborhood church (the Church in Ocean Park), and the local non-profit affordable housing provider (Community Corporation of Santa Monica). And where there wasn’t an existing organization to help promote progressive values, Beth helped create one, being a founding member of Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART), which brought Santa Monicans together to support fair wages and working conditions for workers in our local tourism industry.

I first got to know Beth well in her role with SMART, and we penned an op/ed together “Santa Monica Hotel Workers Deserve Their Fair Share Treatment“ in December 1997 that laid out the philosophical and practical arguments for what would become the local living wage campaign over the next many years. Beth spoke her mind directly from conscience — without putting her finger to the political winds to see which way they were blowing — yet you could also have a open and respectful dialogue with her if you didn’t agree.

Blase Bonpane

Blase was an ordained priest sent to run a Maryknoll program in 1967 in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, where he was fundamentally transformed by seeing the United States on the wrong side of oppression there. In response, he wrote a column in the Washington Post exposing the killing of thousands of Guatemalan dissenters by US-backed government death squads, and blasting U.S. support for “an oligarchy of 2% of the Guatemalan people who possess 80% of the land and resultant power.”

Soon afterwards the Guatemalan government expelled Blase, complaining that he was meddling in politics. Instead of accepting relocation by the church to Hawaii where he would have been under a gag order, Blase returned to California and begin his political activism, first taking a job with the United Farm Workers to be Cesar Chavez’s “right hand man”, then founding the Office of the Americas (OOA) in 1983 with his wife and life/activist partner Theresa (and with the help of donation from actor, activist and family friend Martin Sheen).

During the 1980s when U.S. military and covert intervention in Central America was at its zenith, the OOA played a key intercultural role promoting peace and anti-militarism – organizing trips there so people could see firsthand the devastation and poverty resulting from US-backed conflicts; and bringing key social movement and political figures from Central America to the U.S. to tell their stories.  In December 1985 and January 1986, Blase led the International March for Peace in Central America, marching through seven countries from Panama to Mexico. In the decades since, Blase continued to be a major and respected voice for peace and justice, including going to Iraq in before the US 2003 invasion to try and prevent war, and hosting his “World Focus” radio show local Pacifica station KPFK. Said Noam Chomsky “If you can aspire to a fraction of what [Blase] has achieved, you will look back on a life well-lived.’”

A Sunset Park resident, Blase loved walking along the beach in Ocean Park starting at lifeguard station #26. Being a station #24 person myself, I was lucky to run into him there on many occasions. As Blase got up in years (he passed away just two weeks short of his 90th birthday), I was always amazed to see him bouncing back from occasional health maladies that had many of us worried, to an incredibly vibrancy when he would be walking along the beach.

“Faith for me” said Blase, “is more a matter of what we do, what our conduct is..When Paul speaks about faith, he’s talking about what people did, their willingness to take risks…Don’t wait for the perfect solution before acting or you will never do anything.”

Blase certainly didn’t take risks in siding with the oppressed. Maybe that’s one reason he lived such a long, full and vibrant life.

Gary Stewart

Gary brought his progressive values into the music industry through his long career with Rhino Records. Called a ‘musical savant’ by Billboard Magazine, Gary started by working behind the counter at the Rhino Records store on Westwood Bl. in the mid 1970s. Over time, his vast knowledge of music grew him into a leadership role there, becoming Rhino’s senior vice president of A&R (Artists and Repertoire). In that role he catalogued, compiled and published otherwise unheralded and diverse artists, genres, eras and styles of music – empowering voices and cultures that would otherwise not be heard.

Gary also was the impetus at Rhino of a program where employees who donated 18 hours of volunteer time per year for community work would get off the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day with pay.

Outside of Rhino, Gary (a Sunset Park resident) worked on issues like living wages, progressive taxation, marriage equality, affirmative action and immigrant rights. He served on the boards of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and the Social Venture Network, and was also active with the Community Coalition and the Liberty Hill Foundation. When there was an important regional progressive discussion among activists going on, Gary was likely at the table as a respected voice. He was also personally generous in financially supporting progressive causes and was an effective fundraiser for them.

I first met Gary in the late 1970s when he worked behind the counter at Rhino, long before he was a major LA progressive or music exec. I was visiting LA on vacation from Minnesota and went into Rhino looking for live bootleg albums that you couldn’t find anywhere in the Midwest (other than in Madison, WI). Gary was just this really cool guy working there who knew music. It was impressive to watch him grow from those grassroots origins into a respected leader in his profession, industry, and the activist world. Again, someone acting upon their beliefs.

Living is remembering

As different as they were as individuals, Beth Leder-Pack, Blase Bonpane and Gary Stewart shared an innate sense of justice, and acted upon that in their daily lives. One way to honor and remember them, is to do the same in ours.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004) .  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.




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1 Comment

  1. How can you have can obit for Blase Bonpane without mention his epic Hot Seat performance with Wally George?

    For extra points, mention that Gary Stewart’s Rhino Records capitalized on that by putting out a Wally George record.

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