Bill Brand the fighter
He has spent 20 years fighting for the Redondo waterfront. Now Mayor Bill Brand is taking a break to turn his attention to his fight against cancer
by Mark McDermott
Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand was flying high.
It was June 5, 2019. He was on a flight to Mexico, en route, a day early, for an international conference of mayors. Since the conference was in Baja Sur, he was taking an extra day for himself. His wife, Deirdre, was backpacking through China with a friend. So Brand was flying solo to one of his favorite parts of the world. He was going surfing.
“I’ll play the world according to Bill for a day,” Brand remembers thinking.
Then, the strangest thing happened.
“I wake up,” Brand said. “And to me, nothing had happened. I just dozed off on the airplane like everybody does. But there was somebody else sitting next to me, and she had an oxygen tank, and a mask.”
Brand was befuddled. He had been sitting next to a nice couple from Sonoma. They’d disappeared.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Where did you come from?”
“I am a nurse practitioner,” the woman said. “You had a seizure, and I came to be with you.”
“What?” Brand said. “You are not talking about me, surely?”
“Oh yes. We are talking about you.”
Suddenly Brand felt his tongue. It was a little sore, and he could taste blood in his mouth. He realized he must have bitten his tongue, that yes, he’d really had a seizure. After the plane landed, Brand was taken off the plane by wheelchair. In what would be indicative of how he would manage his impending battle, Brand still attended the last two days of the conference of mayors, then returned to the U.S. A few days later, doctors at Little Company of Mary in Torrance discovered he had lung cancer, and that it had already spread to his back, neck, and brain.
An emergency room doctor reached Deidre Brand in China. He told her they were considering brain surgery on her husband the next day.
“Do I need to get on a plane right now?” she asked.
“Yes,” the doctor said.
She was a long way from anywhere. She had just finished a three-day hike and was near another national park, preparing for another trek. She went to a train station and tried unsuccessfully to find a way to an airport, then hired a private driver for a 10-hour drive to the Shanghai airport, where she arrived near midnight. She desperately tried to book a ticket for L.A. and finally found the last available ticket, then boarded a 14-hour flight to Los Angeles.
“By the time I landed, I knew the full diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer,” she said. “It was just terrifying beyond words.”
It was awful yet familiar territory. Deirdre had lost a fiance to cancer nine years earlier. They had been together for 14 years.
“One day his back was hurting, and he finally went in and got a diagnosis,” she said. “He was dead in 28 days.”
Brand wasn’t exactly in familiar territory — Stage 4 cancer is uniquely perilous — but he’d had bouts with both testicular and skin cancer two decades earlier. He is also analytical by nature, possessing both an MBA and a degree in chemical engineering. He did a quick internet search of survival rates, which returned grim results. Early in his treatments, Brand asked a palliative care doctor to be straight with him.
“Look,” Brand said. “Just between you and me…if this were you, what would you be thinking — how long do you got?”
“Well, Bill, optimistically, I’d say about four or five years,” the doctor said. “Pessimistically, I’d say a good six to nine months.”
Enough of this, Brand thought to himself. No more internet searches, and no more fretting over what was to come. As he would learn over and over again further into this medical journey, the prediction of outcomes is a wildly imprecise science — every human being is different, both in physiology, the circumstances of their medical care, and the way they approach their confrontation with cancer. Brand understood that he had access to some of the best medical care in the world in LA County. He was resolute, and unafraid.
“I was good with it,” Brand said. “You know, if this was going to be the end of my life, I’d had such a big, full life, and everybody dies of something at some point. I was 61 years old, I really didn’t have a lot to complain about. So if this was going to be my destiny, I was okay with it. What I was not okay with was leaving Deirdre.”
He was also not about to leave his duties as mayor. Brand has had one of the most remarkable political careers in Redondo Beach history. He’d fallen in love with Redondo Beach, and particularly King Harbor, as an eight-year-old newly arrived from Texas, and after growing up in Palos Verdes had spent most of his adult life in Redondo Beach. He paid almost no attention to local politics until a large commercial and residential development project called Heart of the City was proposed for King Harbor in 2001. Brand, an avid waterman, saw the harbor and its recreational uses as the actual beating heart of his adopted hometown. He became part of an activist movement that forced the City Council to rescind its approval of the development.
This proved only to be the beginning of a battle over the development of the Redondo waterfront that persists to this day. Brand and his compatriots, particularly fellow engineer-turned-activist Jim Light, passed a citywide initiative in 2008 requiring a public vote on significant development projects. All throughout his two decades of political involvement, Brand has labored intensively to rid the Redondo waterfront of the AES power plant and replace it with open space — and at one point, in 2015, also led a successful fight against a large residential development for that site. In 2016, Brand co-authored a successful ballot measure changing development standards in the harbor, which effectively killed another proposed commercial project, a proposal for the harbor that looked suspiciously like an Orange County mall.
Meanwhile, Brand was elected to the City Council in 2009, served two terms, and then won election as mayor in 2017. Within weeks of receiving his diagnosis in 2019, in a long Facebook post, Brand let residents know he was both fighting cancer and continuing his fight for Redondo Beach.
“I don’t know quite how to close this post other than to say the doctors are very confident that I will be able to manage this disease,” Brand wrote. “I want to be as transparent with the public as possible, and if ever I feel that I can’t fully fulfill my mayoral duties, I will be stepping down. For now, I’m just a future cancer survivor doing what he’s told by the people who deal with these challenges every day.”
Brand has navigated a circuitous, three-year battle against cancer that has included both successful and unsuccessful clinical trials and both totally ineffective and almost miraculously effective treatment regimes. At times, he has been nearly cancer-free. On June 8, he wrote on Facebook about the last of these treatments, the cutting-edge antibody treatment enhertu, which was designed to fight a mutation common to breast cancer but turned out to be extremely effective for Brand in his fight. For the last 18 months, using enhertu, Brand has led an almost entirely normal life.
“I saw a dramatic reduction in my various tumors even after the first treatment,” he wrote. “God bless modern medicine and all the researchers, doctors, drug companies, and everyone else including the frontline workers who clean the facilities to the techs who operate the equipment. Everyone involved had a hand in extending my life with only some minor side-effects like nausea and fatigue….Onward!”
Four days later, Brand experienced another seizure. He was at home, alone at the time, and minorly injured himself falling down. But the larger injury was what his doctors soon confirmed. Enhertu had ceased working for him. The time had come to find another treatment.
The time had also come, Brand realized, to step back a bit from his political life. At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, he announced that he would take a break for a few months to focus on recalibrating his fight against cancer.
“I am going to be taking some time off over the next three months,” Brand said in an interview regarding the announcement. “I have some serious health issues I need to focus on, and I just can’t be distracted with City issues as much as I’ve been for over 20 years. I have to change my treatments and that will require my full focus and attention.”
“I will be somewhat unavailable,” Brand said. “I’ve always said I’m going to keep everybody abreast of the situation. I’ve had a great run from the treatments. I’ve been very fortunate with all the fantastic medical treatment we had at my disposal here in the Los Angeles area, which I continue to benefit from. Most people out there have either had cancer or have had someone close to them who has had to deal with these battles, and people have lost many loved ones to cancer. So me, in the throes of going through what I’m going through right now, I don’t need to explain it to them. I appreciate all the support I’ve gotten from the community. But this is what we deal with in this day and age, as we age gracefully. Everybody gets diagnosed with something eventually. We don’t get to choose when or what. You are dealt your cards. I am grateful to have a wonderful wife, family, friends, and community behind me. I am in a much better situation than so many people who are dealing with what I am dealing with. I am very fortunate.”
Supervisor Janice Hahn has marveled at the way Brand has balanced his mayoral duties with his fight against cancer. She is always astonished to see him at regional meetings, the real nitty-gritty of local government, such as the California Contract Cities Association and the Sanitation District Board of Directors meetings. Nobody in the public would notice if he missed such meetings.
“In the three years since his diagnosis, I haven’t seen Bill Brand miss a beat,” Hahn said. “He’s been a champion for the City of Redondo Beach…At the height of the pandemic, it was Bill’s idea to have weekly meetings between me, him, and the other mayors of the Beach Cities so we could coordinate the closing and the re-opening of our beaches. He is dealing with a life-altering diagnosis and demanding treatment. But I have not seen Bill slow down.”
Councilperson Todd Loewenstein, who was elected to council in 2017 at the same time Brand became mayor, admired his colleague’s fortitude well before he was diagnosed with cancer. What Loewenstein has witnessed since has dumbfounded him.
“I am pretty much in awe of Bill,” he said. “I mean, we have a power plant in town. But really, Bill Brand is our power plant. He generates his own energy. He’s just this restless individual, a guy who wants to stay active. He’s determined not to let this define who he is, and not let it define his term as mayor.”
When Bill met Deirdre
Nine years ago, after Deirdre West lost the man who had been the love of her life, she had no interest in looking for romantic love again. Their 14 year relationship had actually spanned 22 years, with a few breaks, before she’d finally committed to marriage. She’d been married earlier in life and was raising a daughter by herself. She was not one of those people who felt life was incomplete outside marriage. She had a good job that mattered to her as a section manager for environmental planning for the Metropolitan Water District, and she had her daughter, Shannon.
“I didn’t want to get remarried,” she said. “I had my daughter, and I wanted to just have her and me. We had such a good thing going.”
No sooner did she get engaged then she experienced the harrowing loss of her fiance’s death. The years after seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, working, and watching her daughter blossom into a young woman. Still, the loss she’d experienced lingered, and she often felt somewhat depressed. In 2015, she and Shannon were on a trip together in the Galapagos Islands when her daughter sprung a surprise on her.
“I am sitting at the computer in the hotel on the Galapagos Islands, and all of a sudden I am getting all these emails from Match.com,” she recalled.
They were in their hotel room. They’d just returned from a boat voyage, exploring the natural wonders of the Galapagos. She looked up at her daughter.
“Look at this,” she said. “Isn’t this strange? I’m getting all these emails.”
Her daughter had a big smile on her face.
“It’s time,” she said. “It’s time.”
They returned to the States and she kept getting emails but for a few months didn’t go on any dates. Then she received an email from a guy named Bill from Redondo Beach.
“Bill wrote me something about himself, and I said, ‘I really want to meet this guy,’” Deirdre said. “And he is the first one I met.”
They agreed to meet at Roman Aroma, a restaurant in Redondo Beach. She arrived first, and was scanning outside when she saw a tall, dark-haired man striding across the restaurant’s courtyard towards her.
“My first impression was, ‘Wow, he’s handsome. I hope he’s not stupid,’” she recalled, laughing.
Far from it. Not only was he conversant on the environmental issues that animate her, but he was a policy wonk — he knew about her work, and even about the intricacies of Environmental Impact Reports.
“We talked for over three hours over coffee, and he knew everything about water,” she said. “I happened to be the head of environmental planning for the Metropolitan Water District, so we had a tremendous amount in common, and I had done some activist work myself. It was just great.”
They had a seemingly endless number of things to talk about. They shared an insatiable curiosity about the world, and frequently traveled its far corners. Each loved the ocean. But it was something beyond lists of common interests that drew them to each other. Both Bill and Deirdre are whip-smart and in possession of a dry sense of humor and an inclination to laugh. Both give a very big damn about the world around them, and especially other people.
“I’m like, ‘This guy is for real,’” she remembered thinking. “He’s very optimistic. He’s very life-affirming. He’s very forgiving of people and their transgressions, so to speak. You know, I rage all the time against this politician or this, that, or the other thing. He’s just so much more compassionate than me.”
But of course, this is coming from someone who cares for her aging mother, and is herself such a devoted mother whom her own daughter had to tell her to get back out in the world. What Bill saw in Deirdre was a capacity for caring he’d rarely if ever encountered before in another person.
“There’s an intangible about Deirdre that only if you spend time with her do you get the benefit of being in the presence of,” he said. “It’s not something you can really put your finger on but you know you’re talking to a real person who cares about other people, and cares about the environment, and cares about how she’s going to leave the world and what will be left in her wake. She is a lot less worried about herself than she is about the mark she is going to leave on the Earth. She is a giver, from beginning to end, often to her own detriment.”
They are one of those couples who meet later in life and somehow fit together perfectly, as if scripted. A year and a half after meeting, on September 29, 2017, in a simple ceremony at the courthouse near LAX, Bill and Deirdre were married.
“I’ve never been happier than I have been with him,” Deirdre said. “We just have such a beautiful, weird connection.”
Twenty months later, when Brand received his diagnosis, he and his wife embarked on a different sort of journey together. She was not as at peace with his diagnosis as he was. But as terrified as she was, the next three years would also be a time of unexpected gifts for both of them. Brand would serve as mayor during the global pandemic while undergoing multiple treatments, at times in extreme pain and at other times remarkably vibrant.
“I’m sick in bed more than he is,” Deirdre Brand said. “He’ll have just gotten back from his bike ride and I’m kind of crawling out of bed, waiting for a cup of coffee. He just hasn’t gotten down, and he’s taught me so much about how to live. He doesn’t like planning, and it’s because he likes to be present for whatever is coming into his life that particular day. He’s taught me so much about that with this diagnosis.”
“The difference really is I call her a calendar filler-upper,” Brand said. “If you want to know what I’m doing tomorrow, talk to me tomorrow. We’ve learned from each other.”
“I just have to live with him each day and tell him how much I love him and try to be the best partner I can be. I am very worried, and a planner, and don’t live the way he does, but I am surrendering to it. And you know what? It’s pretty awesome.”
Brand says he could write a book about the blessings of cancer. That book would be dedicated to his wife, without whom Brand is uncertain he’d still be alive to tell the tale.
“I would not be here without her,” he said. “She is my life force.”
Next: Brand’s battle and book of blessings.