Mark McDermott

Bill Brand is an unlikely politician, a waterman who became mayor fighting against waterfront development. Now he’s fighting for his life  

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Mayor Bill Brand on the Avenues in Redondo Beach. Photo by J.P. Cordero

by Mark McDermott 

The little boy was six years old and already had a knack for doing unexpected things in unlikely ways. 

Bill Brand and his family lived in Dallas, Texas, and spent summers down in their “bay house” outside Galveston. Bill noticed that the giant oil supertankers that passed offshore created waves that would come all the way to shore. He found a piece of styrofoam and had an idea. He was going to surf the Gulf of Mexico.  

“I’d see the ship coming, run down to shore and wait by myself for the boat wakes to come in,” Brand said. “That’s how I got into riding waves.” 

He couldn’t have known it at the time, but those first waves would change the trajectory his life might otherwise have taken. A couple of years later, in 1966, his family moved to Southern California. He has a vivid memory of riding down Harbor Drive in Redondo Beach in the family’s red 1960 Chrysler New Yorker station wagon. 

“I’m hanging out the window of the station wagon going, ‘We’re going to live here?” he recalled. “I was eight years old.” 

They stayed two weeks at the Portofino Inn. “Pretty much all I did was go to the Seaside Lagoon,” Brand said. “Loved that place. Still do.” 

The Brand kids on Galveston Bay, from lef to right, Mac, Sallie, Bill and Liz.
Photos courtesy Bill Brand

All roads would eventually lead back to Harbor Drive. The Brands settled in Palos Verdes, where Bill would attend Lunada Bay Elementary School, Margate Middle School, and Palos Verdes High. He was a good student, but he was most avid about surfing. After he graduated from PV High in 1976, he drifted a bit —  he attended El Camino Community College and Santa Barbara City College, but nothing interested him as much as surfing.  And so in 1979, he took a job with American Airlines, largely because he wanted to travel to surf spots around the world.

“I was kind of lost and didn’t really know what I was gonna do,” Brand said. “And so I got that  job with American Airlines. Back then it was so expensive to fly. And now I could go to exotic places like Bali for really, really cheap. It became a passion of mine to travel around the world and go surfing while I could.”

During those years he traveled on solo surf trips to Indonesia, South Africa, Spain, France, Ireland, Mexico, Barbados, Australia, Dominican Republic, Fiji, New Zealand, and a few other countries. His entire life was built around traveling to surf. 

Bill Brand on a surf safari in Baja Mexico. Photo courtesy Bill Brand

Bill Brand surfing Padang Padang in Bali, 1981. Photo courtesy Bill Brand

Bill Brand kneeboarding lefts and rights at Hollister Ranch as a 14-year-old in 1972. Photo by Guy Motil

He moved to Redondo Beach in 1980, and over the next few decades would obtain a degree in chemical engineering from California State Long Beach and later an MBA from USC. But at the end of the day, surfing always won out, and so did American Airlines, where he would eventually become a crew chief. 

It might have continued that way, with traveling and surfing at the forefront of his life, if he’d not tuned into the Redondo Beach community television channel one night in late 2001. He was baffled by what he saw: a proposed waterfront development that included as many as 2,998 residential units at the AES power plant site and a rezoning of the entire harbor area to allow more commercial development. It was called the Heart of the City, and judging from the testimony at the public hearing Brand had tuned into, the vast majority of residents were against it, too. 

“I started watching the Planning Commission meeting, just surfing the channels, and on Channel 8 and saw all these people in the room just railing against the Heart of the City,” he remembered. “I watched that and heard the details of [the plan], and thought, ‘That’s way too big, just way too big.’ And then I saw all these people objecting to it, 10 to one or whatever, and they brought it back for the next month, and I watched it the next month and they passed it unanimously.” 

 “I was shocked that there could be so much public opposition and then you had an appointed body just unanimously approve it and basically ignore the public outcry. So I thought at the time, ‘Surely the City Council isn’t gonna pass it, or at least they’ll adjust the project.” 

Early the next year, the City Council likewise unanimously approved the Heart of the City. It was just too much for Brand to take. Ever since his first ride down Harbor Drive, Brand had loved the Redondo waterfront —  both its ramshackle small town feel and the fact that it was built first and foremost for recreation rather than for big dollar commercial attractions. It was a place for community, and for those who loved the water, like himself. Brand was thus lured into the fight to defend King Harbor from commercial intrusion. 

A letter to the editor in Easy Reader from Redondo resident Chris Cagle included a phone number for those who wanted to organize against the Heart of the City. Brand called the number, and, unbeknownst to him, his political career began. 

The movement against the Heart of the City gathered more than 10,000 signatures within three weeks and forced the Council to rescind the zoning and AES to halt its plans. But that battle turned out to be the beginning of a war that remains ongoing and has included several ballot measures, lawsuits, and most recently another large proposed  commercial development in King Harbor. Every attempt at development has been turned back, however, and Brand —  who would serve two terms on the council and currently serves as mayor —  has been at the center of the entire flight. 

Councilperson Todd Loewenstein said had Bill Brand not emerged as a leader in that fight, Redondo Beach today would look a lot more like Santa Monica. 

“I think the city owes a debt of gratitude to Bill Brand,” Loewenstein said. “If you like living here because of its small town feel on the water next to a major megalopolis, Bill is the key reason for that still being the case.” 

Bill Brand and Jim Light at the AES power plant in 2009.

Loewenstein, who described Brand as “the accidental politician,” believes Brand’s personal attachment to the waterfront has been an animating factor in his ability to keep going in the prolonged fight over the waterfront. 

“I think he appreciates the fact that there’s only one waterfront but there’s many places to build, right?” he said. “And he’s a waterman by nature.” 

Brand himself remains surprised by the turn his life has taken into the political fray. His old friends, he says, haven’t quite gotten their head around the fact that their buddy Bill — the wandering surf bum, living the dream from the far corners of the planet — is now a political leader. 

“You talk to any of my friends I grew up with who left and had big lives elsewhere, and they come back and they go, ‘Bill Brand is mayor of Redondo Beach?’ It’s like the robot in Lost in Space: ‘Does not compute. Does not compute,’ Brand said. 

These days, Brand finds himself in a different kind of fight, one that is not only the biggest fight of his life, but a fight for his life. He has stage four lung cancer. It was discovered last year in May after he had a seizure while aboard an airplane.

“I was flying to Mexico to go surfing,” he said. “I was by myself. My wife, Deirdre, was in China so I thought I’d have the ‘World According to Bill’ for a week and fly down there. I was having a nice flight and you know how you close your eyes and just kind of nod off…well, I woke up and the nice couple from Sonoma sitting next to me were gone and there was a nice lady there instead with an oxygen tank and a mask. I’m looking at her like, ‘Where’d you come from?’ and she says, ‘I’m a nurse practitioner and you had a seizure so I came to be with you.’” 

He’d bitten his tongue and there was blood everywhere. After the plane landed, Brand was taken off the plane by wheelchair. After he returned to the U.S. a few days later, doctors at Little Company of Mary hospital in Torrance discovered he had lung cancer that had already spread to his brain. Brand has approached the fight with the same matter-of-fact aplomb with which he entered politics. He’s also shared every step of the fight with his followers on Facebook and occasionally at City Council.

“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 as he announced his diagnosis on Facebook in June 2019  “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 everyday.  Most of you don’t know I survived testicular cancer 25 years ago and skin cancer 20 years ago, and I will do it again. Both were just bumps in the road of life because of the great care I received and the loving support of close family and friends.  All of which I am very fortunate to still have.” 

Brand has missed few council meetings and even participated in an open water swimming race —  the World Open Water Swimming Association’s expo, which was a coup for Redondo Beach to host —  while in the throes of chemotherapy only months after his diagnosis. 

Jim Light, a fellow engineer who has been Brand’s partner in the two-decade fight over waterfront development, has marvelled at his friend’s ability to manage a fight against cancer while more than fulfilling his duties as mayor. 

“I’ve been with him from the very start of the journey, and just like with other stuff, he was like, ‘Yeah, find out data, go to the doctors, figure out a path and then just start going on it,’” Light said. “And then if one thing doesn’t work, shift your strategy and keep moving. But what is amazing to me is with all that going on in his personal life, he’s still focused on doing the right thing for the city. You know, not a lot of people would do that. I’m not sure I would do that.” 

Loewenstein said Brand isn’t just hewing to local issues, either. He’s involved in a statewide fight against a legislative effort to impose more housing density on cities. 

“Let me just say on a personal note, I’m in awe of Bill,” he said. “I’m amazed that a guy can keep focused on not only local but state issues like housing bills in the middle of stage four cancer. I mean, most people would fall apart, right? He’s more involved than I think he’s ever been. It’s not just me, but a lot of people statewide look at Bill for leadership.” 

Bill Brand successfully negotiated with California Senate Pro-Tem Kevin de Leon for state monies to buy parkland at AES site in 2018. Photo by Senator Ben Allen

Brand said his fight against cancer is similar to his political fights insofar as he’s drawn some key lessons from a lot of time spent on the ocean. 

“Surfing taught me how to deal with the unexpected,” Brand said. “When you are out there by yourself and the waves are big and you are at a new spot where you’ve never been before, things happen. And you build confidence dealing with the unexpected. It’s kind of an odd result of living with nature that also happens in small town politics. It’s kind of the same thing…You develop ways to deal with the unexpected. It’s kind of strange but true.” 

Loewenstein said there’s another quality that favors Brand in this fight: his utter relentlessness. 

“The guy just never stops,” he said. “And if you bet on Bill to stop, you’re probably gonna lose that bet.”

Next week: Growing up Brand, into the Heart of the City.

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