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Sue Kempf: Ready to get to work for Laguna

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

People move to Laguna Beach for all sorts of reasons. In Sue Kempf’s case, it started with traffic and volleyball. With her job in Irvine and her home in San Diego, the hour drive through traffic, back and forth each way, every day, was unsurprisingly taking a toll. It was during this time that Kempf also sat on the Board of the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association (WPVA). A former collegiate player from Indiana University, Kempf would stop and visit a friend who lived in Laguna when she had WPVA meetings. “I was tired of driving and I said ‘I’m moving to Laguna.’” In 1999 she did.

City committees lead the way to City Council

Kempf continued her work in systems and software engineering when, in 2010, the City launched the Emergency Disaster Preparedness Committee. Kempf chaired the committee for three years. “It was just something I had an interest in,” she explains. “We’re a fire prone city, and we hadn’t really been doing anything like that.” Kempf’s interest in disaster preparedness was undoubtedly heightened by the Berkeley fires in 1991. “I was working in Berkeley during those fires. 25 people died in their cars. That got my attention,” she explains. The recent devastating fires in California have only helped highlight the committee’s important work.

Sue Kempf close up

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Sue Kempf, one of Laguna Beach City Council’s new members

From that committee, Kempf was asked to participate in the View Preservation Task Force, another City committee where passions can run high. “We visited a lot of people,” says Kempf. “It was a good experience and we put together an extremely good ordinance.” Little did she know that these experiences were the start of her political career.

A hard pass eventually becomes a yes

That became evident pretty quickly when Bob Whalen and Kelly Boyd invited her to breakfast. It was not a social call. They asked her if she would consider running for City Council. “I said, ‘Ooooh no,’” laughs Kempf. “Then more and more people started to ask me. I just decided to go with it.” She says she’s not a natural politician, but she threw her hat into the ring. “I was in it to win,” she says, spoken like the collegiate athlete she once was.

And win she did. When Kempf and I met, she’d known the results for several weeks. However, she said it took that long for her victory to sink in. “I was very tired. For three days, I didn’t go out of my house (after the election). You have a few days where you wait for the vote totals. This is the first week that it hit me that I won.”

It turns out campaigning is not all that fun

As for campaigning, it’s probably no surprise to learn that Kempf found it trying. “Self promotion is very difficult. You get pretty tired of talking about yourself,” she says. “It’s challenging.” Nevertheless, she managed to stay true to what she believes is a respectable – and effective – way to conduct a campaign. “Be yourself. Don’t engage in negative politics. Be prepared to defend your reasons. Don’t cast your fellow competitors in a bad light. Talk to as many people as you can, and be a good listener.”

Sue Kempf at Heisler

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Sue Kempf visits one of Laguna Beach’s true treasures, Heisler Park

With the victory clinched, I wondered if there were parts of the campaigning experience that were better than she’d thought they would be. “None of it was better than I thought,” she says wearily. “It was all worse. The last three weeks, it always seems to kind of devolve in every election. That happened here as well. I think, most unnecessarily.” 

A linear approach to work

Despite the bruising nature of the election, now that it is behind her, Kempf is excited to get to work. “I’m very linear about doing the work,” she explains. “What we want to work on and how we want to work on it is interesting to me. I have been successful in business, and I hope to be successful here as well.” And there are a lot of things to work on.

Open to changing the rules to encourage new business

However, identifying the issues is not the hard part, coming up with workable solutions is. Recognizing that, Kempf says she is open to making changes. “Our rules prevent us from getting new, interesting businesses. We’re going to have to change that,” she says. 

Sue Kempf sitting

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Sue Kempf taking a break at Heisler Park before she begins her first term on the City Council

The silent majority is alive and well

And while she didn’t really enjoy campaigning, she did find parts of it to be valuable. “You learn a lot about the community. There’s a large, silent majority that doesn’t come to the City Council meetings. But they’re paying attention. It was really good to talk to those people.”

Going forward as a new City Council member, Kemp says she’d like to continue hearing from as many people as possible. “I’m an objective and open-minded person. I’m also an open door kind of person. I hope we can have a Council that doesn’t listen to the same 10 people.”

The golf course will have to wait

Kempf retired from her software career in 2017. At the time she thought about just indulging in her favorite past time. “People said, ‘You can’t just play golf every day!’ and I thought, ‘Why can’t I?!’” she recounts laughing. But duty called, and now her full immersion on the fairways of El Niguel Country Club will have to wait for at least four more years.