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Mayor Zneimer Is Not Done Breaking the Mold

Deep in the night as rain pelted down the hills of South Pasadena, then-Councilwoman Evelyn Zneimer received news about a water main bursting along a portion of Indiana Avenue.
While many residents were sleeping through the tranquility of the rain drops, others weren’t so lucky.
Impacted residents would have no water running through their homes, even though there was plenty coming down around them.
As gallons upon gallons of water spewed out into the street already blanketed by heavy rainfall, Zneimer rolled out of bed at around 2 a.m., ventured through the cold, wet weather to the affected area and, to their dismay, called Public Works personnel to address the situation as quickly as possible.
While city officials tended to the situation, Zneimer and residents talked over what the next potential steps would be. When it was all said and done, the residents said it was the first time in the decades they lived there that an elected official came to the neighborhood, let alone immediately address an existing problem.
“I earned their respect,” Zneimer told the Review of the 2022 incident.
Now, serving as South Pasadena’s first Asian American Pacific Islander and Jewish mayor in the city’s long history, Zneimer still follows her mantra of what got her elected to the City Council in the first place: community connection.
“I’m very responsive to my constituents,” Zneimer said. “I answer every call, every text, every email — even if I have to stay up until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Elected to the Council in 2020 representing District 1, Zneimer, a South Pasadena resident since 1984, unseated longtime incumbent and Councilman Bob Joe.
She served as City Clerk since being elected to the position in 2013, and her goal as Councilwoman was to restore public trust in the city’s leaders.
“We wanted changes because the city was in bad shape because there were challenges in the finance department,” she said. “The city didn’t have a balanced budget, and the city didn’t have any money because of litigation stemming from the 710 freeway. …
“We lost a lot of trust [from] the public.”

Zneimer recently celebrated her daughter Daphne’s (second, from right) birthday with her son, Samuel (left), and their families in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 2. – Photo courtesy Evelyn Zneimer

In 2010, longtime South Pasadena resident Ellen Daigle approached Zneimer to run for Council, to which she responded, “Come back to me in 10 years.”
Fast-forward to 2020, Daigle came knocking on her door and said, “Your time is up.”
Still on the fence about campaigning, Zneimer said the turning point came when the Council considered eliminating the City Clerk position in 2020. Still, it was a tall task for Zneimer, considering she was going up against Joe, a decades long public servant.
“I said I would never win against him, so to appease my friends and neighbors, I said, ‘OK, I will run,’” said Zneimer, who added she was running against “a really good Councilmember.”
Facing an uphill climb, Zneimer went to work, first hiring campaign advisers who worked with President Barack Obama, and employing her kids to run her social media campaign. She also launched a door-to-door campaign to rally up the votes.
Her platform centered on two ideas: restoring public trust and change.
“The younger generation wanted change,” she said.
Community engagement is among her priorities as the city’s top leader, and she believes transparency is crucial for a thriving city.
“If I tell my constituents what we’re doing in open session and tell them what they can expect, there’s transparency because they know that somebody tells them something,” Zneimer said.
In her first month as mayor, Zneimer spearheaded the city’s first public outreach event at Jones Coffee Roasters.
There, Zneimer spent nearly all 90 minutes of the allotted time chatting with residents, many of whom welcomed her as the top leader. Others voiced their concerns.
Of course, there are many municipality issues to address, and on top of Zneimer’s list is upgrading the city’s infrastructures. From mitigating potholes, and updating an aging old sewer system, to improving the westside reservoir, Zneimer hopes to bring everything up to date while in office.
To do this, Zneimer plans to hold bimonthly meetings with Public Works to make sure the streets are in tip-top shape in terms of paving and maintenance. The fixes have to happen all at once for efficiency, she said.
The completion of pocket parks is also on Zneimer’s plan. Building on the groundbreaking of the Beatriz Solis Park at 2006 Berkshire Ave., the city will move forward with one on 1107 Grevelia St.

Diversity and inclusion are goals for Zneimer, the city’s first mayor who is an Asian American Pacific Islander and Jewish.
“I embrace diversity. South Pas is now embracing diversity. To me, it’s international,” said Zneimer, who sees the inclusivity in the city’s schools.
“To me, South Pas is now embracing diversity. Whether they like it or not, we’re here to stay and I like the changes.”
Zneimer highlighted her longtime experiences with discrimination, but believes it’s an “important teaching tool” to be Jewish and an Asian American Pacific Islander.
“We face lots of challenges,” Zneimer said.
The mayor’s Jewish faith stems from her great-great grandmother who was from Madrid. Zneimer said she was a Sephardic Jew, but Zneimer herself did not convert until her family immigrated to the United States.
Her mother was a Seventh-day Adventist, but had two separate sets of dishes in the household, a key indicator of Zneimer’s religious roots.
When she came to the states, Zneimer studied the Orthodox Judaism and lived in Melrose to walk to shul. She eventually served as president of a sisterhood in Alhambra when she was in her 20s.
Zneimer needed to compromise with her spouse, who practiced Reformed Judaism, when she got married, so she raised her kids as conservative members of the religion. They attended Hebrew school in Arcadia.
Fast-forward to her new role, Zneimer is working with city officials to launch a multicultural event on Mission Street in September, inviting everyone with different cultural backgrounds to celebrate during a one-day event.
“I really want to promote diversity and tolerance because we have unconscious biases and I can’t help that, but with more education, we learn to tolerate our neighbors and I think it would be better, really, for our city,” Zneimer said, adding that “it’s healthy” to have a more inclusive community.
“It makes our city South Pas a wonderful town to live in.”

A member of the American Cancer Society Action Network since 2006, Zneimer is pictured alongside two volunteer lobbyists and state Sen. Anthony Portantino during her efforts to push for anti-tobacco bills in 2017. Zneimer said she makes regular annual trips to the state capital, and has previously lobbied for health care bills that support the organization in Washington, D.C. -Photo courtesy Evelyn Zneimer

Getting elected to the City Council wasn’t easy and it was an afterthought for Zneimer, who started her involvement in the community in the 1990s when then-Mayor Jim Hodges encouraged her to join the fight against the 710 freeway extension.
Reluctantly, Zneimer joined the battle, and to this day still has the garment Hodges handed her, an apron with an etching of a crossed out “No 710.”
Her efforts further inspired Hodges to invite her to join the Natural Resources Commission, which he was the Council liaison for. She initially rejected it, but eventually caved in and attended the monthly meeting.
Zneimer became much more involved in public activism during that time as well. Her first advocacy initiative involved open spaces and fighting for the inception of the South Pasadena Nature Park, which was then an empty lot that the city sold for $5.5 million to developers.
Skeptical at first, Zneimer agreed to be the brainchild of the fight but not to do much of the “legwork.” She threatened to sue the city in federal court for the sale, prompting leaders to bow out of the deal.
From there, she continued to advocate for more open spaces in the city, serving on the Parks and Recreations Commission in the mid-‘90s, helping launch the Concerts in the Park series and even pushing a successful initiative to build the youth house at Garfield Park.

Zneimer was born and raised in the Philippines. Her father was Hawaiian and served in the U.S. Navy, while her mother, half-Spanish and half-Filipina, was born in the Philippines and was a student in Manila when the two met.
When she was a teenager, her father revealed that she had dual citizenship in the United States. She had no idea she could call another country home, but she was told the family needed to move to the United States otherwise her citizenship would expire (which she later found out was a “myth”).
The family moved to Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown when Zneimer was 16, and it was then that she had her first encounter with discrimination.
“I never knew discrimination until I came to this country,” she said. “It’s very interesting. I treat everyone equally. I don’t even see the color of their skin. Coming here, it’s just eye-opening.
“I speak with an accent. I’m not born here. When you speak with an accent, you’re treated differently.”
Despite the obstacles presented to her, she learned to “let her smarts do the talking,” and with $20 to her name, Zneimer, then 16, applied and was accepted to UCLA where she earned her bachelor’s in bacteriology.
After earning her degree, Zneimer began work at St. Vincent’s Hospital, but didn’t want the job as a medical technologist, so hospital officials moved her to the chemistry department because she liked to “fix things.”
She decided to go back to school to get her master’s in biology with a specialty in molecular and behavioral genetics at California State University, Los Angeles.
There, Zneimer started to learn about and study pheromones, receiving a $350,000 grant to conduct research on malathion with an entire team.
“It was kind of boring,” she said.
Citrus fruits were infested with fruit flies, so Zneimer’s job was to determine the level of radiation that she can give the male fruit flies to sterilize them and prevent breeding. She would research at home, prompting confusion with her parents about why their daughter was bringing home fruit flies.
Her thesis was published in seven different languages and was picked up by a publishing company in Switzerland. Her studies took her around the country to talk about her sterilization method.
Zneimer’s time in L.A. ended when she got married and moved to the heart of San Francisco to continue her studies at UC Davis and satisfy her itch for polo matches.
It was in the Bay Area where Zneimer’s career took a turn.
Research grew tiresome after a few years in San Francisco for Zneimer, so she picked up a newspaper one day and decided to apply for a receptionist job at an investment firm. During her lunch breaks, she would secretly write her thesis when someone got hold of her work, which ultimately catapulted her into the world of finance.
One of the firm’s clients was Merrill Lynch and when her ex-husband moved to L.A. to complete an internship at USC, she also moved, and the firm flew her to interview with Merrill Lynch. It was a success, but her new employers required her to take a test to see if she qualified, so she was flown to New York to study for the test needed to trade securities.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Zneimer, who ultimately served as a licensed registered representative, trading U.S. government securities, bonds and foreign money market instruments on Wall Street. “I have a lot of background for finances, but it was like a crash course.”
She returned to L.A. to work at the Merrill Lynch branch of institutional trading and worked there for four years until the market crashed.

Zneimer’s divorce in 1990 spurred her to enter the world of law. It motivated her to learn about her rights through the separation process.
She found the practice interesting, and eventually became the first woman to be elected president of her graduating class at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, and the managing editor of the university’s law review.
“I said I would never practice law because it’s so adversarial,” she said. “I’m not set out for that. I’m just a meek, quiet scientist. I [thought I] will never survive in a courtroom.”
But her colleagues encouraged her to fill out paperwork, and, again skeptical, Zneimer jumped head first into a corporate law firm in Pasadena where she found herself slaving away in the research department — again. Her work there centered around family law, immigration and criminal defense.
“Family law is very, very emotionally charged,” Zneimer said. “I have one or two each year, but that’s all I can handle because I hate to lose. I’m nice, but not really nice when we’re in the courtroom. It’s advocacy for my client.”
In 1998, she took a major leap and opened up her own law firm in downtown Los Angeles.
With no contacts and not much of a plan for growing her business, Zneimer was apprehensive. But her corporate law experience opened doors with previous clients reaching out to her. At first, Zneimer approached potential clients with caution due to conflict of interest, but it slowly changed as she represented their families.
“It was just word-of-mouth because I couldn’t afford to advertise,” she said.
She received her first case in 1998 when her dental hygienist asked her to represent her in a suit involving divorce and child custody. Zneimer gave her client fair warning about her inexperience, but that did not prove discouraging enough.
“It was the blind leading the blind,” she said.
It was Zneimer’s first taste of a courtroom — and she said she really liked it.
“It was like a rush,” she added.
Zneimer said it was a very litigious and ugly case, to the point where both attorneys were yelling at each other and prompting the courtroom bailiff to step in and separate them.
But she won the case, and her client now receives a monthly spousal support as long as she doesn’t remarry.
Zneimer encourages others interested in practicing law to be willing to learn. She said she’s like a “sponge” and spent hours in the library.
That inspired her to be a mediator in the family law division of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. She served in the role between 2013 up until the pandemic. The experience was invaluable, exposing her to a plethora of cases to learn from.
“It was a lot of work and you have to be diplomatic between the lawyers and the clients,” she said. “I got to see the other side. When it’s my turn to see the client, I’m fierce, but I can see compromise. Compromise is the word that I learned when I was a mediator.”
Advocacy was at the forefront in her time as judge pro tem, fighting for disadvantaged individuals in the community.
Zneimer represents and advocates for high-risk youths, especially those experiencing mental health crises, and is the liaison for the Foothill Economic Workforce, which helps low-income individuals and persons of color.
“We make sure we help them because they’re kind of a disadvantaged group in our community,” she said. “To me, even if I can help a little bit just talking to them and inspire them, it really does wonders. I feel like I’m contributing to society and helping the vulnerable population in our community. I can see that they can be future leaders if someone can help them.”
She is also a member of the Los Angeles County Bar Association Armed Forces committee, which aims to help veterans and advocates for their wellbeing. Zneimer has represented veterans in court pro bono for more than a decade and she accepts about three to four cases to help veterans.
“It’s always my passion. They served our country and this is our payback,” she said.”
Zneimer has also been a volunteer for the American Cancer Society Action Network since 2006 and makes an annual trip to Sacramento as well as the nation’s capital to lobby for health care bills in support of the organization.
As a volunteer lobbyist, she has helped raise funds for cancer research from the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Zneimer doesn’t hide the fact that she wears many hats, but she stresses the importance of family time outside of her profession.
Though her kids, Samuel and Daphne, often have to make an appointment to see her, Sundays are family days.
“Anything for the family,” she said.
In her down time, she enjoys watching cartoons, particularly “The Jetsons” and anything involving the carrot-crunching, wise-mouth Bugs Bunny.
“The Jetsons, they’re very futuristic,” Zneimer said. “In my lifetime, I would like a flying car. They had a flying car and a helipad! And their maid is a robot!”
She plays piano and classical guitar and at one point dabbled with the harp, and also enjoys gardening around her home in the Monterey Hills.
A self-proclaimed pet person, Zneimer has a “gazillion” fish, and neighbors could find her around the neighborhood walking around with her canaries on her shoulders.
“I talked to them and everyone thought I was insane,” Zneimer joked.
She also had an iguana named “Iggy” who would stroll around with her in the hills and spend quality time with the family – even in the Jacuzzi. Zneimer is also an avid equestrian, and has owned many horses to ride and race.
Of course, the mayor hopes the Dodgers will win the World Series this year.
Zneimer, for now, says she doesn’t want to run for higher office.
When her time is over with the City Council, she told her kids she wanted to be a painter and hopes to finish her travels. She even entertained the idea of studying business, which her children turned down.
“My motto is: If I can do it today, why not? Life is too short, and I don’t mope. If I fail, I get up. I’m not a person to give up.”

NOTE: We are having technical problems getting photos online and apologize for them not being posted immediately.

First published in the March 15 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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