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Personality Politics 

Choose one: Earnest or boisterous?

Wednesday, Feb 23 2000
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When 13th District L.A. City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg talks about her major accomplishments in 16 years of public office, she likes to talk about Hollywood -- and you like to listen. That’s because it‘s a good story. Anyone who’s spent some years in the world-famous, 4-square-mile entertainment district that‘s in both her present council district and her sought-after 45th Assembly District can see the improvement.

There is, for instance, the big TrizacHahnCRA development springing up north of Hollywood Boulevard and west of Highland Avenue. There’s the newfound paucity of empty storefronts along that once-dirty boulevard for most of its commercial length, from Mann‘s Chinese to well east of Vine Street. More importantly, perhaps, there is the obvious improvement in the Hollywood back streets that used to be crack alleys and cocaine highways. We are talking about thoroughfares like the notoriously druggy and gangy Selma corridor here. A lot of Hollywood is getting to be a nice place to live, again.

Hollywood’s downtown hinterland has active neighborhood organizations, clean streets, and a sort of self-esteem it‘s probably lacked since the teenage hookers trolled the area in the dawn of the Reagan administration. ”It’s part luck and part the economy,“ Goldberg agreed. But then, someone had to make it happen, too. Goldberg enjoys describing how she and her staff, which she often praises, managed to get the long-deadlocked Hollywood players -- the CRA, the property owners, the entertainment industry and the residents -- to talk and work together. ”It was like couples counseling,“ she said. ”First, people have to learn to stop assigning blame.“

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Her opponent in the race, Cesar Portillo, might see this assertion in a different light; Portillo claimed last weekend that Goldberg‘s own campaign for the Assembly seat being vacated by Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa had been getting out the word about Portillo’s arrest nine years ago for alleged misdemeanor lewd conduct after being approached by an undercover LAPD officer. He said he paid a $200 fine and resigned from the LAUSD teaching job from which he was automatically suspended, pending an appeal he failed to make.

Goldberg and her campaign consultant, Parke Skelton, fervently denied the charge. Goldberg said she had heard of the allegation. Portillo, his staff and his family made the admission of the arrest at a Sunday news conference. ”We put it out there and put it to rest,“ said Portillo‘s campaign manager, Frank Bergad. ”We think we’re winning.“

The effect of Portillo‘s statements remains to be seen. But the arrest disclosure seemed, for the first time, to put the Portillo campaign on the defensive. Until now, Goldberg supporters, and even a few neutrals, have criticized Portillo’s campaign against the 55-year-old councilwoman and former LAUSD board member as overly aggressive. Some have even compared it to the controversial campaign whereby former Councilman Richard Alarcon two years ago narrowly beat out former Assemblyman Richard Katz for a Valley state Senate seat. Particularly when Portillo makes a point of the fact that the district is 70 percent Latino, with a 51 percent Latino plurality among registered voters.

”You don‘t have to be a Latino or gay [the 45th District also has a high gay population] to represent this district,“ he stated. ”But it is important to recall that the number of Latino representatives in Sacramento still doesn’t represent the overall [state Latino] population.“ He also resents that he gets accused of race-baiting when he refers to the real demographics of his district.

Goldberg talks of her far greater experience as an elected official. Besides her Hollywood showpiece and a claimed 800 new units of affordable housing, she can take much of the credit for establishing Los Angeles‘ landmark Living Wage Ordinance. She’s further extended that wage to jobs in the TrizacHahn development -- including all the jobs at the renovated hotel on the site. Goldberg has the unstinting support of most of the area‘s unions in her campaign, and added that, whatever the ethnic demography, more than half of the 45th District’s voters are union members.

But her opponent is no stranger to Sacramento. At 36, Portillo‘s longest employment has been as a lobbyist for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, writing and working for legislation to benefit people with AIDS and other chronic diseases. And Goldberg’s nine years on the school board concluded just as the monumentally wrong-headed Belmont Learning Complex was getting under way. Goldberg now claims that most of her efforts to provide a new high school at that time focused on acquiring the Ambassador Hotel property -- Belmont‘s predecessor fiasco, you might say. But documentation from that time indicates that Goldberg was a board member long enough to be involved with the acquisition of the original -- and gas-permeated -- 11 acres of that project. Goldberg states that she did not have any real knowledge of the toxics issues at the time, since the LAUSD staff kept such information from board members. She has a point there, although the issue did arise in school board deliberations, according to some who were present.

Goldberg’s Belmont record may well be the weak spot in her campaign armor. But it is interesting that, Belmont‘s origins aside, the two candidates do not have many major differences on educational issues. Both want to see more preschool programs to bring young children up to the demands of kindergarten and first grade. Both agreed in interviews that if the star-crossed Belmont complex’s gas problems can be mitigated for a reasonable cost, it ought to be used as a high school. Both agree on a need for smaller classes. Portillo generally wants to see fewer ”mega-schools“ like Belmont, and smaller high and middle schools. It is hard to find issues on which the two differ strikingly.

Indeed, there are parallels in the candidates‘ backgrounds. Thirty-five years ago, Goldberg, as a sophomore sorority-member Berkeley student, was enticed by the nascent Free Speech Movement into a lifetime of progressive politics. Portillo wasn’t much older himself when, he said, his concern for social struggle drew him away from the Jesuit order he was about to enter. Both are openly gay. Both have been involved in AIDS issues.

Indeed, apart from experience, their major difference seems to be one of personalities. Portillo is earnest, yet somehow restrained. But he seems to listen and to be better at responding to his questioners‘ interests than Goldberg, who can be boisterous but, in her own way, reticent. People who have worked with her at City Hall say it is sometimes hard to know just what she is up to. Some of her constituents claim she’s been close-mouthed about certain plans for her district -- the Costco development in Atwater is often cited as an example of this style. Goldberg claims that most of the project‘s neighbors favor the result of her planning. Depending on whom you talk to, she may or may not be promptly responsive to constituent concerns, but around City Hall, her office is notoriously slow at returning phone calls.

Others claim that, for a sometime radical, she gets unduly fixed in her views in a fashion some call ”dogmatic“ and others ”demagogic.“ Doubtless, she will never veer in her distrust of Mayor Richard Riordan. Goldberg, for instance, was a leader of the City Council’s Custerite opposition to the new, mayor-backed City Charter that was overwhelmingly passed by the voters last year. She still defends her position: ”We‘re already seeing the disaster,“ she said recently, and then, amazingly, cited as a fresh abuse of mayoral power the mayor’s firing of City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka.

Reminded that Fujioka was still holding his job, she added, ”Only because the council wouldn‘t allow it.“ But if the council continues to check the mayor’s abuses of power, you might ask, then what Los Angeles city disaster are we seeing?

So the 45th District race seems to be between an eager newcomer with an ethnic edge against a seasoned officeholder who carries most of the endorsements. The question is, will the negatives of Goldberg‘s record be perceived as much as the positives of her accomplishments? And, for that matter, will Portillo’s ethnicity advantage in the 70 percent Latino district come close to offsetting Goldberg‘s massive labor support?

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