By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Joel Wachs likes to say no. For instance, while discussing the Belmont Learning Complex with the Weekly’s editorial board, he grants a glimpse into how his mind sometimes works toward the negative. He’s just said that he’d strongly oppose using the costly, controversial L.A. Unified site for education unless it could be proven that it could be made safe. Then, asked whether he’d want the site used if the oil-field gas hazards could be mitigated, he also says no. Why? “I think [that] if it were safe, we’d be using it by now,” he concludes.
Saying no has been Wachs’ habit since he was a City Council newcomer about 30 years ago. Nowadays, Wachs is the second senior-most council member (just behind the ailing John Ferraro), but in many ways he’s still trying to be the contrarian new kid on the Los Angeles City Council block. And also, some would contend, the one with the most new ideas — not all of which pass muster with his colleagues. And even those that do pass muster can fall short of actualization.
“Great inspirations, not enough follow-through,” said one senior city manager whose department has generally been on Wachs’ side in his most celebrated recent fights.
The one fight Wachs keeps coming back to is the Staples Center, and how he uncovered and defeated the city’s commitment to give $180 million to the arena project. Ã¢ Wachs’ 1998 campaign against this handout not only triumphed (actually, it reduced the city’s obligation by about 60 percent), he set a new standard whereby, as he always puts it, big lobbyists, investors and insiders can’t take a free ride at City Hall’s expense.
Even more noteworthy was Wachs’ earlier effort to reform city purchasing practices. Not as showy an issue (probably because there were no prominent bad guys against whom he could posture), this reform may save the city more money than anything else the councilman has done. Wachs also has a progressive past, as the father of rent control in L.A. Indeed, he may have been the only Republican in any big U.S. city to back rent control in the 1970s.
* * *Steve Soboroff
Steve Soboroff likes to say yes. He is what you might call a generous-spirited guy. See him in action, as president of the Board of Recreation and Parks Commission hearing last year, where the top item is something as minor as the renewal of a contract for a pony-ride concession. He is completely engaged, all there. Also on the agenda is the awarding of a 30-year pin to a midranking parks employee. These occasions are usually pretty stiff and hasty. Forced smiles, a bit of embarrassment on both sides.
A quick Polaroid snapshot: Not the way Steve Soboroff does it. He really enjoys working with people, and he wants everyone else to know it.
“Here, it’s your day,” he says, offering the 30-year man his official chair of office. Then he lauds the employee’s accomplishments and jokes with him. Soboroff is sincere and funny. Everyone leaves grinning, and you get the feeling that it actually meant something to the city that someone would put 30 years of his life into the Department of Recreation and Parks.
Wachs and Soboroff, in their quest for the Valley vote, have turned their candidacies into a kind of mayor’s race within the mayor’s race. Instead of focusing their ire on the ostensible mayoral front-runner, Jim Hahn, they keep spilling it upon one another. Both are middle-aged and Jewish, and both have spent most of their political lives as registered Republicans, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Wachs — who switched to “independent” eight years ago — is gay, Soboroff a straight and philoprogenitive (five kids, all under 18) family man. Wachs has an unpretentious house, said to be filled with great modern art, in a decent Valley area. Soboroff, with a personal fortune said to be in the low eight figures, has two homes in two gated communities, one of them Pacific Palisades, the other Palm Springs. Wachs, 62, went to UCLA and has a Harvard law degree. Soboroff, 52, whose parents’ fortunes came and went as he grew up, got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from the University of Arizona.
The key element in their conflict, however, has mostly to do with what the pair did after college. Ever since one Studio City neighbor, local activist Chris Hewitt, suggested he run for the City Council in 1971, Wachs has been involved in elected office. Since 1978, Soboroff has been a major player in the game of big-time Southland development with his company Soboroff Partners. Developers must learn the City Hall political game early, but in a specialized, outsider way. To Soboroff, obviously, Wachs is an insider at that game, and to Wachs, Soboroff seems something of a special-interest intruder. And, for all the popular perception of collusion between developers and council members, generally speaking, their relations include at least as much friction as cooperation.
This friction would probably be evident today even if Wachs and Soboroff, three years ago, had not already fought a highly publicized battle over the financing of the downtown Staples Center arena. Wachs now insists that, although Soboroff was a key figure in the deal, he bears him no animus.
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