Its important to realize that the impossible diversity of L.A.s 2nd Council District came about 15 years ago as a move aimed at dumping Joel Wachs. The suave, cosmopolitan Wachs was seldom popular with his council colleagues. And never less so than in 1986, when the death of Councilman Howard Finn during a planning hearing gave the senior council members a ghoulish opportunity to create a new Latino-majority council district near downtown.
And, while they were at it, to try to rearrange Wachs district so he could never be re-elected. The idea was to reduce Wachs middle-class southeast Valley constituencies and hand him two new segments: impecunious, Latino Arleta and the Anglo-majority horsy and Harleyish semirural areas of Sunland-Tujunga. Wachs responded by showing up at Sunland hoedowns in jeans and brand-new single-stitch Tony Lamas and playing the dancing fool. His bedazzled new constituents re-elected him to three more terms and he might have served another, if not for term limits. But Wachs poor showing in this years mayoral primary caused him to retire and take a job in New York. His district, with its increasingly Latino north-central portions, is now more diverse than ever.
Now, 30 years after Studio City good-government advocates persuaded young lawyer Wachs to run, two utterly contrasting candidates seek his office on December 11. One is Latino, the other Anglo. Each has a home constituency that probably represents well under 40 percent of the potential vote -- one in Anglo areas, the other in Latino country. Each must find enough votes from at least one of the districts other remaining two regions to win. Thirty-eight-year-old Tony Cardenas, the first Latino in the San Fernando Valley to be elected to the Assembly, is waging war on former City Hall bureaucrat Wendy Greuel, 40. Greuel is earnest and exudes competence, Cardenas oozes drive and controversy. Greuel, recently an executive of the DreamWorks entertainment empire, was an aide to former Mayor Tom Bradley and held a senior position in Bill Clintons Department of Housing and Urban Development agency. Although she has long lived in increasingly Latino Van Nuys, shes linked in the minds of many with the Bradley-era Westside-coalition politics of progressive outreach. Shes well-liked in the environmental community: I sit on the board of the Tree People; Im endorsed by the Sierra Club. And she has Representative Lucille Roybal-Allards and City Councilman Ed Reyes endorsement as well. But otherwise, she hasnt much identity in the Latino community. She says that high-propensity voters are expected to go for her. Which means, actually, more affluent Anglos. This might include many of the 30 percent of the districts voters who are Republican, as well as the lions share of the 50 percent overall who vote Demo-cratic. This creates a difficult paradox a for Greuel. While her background is in some ways more progressive than that of Cardenas, if she is to attract the older, homeowner voters of Van Nuys and North Hollywood, she may have to somehow run to the right of a competitor whose campaign strategies have included handing out American flags after the September 11 disaster. At the same time, she cant turn off the more liberal Democrats of Studio City who were long Wachs core support.
It was, apparently, in her attempt to square this particular circle that Greuel took her major campaign tumble so far. In the minds of those who oppose the idea, both candidates could more strongly oppose Valley secession.
Greuel, however, according to those present, was least persuasive against secession when the candidates appeared before the county Federation of Labors COPE board. The result, surprising to some, was that Cardenas got the COPE endorsement.
In fairness to Greuel, this endorsement could have partly been an attempt to heal the rift between county labor and Cardenas that dates to even before the assemblymans endorsement of Jim Hahn against the County Feds mayoral candidate, Antonio Villaraigosa. Yet it could turn some liberal voters from Greuel.
But if Cardenas wins, hed be the first Latino to represent a Los Angeles council district that lacks a solid Hispanic majority. He claims the rapidly growing 2nds population is around 50 percent Latino, Greuel says the figure is more like 30 percent. In any case the highest likely Latino turnout could be in the neighborhood of 20-plus percent. Which means that even if Cardenas carries his community, hell need many more votes to triumph.
Assuming hes not going to concentrate on liberal white bastions like Studio City, hell need to win the blue-collar hearts and minds of the Sunland-Tujunga area. And if Greuel, similarly, wants to avoid the tough job of selling herself as the best choice for the Latino community, shell need the same voters.
Greuel has an unusual qualification for getting votes in this district which, oddly enough, seems to be underplayed in her campaign literature. Its the terrific work she did bridging the gap between the bureaucracy of this earthquake-stricken city and that of the Clinton administration in 1994.
Remember ghost towns? Greuel says. She claims it was her follow-through that helped funnel the many millions it took to erase those ugly reminders of the Northridge quake, far faster than the Bay Area could deal with the leavings of its 1989 seismic tragedy.
Tony Cardenas says: Im a realist. Ive been in office five years. But I seldom look at my contributor list. Thats in response to those who suggest hes beholden to the Indian gaming interests whove contributed hundreds of thousands to his Assembly and (aborted) secretary-of-state campaigns. To many progressive voters, the problem is Cardenas alleged role in sluicing gaming money toward the May TV hit ads that portrayed mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa as little better than a drug dealer. Cardenas says he had nothing to do with the ads. Its obvious though from the way he talks that he has disliked Villaraigosa at least since the latter allegedly reneged on a promise of a top Assembly post. Hes obviously found other reasons since: He broke too many promises.
But Villaraigosa isnt running in this race. And what does Cardenas bring to the city political party? Among other things, a surprisingly solid environmental record, focused more on the actual clean-air needs of the poor communities than pie-in-the-sky ideals like electric cars. And a hefty-looking and widely supported juvenile crime bill that was intended to remedy last years ill-considered Proposition 21.
On pending city issues, he can be reticent. He wont flat-out say hell oppose Bernie Parks rehiring next year, but he accuses Parks of being underconcerned about departmental morale. He adds, I remember being pulled over just so some officer could ask what I did for a living, but is hesitant to commit himself to supporting the federal consent decree were it to re-emerge as an issue. You wonder, is he being hyperselective or just wary of commitment?
And you wonder what do he or Greuel really have to offer the older Tujunga voters, many of whom still resent the disappearance of what they considered their own council district in 1987. And which contender gets the benefit if (as happened in the 4th District special election this fall) many of these disgruntled voters -- unwon by either candidates blandishments -- simply stay home?
The Big Grovel
My colleague Charles Rappleye and I have both cited in these pages writer Peter J. Boyers Bad Cops New Yorker magazine piece as an egregious example of glib outsider reporting on the Rampart case. You may recall that Mr. Boyer pretty much channeled Police Chief Bernie Parks for the benefit of his sophisticated readers, while slighting both the citys police-reform movement and the historic context in which the Rampart malfeasances were set. Since nothing worse has come along since, Id be happy to nominate this scribbling dimwits article as the single most spineless piece of writing on Rampart since the case broke in 1999.
Nevertheless, the Boyer piece recently was selected for something called the Best American Crime Reporting Anthology. Wonder what its editors think the worst crime reporting looks like?