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
Residents from less affluent and more cramped quarters of the city may find it difficult to feel much sympathy for their distant neighbors in this conservative and secession-oriented Valley corner. But environmentalists and open-space advocates from south of the Santa Monica Mountains would be foolish to dismiss the growing legion of soccer moms with their perchlorate tables. And the election here could well shape the entire council. A labor-oriented vote from Korenstein, a Democrat, or a more conservative law-enforcement bent from the Republican Smith may tip the balance on the council presidency and a host of citywide issues such as responsible contractor ordinances, airport expansion and police reform.
The 54-year-old Smith grew up in Whittier and left high school with an interest in Republican politics. He worked on the campaign staff of U.S. Senator George Murphy, and during the Nixon presidency headed a group that worked to keep Spiro Agnew as the vice president. Agnew eventually resigned in disgrace after revelations of bribe taking. Thirty years later, Korenstein’s campaign accused Smith of lying about his role with Agnew, citing a rÃ©sumÃ© in which he said he served on the staff of the vice president. Smith reversed the attack, accusing Korenstein of pettiness.
Smith later earned a business certificate from UCLA and opened a menswear store, called Greig’s Formal Wear, in Northridge. At various business functions he ran into another clothing-store owner, Hal Bernson. The two men became friendly and worked together in a secessionist group in the 1970s.
Bernson ran for the council in 1979 and picked Smith to help lead his campaign. Smith was taken by the process and by local government.
“After Hal was a couple months in office, I found this is what I really love,” Smith said. “So I sold my business and went to work for him.”
While working at City Hall, Smith earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in public administration and completed training at the Police Academy. His wife worked for Mayor Richard Riordan and now works for Jim Hahn. The couple have two children.
Much talk during the campaign has been about how much Smith is, or isn’t, Bernson’s man. “We need drastic change in the city of Los Angeles,” he tells forum audiences, seeking to sound like both the experienced veteran and the indignant agent of change. Smith points out that he differed from his boss of 23 years by supporting neighborhood councils. He almost quit, he claimed, over Bernson’s stance on spending city money for the 2000 Democratic National Convention. A Smith supporter claims to have witnessed arguments between the staff chief and the councilman that ended with Bernson firing Smith. The firings were routinely ignored by both men.
The 59-year-old Korenstein, a divorced mother of three and grandmother of three, pushed Bernson into a runoff 12 years ago and came within a few hundred votes of ousting him. She sees Smith as a continuation of a regime that she insists began in the 1950s and continued with Councilman Robert Wilkinson and Bernson.
“Hal Bernson never met a developer he didn’t like,” Korenstein repeatedly tells forum audiences. “I think that when you are trained by the master, either you are ineffective at convincing the councilman to change his mind or you agree with him.”
Korenstein has won the backing of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and enjoys support from United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union with which she has been allied since first being elected to the school board. But the County Fed, perhaps looking at the fund-raising numbers, has focused far more attention on the contest in the 10th Council District and has to a large extent let Korenstein fend for herself. The UTLA’s backing, meanwhile, may come with mixed feelings.
“They can’t really want her off the school board,” says political consultant Fred Huebscher. He adds that the district, with all its changes, still is not ready to let go of its Republican tradition to back a candidate who was once a member of the Peace and Freedom Party.
“Bernson voters will never go for a lefty like Korenstein,” Huebscher says.
City Environmental Affairs Commissioner Kim Thompson sees it differently.
“The horse people have taken us from ranch to ranch to ranch to meet all the equestrians, and they’re lining up behind Julie because of what is happening to their land,” Thompson says. “Republican, Democrat — it means nothing. It’s about the land. Julie will definitely be the right person. If we can get her elected.”
Norm Huberman, who was elected in November to a council seat in the secessionist San Fernando Valley city that never materialized, acknowledges that Smith has close ties to the hated City Hall. But he says that’s okay.
“He’s been on the front lines dealing with a lot of the problems we have today,” Huberman says. “And he has a feel for it. He will be fabulous because he knows how to play the game.”
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