The Activist Candidates 

WeHo’s legacy is at stake in this Assembly race

Wednesday, May 24 2006

IN THE RACE TO REPLACE termed-out Assemblyman Paul Koretz of the 42nd District, the front-runners are as polished as the neighborhoods they represent: Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Brentwood, Sherman Oaks, Studio City and other Westside jewels.

The amiable, smartly coifed Abbe Land — until recently mayor of West Hollywood — serves on the WeHo City Council, and presides over the L.A. Free Clinic as co-director. She played an almost uninterrupted political role in the city from its incorporation in 1984 until today, starting out as a tenant-rights activist in a time of great idealism for the renter, the homosexual and the senior. Some of her critics declare that she has strayed from her old activist integrity, cozying up to condo-building developers who bring money to town. As part of a three-person majority also including council members John Heilman and John Duran, Land has set in motion a behemoth rezoning effort that will bring West Hollywood’s first-ever 10-story buildings to a corridor along Santa Monica Boulevard. This radical face-lift is symptomatic of West Hollywood’s larger cultural and political metamorphosis: Boys Town will no longer remain the lush, quaint pasture and renters’ sanctuary for gays that it was 20 years ago; rather, it’s becoming more like a pay-to-play city of hot properties and complacent attitudes, with many of the younger and less fortunate minorities exiling themselves to East Hollywood, downtown and even East L.A.

Land’s competitor, Mike Feuer, a man with an unforgettable mustache, served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1995 to 2001 and is the former executive director of Bet Tzedek legal services. A professed workhorse councilman, he was prolific in his legislative output. He once served on 17 committees at the same time. Feuer developed a reputation as a “presumptuous freshman” — originally intended as an insult because of the way he alienated colleagues. But he turned it into a positive and gained a reputation as a stubborn idealist with a backbone who acted decisively even when it meant disturbing the peace. Feuer has framed the debate between Land and himself in terms of scale: “West Hollywood is one one-hundredth the size of Los Angeles,” he says. “The magnitude of the problems are not even close.”

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Most of the contentiousness in this race revolves around rent control, campaign contributions and ethics. Some critics point out that affordable housing does not seem to be the highest priority for Land; several times, she joined council majorities in permitting apartment-destroying condo projects. She sometimes voted to allow demolitions of properties with potentially historic value, as with the Carlton Manor on Laurel Avenue. “It’s being an enemy of affordable housing for the sake of people developing condominiums,” said Feuer. “It’s the wrong approach and I wouldn’t have done it. And I certainly wouldn’t have taken campaign contributions from people on whose matters I would be acting.” Land once accepted $1,000 from GTO, a developer that had its sights set on the Ramona property on Harper Avenue, a building that community activists fought to save by lobbying for its historic designation.

Concern over campaign contributions erupted at a City Council meeting in February. Ed Buck, a West Hollywood resident, confronted Land and said she had accepted more than $40,000 from entities involved in one council agenda item. Land insists that she’s never been influenced by a contribution, but that accepting money is necessary to wage a competitive campaign. Some of Land’s detractors say that the reason she temporarily left politics in the ’90s was to escape an embarrassing episode concerning the House of Blues, which donated $13,000 in 1993 to her then unsuccessful Assembly campaign, and then gotten away with a severe shortage of parking spaces, despite being located on the Sunset Strip.West Hollywood, unlike Los Angeles, has no ethics commission, which means that connections between contributions and city business often go unnoticed. “Regarding the House of Blues parking and the contribution in question, one had nothing to do with the other,” Land said. “It’s as untrue now as it was then.”

Feuer says he is a stickler on ethical matters. “When I was on City Council, if you had business pending before the city, I wouldn’t take your money.” However, in his 2001 campaign for city attorney, while he was still a councilman, Feuer accepted contributions from attorneys at 10 out of the 15 law firms identified as the largest recipients of city legal contracts in a 2004 L.A. Times study. Feuer received $10,450 from attorneys employed by Latham & Watkins, a firm lobbying on behalf of Playa Capital, a developer that sought permits from the city for construction in Playa Vista/Ballona Creek, and $11,100 from lawyers with O’Melveny and Myers, a firm that received a contract in March 2002 to defend the city against a discrimination lawsuit filed by female LAPD officers. When asked about these contributions, Feuer told of a self-imposed rule that he had adhered to during his council career: If an entity contributed to his campaign, he would refrain from engaging with them at the City Council level for six months; conversely, he rejected contributions from anyone who had done business with the city within six months. If he had won the city attorney race, he said he would have asked a panel of lawyers in his office to review matters brought by firms that had contributed to his campaign, so as to “insulate” himself from the appearance of any conflict of interest.

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