THE HOMEOWNER ASSOCIATIONS that cover much of the Westside let out a collective groan last March after developer Beny Alagem unveiled plans for dramatically remaking the Beverly Hilton — razing the tiki bar known as Trader Vic’s and building two 13-story condominium towers on the site.
After all, neighborhood leaders had learned only two weeks earlier that another developer planned to add 262 condos to the Westfield Century City shopping center on Santa Monica Boulevard, just blocks from Trader Vic’s. And a third developer had already spent weeks pushing for city approval of two 47-story condominium towers nearby.
Community groups in and around Century City found a new reason to worry last week: Developers of all three projects have poured a combined $275,000 into Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s campaign to seize power at the Los Angeles Unified School District, making them three of the takeover campaign’s five largest contributors.
The huge sums have created a corridor of contributions along Santa Monica Boulevard in a section of Los Angeles where many intersections are ranked “F,” the worst possible grade in the city’s congestion rating system. The contributions also rattled neighborhood volunteers like Barbara Broide, a board member with the Westside Neighborhood Council, who questioned whether the contributors are seeking something other than a new governance structure for L.A. Unified.
“[The money] influences the process,” Broide said. “And this whole episode shows more than anything the need for public financing of our city elections, and for cleaning up the rules that govern campaign donations.”
Reports filed Friday showed that Villaraigosa raised nearly $1.1 million as of June 30 for his Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability, which is waging an aggressive public-relations campaign promoting a bill pending in Sacramento that would give Villaraigosa veto power over the hiring and firing of L.A. Unified’s superintendent.
Alagem, the owner of the Beverly Hilton project, gave Villaraigosa’s school committee $75,000. A second developer, Chicago-based AP Properties, donated another $100,000 on June 7, two weeks after a hearing on its proposal to build 483 condominium units across three buildings — two 47-story towers and a 12-story loft building, all in Century City. (AP Properties is an affiliate of JMB Realty, which is more frequently named as the project’s developer.)
Westfield Corp., owner of Century City’s well-known mall, wrote its own $100,000 check to the mayor’s committee on June 27, two days before the first public meeting on its own development proposal, which would expand the shopping center by more than 100,000 square feet.
“What this does clearly is give access to the Mayor’s Office — good access. He will call them back,” said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies, which has called for greater restrictions on fund raising for campaigns like Villaraigosa’s. “We’re not talking about $3,000 or $4,000 here. These are major contributions.”
When Villaraigosa ran for mayor, developers were permitted to give him no more than $2,000 apiece — $1,000 in the primary and $1,000 in the runoff. Because he is waging an issue-based campaign, however, there are no limits on the amount he may seek. The school donations are among the largest raised by City Hall since former Mayor James Hahn collected six-figure contributions for L.A. United, the campaign that defeated San Fernando Valley secession in 2002.
Nathan James, a spokesman for the mayor’s political-action committee, could not say how the mayor chose the contributors. But he confirmed that Villaraigosa made the calls personally, adding that the money is needed to counter a costly public-relations campaign against the mayor’s school initiative being waged by L.A. Unified at taxpayer expense.
James maintained that contributors who gave money to Villaraigosa did so because they know that the quality of public schools affects the Los Angeles economy. “I think the conclusion that you can draw from the folks who have donated to the committee is that they share an enthusiasm and a willingness to support the mayor’s efforts to reform LAUSD,” he added.
TRAFFIC AND DEVELOPMENT ARE AMONG the most sensitive political issues on the Westside, where homeowner groups have hired lawyers and even their own traffic consultants to scrutinize megaprojects. When JMB Realty/AP Properties released an environmental-impact report for its 47-story condo towers, a coalition of 10 neighborhood groups responded with a 55-page, highly technical letter criticizing the document.
The homeowner coalition insists the city understated the amount of traffic that will be generated by the towers. Jonathan Broad, a lawyer and Beverly Hills resident who plans to sue Los Angeles over its review process for the JMB project, said the contributions reinforced his worst suspicions. “It just makes me even more cynical,” he said.
Representatives of JMB and Alagem said both contributors have a long history of giving to philanthropic causes — money that is not tied to any specific development. “We have substantial investments in Los Angeles, and we participate in the community,” said JMB spokeswoman Joan Kradin.
Both the towers and the Westfield mall project are in the district represented by Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss, a close ally of the mayor. Although Alagem’s Beverly Hilton project is in Beverly Hills, Westside neighborhood leaders argue that Los Angeles officials should aggressively review it, since its traffic will pour onto Los Angeles streets.
Political-contribution reports show that Villaraigosa’s school-initiative supporters span the ideological spectrum, with influential Republican businessmen providing the money and established Democratic Party political consultants getting paid to provide the services. The committee spent $25,000, for example, on SCN Public Relations, a Democratic opposition-research firm whose main consultant, Ace Smith, played a huge role in Villaraigosa’s successful 2005 mayoral campaign.
Although Villaraigosa is one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, more than half of his committee’s funds came from many of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biggest contributors. Univision executive Jerry Perenchio, who gave Villaraigosa’s school committee $500,000, has spent nearly $6.4 million in the last 18 months on Schwarzenegger, the California Republican Party and the governor’s various ballot initiatives.
Alagem, the Beverly Hills developer, has given Schwarzenegger $355,000 — making him the governor’s 22nd most lucrative contributor, according to the Web site ArnoldWatch.Org. And retired investment banker Frank Baxter, who gave Villaraigosa’s committee $50,000, spent five times that amount on a Schwarzenegger ballot measure to keep union dues from being spent on political campaigns.
Baxter also has been active in the Club for Growth, a political-action committee that funds hard-line fiscal conservatives. That committee tried without success last year to defeat Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, saying he is too moderate on tax cuts and too often opposes the confirmation of conservative judges. But it succeeded in ousting Senator Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat.
Teachers union activist Paul Huebner, a critic of Villaraigosa’s school plan, accused the mayor of straying from his progressive roots as he embraces more and more Republican campaign contributors. James disagreed, saying Villaraigosa wants his initiative to be a bipartisan effort. “The bottom line is, it’s not what party you’re from, but whether it’s going to be good for L.A.,” he said.
Whether Villaraigosa will turn to other conservatives — or Century City developers — for more money won’t be known until next year. Under the city’s disclosure rules, his school-takeover committee will not need to divulge any contributions until January 31 — weeks after his school legislation is scheduled to go into effect.