MAYBE IT’S THE FACT that in modern times the citizens of Los Angeles have never managed to recall an unpopular City Council member, from controversial Art Snyder in the 1970s to felonious coke addict Mike Hernandez in 1998. Or maybe it’s because the kind of civic activism that ousted corrupt 1930s L.A. Mayor Frank L. Shaw, the first mayor recalled in U.S. history, is dead. Or maybe it’s because there’s more than enough hubris in the city’s richest enclave — Los Angeles Council District 5, encompassing Westwood, Bel Air and environs — to fuel pie-in-the-sky initiatives driven by ego, not reality.
For whatever reason, all indications point to a failing effort by the privileged — but amateurish — District 5 residents trying to recall City Council member Jack Weiss, whom they blame for inviting overbuilding and epic traffic congestion to the area. With just about three weeks left to gather enough signatures to place Weiss’ name on the ballot for recall, the L.A. Weekly has learned the effort is mired in almost comedic miscues and is not given much chance of success.
Chief among those mistakes is a decision by the recall movement’s leaders to run a “stealth” political campaign that purposely avoids getting free media coverage — the thing most cherished by political campaigners. Second is a decision by the group to expend its more than $20,000 in raised campaign funds on posters, lawyers and overhead — but not on gathering signatures, which in California today all but requires the hiring of signature gatherers at more than $1 per signature. And in another odd decision, the group chose not to gather signatures in front of supermarkets or malls — the best way to find voters — fearing that if Weiss’ people spot their volunteers, they’ll somehow be targeted.
Elijah May, the Beverly Hills press flack for the Committee to Recall Jack Weiss, says, “We’ve been pretty conservative talking to the press,” and offers as an explanation, “because the opposition may hire some professionals and block these efforts.”
That’s the kind of wacky reasoning that makes Ted Costa, a veteran of statewide referendums and CEO of the ballot-initiative group People’s Advocate, have a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “It’s an unusual strategy,” says Costa, chuckling, “to not let anyone know you’ve been successful.”
Jonathan Wilcox, a public affairs consultant who was the communications director for Rescue California, the successful Gray Davis recall effort, says that while it’s valid to be concerned about repercussions from Weiss and City Hall, operating a campaign in secret is “usually code for amateur.”
The group has until October 18, according to the city clerk’s office, to gather signatures from at least 23,000 registered voters in the 5th City Council District — the minimum number legally required to place the recall on the ballot a few months from now. May insists the group has gathered “more than 10,000” and predicts a “photo finish.” But Weiss’ team and political pros are wondering if the Committee to Recall Jack Weiss has anything substantive at all.
“If you’re doing well, you tout it,” says Harvey Englander, a veteran political consultant. “If you’re not doing well, you explain it. If they’re not doing either of those things and I was Jack Weiss, I’d sleep well knowing the chances for a recall are remote.”
It’s not that these unhappy residents of the Westside — part of a nascent slow-growth movement against massive new multistory housing arising citywide — are acting much differently from other citizens whose recall efforts have failed. After all, in the last 20 years, according to the city clerk’s Election Division, 11 recall movements have crashed and burned. Even when driven by really angry voters — such as embarrassed residents of the Pico Union area who tried to recall their cocaine-abusing former council member Hernandez — the amateurish efforts quickly sputtered.
It’s just that this particular recall push is unfolding in a sector of the city jammed with lawyers, college graduates and very active voters, so some political observers had believed there was a chance the anti-Weiss movement would attract a sophisticated following and overcome local political history. It hasn’t.
“Sometimes people with the deepest pockets have the shortest arms,” says Englander. “They just don’t want to spend the money to do it right.”
Burbank-based political consultant Steve Afriat, who has never represented Weiss, agrees that sending volunteers door to door to collect signatures doesn’t work. It has become “very rare these days to qualify [for the ballot] without a paid organization running a sophisticated operation.”
Among other advantages, professional signature gatherers know where to go, how to convince busy shoppers to sign, and how to cull out signatures that are invalid because the signer doesn’t live in the district, isn’t registered or has other problems. (In L.A., many residents cannot name their City Council representative, much less the City Council district in which they live.) Another problem for untrained volunteers, says Afriat, is that if a volunteer asked for his signature, and he wrote “Steve Afriat,” the signature would be invalid because he is registered as “Steven C. Afriat.”
Ted Costa says the disgruntled Westside residents are better served hiring professional signature gatherers. If “they have the money, and they can feed the pros,” says Costa, they can “get [Weiss] on the ballot.”
The Committee to Recall Jack Weiss — a group of incensed homeowner-association members led by Steve Twining, Kevin Singer, Marcia Selz, Monique Kagan and Diana Plotkin — needs to raise $50,000 in order to collect 30,000 signatures, or 7,000 more than needed, to be safe, says Costa. “They shouldn’t show up with anything less.” Yet by June 30, the last date for which information is available, the committee had spent the bulk of its $20,357 on seemingly everything but professional signature gatherers: a political consultant who insists on remaining anonymous, an accountant, fliers and posters, the creation of a wickedly funny Web site (www.recalljackweiss.com) and one signature-gathering “coordinator” — presumably to organize the struggling volunteers.
May, seeming oblivious to what professional consultants are saying about that, proudly says the signature gathering is being handled entirely by volunteers: “We have our boots on the ground, and we’re going neighbor to neighbor.”
The nature of the assault on Weiss — considered by some inside City Hall to be the most arrogant and disliked council member since lawyer Mike Feuer (also of District 5) — makes Larry Levine, Weiss’s longtime political consultant, question whether the committee even has 10,000 signatures.
“If they really have it,” says Levine, “they should put it on the table so we can see it. I don’t believe it anymore than someone telling me they spotted Elvis eating over at Canter’s.”
Whether it’s volunteers standing in front of supermarkets or trekking the canyons and long streets of Weiss’ political turf, Levine says no one has been seen anywhere. “We would’ve heard something,” he says.
“We’re not making this stuff up,” May insists with an exasperated chuckle. “Larry’s free to think whatever he wants to think.”
Weiss, according to his Ethics Commission filing, has raised $68,355, with $55,413 on hand, to fight the recall effort. The city councilman, according to Levine, is not “obsessing over it,” but “whenever someone threatens your name and your livelihood, you take it seriously.”
The recall movement has banked only $6,855 to spend, according to its filing, but May says his clients have hauled in more money since the June 30 fund-raising report, claiming, “We’re within striking distance of $50,000.”
But Costa, who has witnessed and organized many ballot initiatives over the years, says it’s a sign of trouble when a signature-gathering effort won’t reveal its current fund-raising levels. “If they don’t come up with hard numbers,” Costa says, “they are usually lying.”
The stealth approach also doesn’t send a good signal, according to Allan Hoffenblum. “The main thing about recall is money,” says Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant, “Is there going to be serious funding behind it? One doesn’t want to slay the king unless it is successful.”
Either way, political pros are watching how the recall effort develops, if only to see how it might affect Weiss’ announced run for city attorney in 2009, when Rocky Delgadillo is forced out by term limits. “If [Weiss] has a formidable opponent, [the recall movement] may hurt him,” says Afriat. But no major opponents have yet emerged, and the bizarre recall movement might actually help Weiss, who, despite his grating personality in City Council chambers, may come out looking like a winner.