By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.”