Can an Activist Crack L.A. City Hall's Machine? 

In the riled-up S.F. Valley, a struggle pits regular folk against big money

Wednesday, Aug 26 2009

A few years ago, when folks on the sleepy outskirts of the San Fernando Valley rallied to stop Home Depot from building one of its monoliths in their anticorporate hood, they did the unlikely: They drove the Depot away.

“They basically won a David-and-Goliath battle,” says Greg Nelson, former chief of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. “They changed the course of [a development approval], which normally would have happened automatically.”

The victory proved that a united front of Valley political activists could defeat the powers that be and their special interests.

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“We got a lot of help from other neighborhoods,” says Dan McManus, who heads the neighborhood council in Sunland-Tujunga, where Home Depot was planning to drop its orange bomb of a building.

Now, a fast-approaching special election will fill the Valley seat left vacant by City Controller–elect Wendy Greuel. And these same community members are trying to beat back heavily funded, government-friendly candidates who hope to waltz into the powerful $178,798-per-year City Council slot, which comes with 20 personal staffers and eight taxpayer-provided cars.

“All the local neighborhood councils are talking to each other right now,” McManus says. “Where’s a common candidate we can all support? Who can serve all our interests?”

Ten candidates have qualified for the Council District 2 (CD 2) September 22 special election, which will likely result in a December runoff.

Veteran political observers say that only two or three of the candidates have the bucks and special-interest backing to squeeze out the others. But CD 2, which includes the strip malls of North Hollywood and the horse trails of Sun Valley, is not a district that sits on its ass while the big dogs run rampant.

The district fought bitterly to break away from Los Angeles during the Valley secession movement. Voters here helped Carmen Trutanich defeat mayoral ally Jack Weiss, who, veteran political observers wrongly believed, would easily win the City Attorney race. CD 2 voters helped defeat Measure B, a failed power grab by the council, mayor and a labor union.

And when CD 2 hometown hero Louis Pugliese ran for school board last March with almost no funds, he came within 527 votes (out of 28,641 cast) of beating the mayor’s big-money candidate, Nury Martinez — even though veteran political observers wrongly insisted Pugliese’s chances were nil.

If ever there were a time and place when a cash-poor candidate could capitalize on anti–City Hall anger and sweep into a seat at the municipal roundtable, it’s CD 2 in 2009.

“This is the best chance for the ‘little seven,’ ” says candidate Pete Sanchez, referring to himself and candidates Mary Benson, August Bisani, Josef Essavi, Michael McCue, Zuma Dogg (David Saltsburg) and Frank Sheftel. “Those top three have a bigger hurdle to get over: Will they really be different?”

Christine Essel will have a tough time selling herself as a pot-stirrer. She’s a former chairwoman of both the Community Redevelopment Agency and downtown’s ultimate insider club, the Central City Association — two groups roundly distrusted in the Valley. She can hardly claim to be a defender of neighborhood interests, an inability that will hurt her in an area fed up with overbuilding. Having collected much of her nearly $200,000 war chest on the Westside before moving to the Valley, Essel projects the image of a wealthy, well-connected carpetbagger.

“She kicked off her campaign on the other side of the Hollywood Hills before she even filed here,” says Paul Hatfield, a Valley Village accountant. He says Essel’s big campaign chest “won’t do her any good.”

Another establishment candidate, Paul Krekorian, the assistant majority leader for the Democrats in the extremely unpopular California State Assembly, will have to wave a magic wand to make voters forget his fumbling in Sacramento, where he and other legislators helped to create a budget crisis even worse than the city’s.

Then there’s Tamar Galatzan, who falls somewhere between the two moneyed insiders and the seven hard-line activists. Though Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa marshaled $2 million to get Galatzan elected to the school board, she has defied him on a few issues — including a union pay hike she feared was a budget-breaker. “She’s not afraid to say no,” says Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council board member Tomi Lyn Bowling.

But grass-roots candidates don’t consider Galatzan one of their own. CD 2 candidate Mary Benson notes that Galatzan has two years left on the L.A. school board but is already trying to leave. “I wonder if this race is just a stepping stone to another office.”

It doesn’t help that Galatzan’s husband is the former head of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, a business group that defended Home Depot in the infamous battle. “She’s gone out of her way to try to separate herself from her husband, saying she didn’t agree with him back then,” says Joe Barrett, who organized the alliance against Home Depot. “I think I believe her.”

Conventional wisdom says it takes deep pockets to reach voters in a district as gerrymandered as CD 2. But plenty of the grass-roots candidates have already earned reputations by crusading on local issues. In a name-recognition poll paid for by Krekorian’s campaign, Benson — a Sun Valley environmental advocate who is only beginning to reach out to voters districtwide — proved to be better known than City Hall favorite Essel.

“I don’t think you need $100,000,” Benson says. “If I can activate the activists, no amount of campaign literature plugging the mailbox will matter.”

The Valley secession war in ’02 earned charismatic Van Nuys candy store owner Frank Sheftel a following. So when he filed to run for Greuel’s seat, Sheftel raised $5,000 in no time. He is calling voters personally and showing up at every neighborhood council and homeowners meeting — the type of in-your-face political presence that could put a dark horse in a runoff.

On the issues, the candidates seem to agree. After all, who’s going to say they plan to drive away more businesses and bring in crushing overdevelopment? When L.A. Weekly asked if she’s promising any specifics, Essel falls silent. She then talks of “putting constituents first” and “making the city more responsive.”

The Weekly also asked Krekorian, a Burbank resident who jumped borders to run for Los Angeles City Council, if he’s saying anything others are not. Again, silence. His eventual answer: “I don’t think people should be too interested in what we’re saying but rather what we’ve done” — but that could put his Assembly voting record front and center, not to mention the lower house’s failure to plan for a rainy day while Krekorian was in a key position.

Galatzan has vowed to reject a free city car, to pursue a charter amendment that would create a DWP ratepayer advocate, and to act to shut down scores of illegal pot dispensaries spreading through the Valley like wildfire.

The grass-roots gunners are not shy about making promises. Michael McCue, a Studio City neighborhood council board member who some say has been impressive at debates, wants “clean money” elections and a “collections sheriff” to go after funds owed to the city.

Sanchez, a founding member of the Neighborhood Council Valley Village, and who is well-known in Valley Village and Studio City, wants multiyear financial planning on the city budget. “A lot of [Sanchez’s] message is about being financially responsible,” says Hatfield. “He’s very rational.”

One surprise factor could help a local candidate compete with the big boys on September 22: The 88 neighborhood councils citywide are taking an interest in the Valley race. One reason is that Greuel’s successor will sit on the Planning and Land-Use Management Committee, whose three members have tremendous power over development.

The winner in CD 2 will also chair a committee that oversees neighborhood councils, which are fighting a plan to require neighborhood council leaders to disclose their personal financial data each time they propose an item for discussion on the City Council agenda — a perceived effort to silence the neighborhood councils. The CD 2 candidate who seems best equipped to fight this plan could be the one to watch.

Reach the writer at mandell.jason@gmail.com

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