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By Patrick Range McDonald
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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.
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.”