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Carpetbagging for Cash in L.A. Council District 2 

Eight committed San Fernando Valley activists try to stop two monied outsiders

Tuesday, Sep 8 2009
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Paul Krekorian is what some call a career politician, having lost two elections before finally parlaying a spot on the Burbank Board of Education into a seat in the California Assembly. Christine Essel is a Hollywood power player who has chaired big business boards and has never run for office.

Both have recently moved into the fiercely independent San Fernando Valley in hopes of nabbing the only spot open on the highest-paid city council in America. It’s a $178,789-a-year plum job that comes with eight free cars and a huge staff — and is worth some $2.5 million to $3 million to whoever wins a 12-year stint (assuming voters don’t oust them later).

Essel and Krekorian represent a rare — and maybe the very first — effort by dueling factions of the downtown establishment to stack a Valley race with two, monied, non-Valley residents and thus try to ensure that a non-Valley outsider wins and controls the powerful seat.

click to enlarge PHIL JENNERJAHN - Six of eight Valleyites vying for office against two who moved in merely to run include Tamar Galatzan, Josef Essavi, Zuma Dogg, Mary Benson, Frank Sheftel and August Bisani.
  • Phil Jennerjahn
  • Six of eight Valleyites vying for office against two who moved in merely to run include Tamar Galatzan, Josef Essavi, Zuma Dogg, Mary Benson, Frank Sheftel and August Bisani.

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Essel is backed by ex-mayor and Brentwood resident Richard Riordan and is expected to get Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s nod. But that’s not much of a plus among residents fed up with Villaraigosa, who failed to win 50 percent of the vote last March in numerous CD 2 precincts in Valley Village, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and Sunland-Tujunga.

Krekorian is backed by SEIU, the state’s powerful, public employees union, whose successful pressure on Villaraigosa and the City Council to raise city-worker salaries and increase taxes and fees on Angelenos has created tense relations with tax-averse Valley residents, who distrust SEIU. The negative reactions to Essel and Krekorian and their backers are fueling hopes that two of the eight other contenders — none of them carpetbaggers and all of them winning strong applause at candidate forums — will prevail in an election set for September 22, and that two genuine Valley residents will face each other in a runoff on December 8.

Mary Benson, a respected community organizer from Shadow Hills, who is running and enjoys high name recognition, says, “This may be the race where money does not buy the votes and commitment earns the votes.”

Zuma Dogg (David Saltsburg), a rowdy City Hall activist who is also running, and has provoked big laughs and applause at well-attended candidate debates, warns that Christine Essel will be driven by the powers that be. “She has a history of going along for the ride,” Dogg notes.

Pete Sanchez, a candidate from Valley Village, who has impressed observers and was endorsed by the L.A. Daily News, as was Studio City candidate Tamar Galatzan, says Paul Krekorian is “leaving his job during the worst crisis that has faced us in our generation.”

Krekorian, a silver-haired Burbank attorney who recently moved inside L.A. city limits, is trying to ditch Sacramento just six months after being re-elected. In Burbank he pulled a similar disappearing act, dealing with a fiscal emergency in Burbank schools — but then leaving his post empty to run for the Assembly.

If he jumps jobs again, Krekorian will cause a special election to fill his vacant spot in the state Assembly — creating a new cost to taxpayers of roughly $1 million. “Taxpayers are funding ambition,” says Michael McCue, a Studio City Neighborhood Council member who is also running and has gained praise for his upbeat attitude about saving Valley neighborhoods. “People feel ripped off.”

During three years in the Assembly, Krekorian has garnered a generally favorable reputation and pushed a largely liberal agenda. But a larger issue trumps that: the worst financial crisis California that has faced since the Depression, and the role played by Krekorian as the state Assembly’s assistant majority leader. “What leadership did he provide to break the logjam, to avoid the catastrophe?” asks Ron Kaye, former Daily News editor, who is blogging about the race.

“That’s a hard question to answer obviously,” Krekorian says. “Are there things we could have done differently to better prepare for this? Maybe.”

“Absolutely,” counters Frank Sheftel, a CD 2 candidate hoping voters will see through Krekorian’s bullet-dodging. “He bears responsibility, he just doesn’t want to accept it.” He calls Krekorian as a “yes man” who signed off on a stream of bills that helped to push California into its crisis.

Krekorian stretches credulity, claiming that the state’s exploding general fund spending is really $15 billion less than when he was elected. “It’s not true when people say there have been increases in spending.”

Dead wrong, says Joe Canciamilla, a former Democratic assemblyman respected for his budget acumen, who says Krekorian is twisting data to make the illogical claim that state spending somehow dropped.

Krekorian falls back on blaming the global economic collapse and “institutional dysfunction” in Sacramento. “If that’s your attitude, then why should I vote for you now?” asks Sanchez. “You’ll have the same broken system in the City Council.”

Valley activists are particularly worried about Krekorian’s ties to labor, which is among the most influential lobbies in California’s officially inept budgeting process. He voted against labor only twice during his first full year in the assembly. Critics warn that if voters let Krekorian jump from Burbank to L.A., he’ll put union interests first — in the face of a civic budget crisis that many say can only be fixed by going head to head with union leaders.

“Is he going to tell the public employee unions what he didn’t tell the state workers?” Kaye asks.

Essel’s life as a well-to-do, canyon-dwelling Westsider does not make her a natural candidate in CD 2, either. She is already trying to distance herself from a public record that trumpets an allegiance to developers — seen by many CD 2 residents as a threat to Valley quality of life.

Ask Valley voters to identify the most important issue in the CD 2 race and they may shoot back the obscure phrase: “S-B-eighteen-eighteen.”

Hoping to usher in more housing density, the City Council, led by the avidly pro-density Eric Garcetti, and backed by Villaraigosa, adopted a patently illegal interpretation of Senate Bill 1818, a state law intended to reward developers for including some low-rent units in their luxury complexes. A court found that city leaders went far beyond the law, allowing L.A. developers to violate hard-fought community standards, such as building-height limits.

“It’s all greed,” says Cindy Cleghorn, an activist with the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council.

L.A. has been tearing down rent-controlled units to build these new projects, drastically reducing affordable housing — while Villaraigosa’s team wrongly claims to be “creating” affordable housing. Colossal apartment structures built right to the sidewalk are popping up like skunk cabbage in the Valley, with, in Cleghorn’s words, “no respect for existing infrastructure. ... Why is L.A. letting it get out of control?”

Yet Essel proudly took credit for helping to pass the law when she was chairwoman of the Central City Association. “Through our results-oriented advocacy, CCA was successful in pushing forward Senate Bill 1818,” Essel wrote last year in her group’s newsletter.

Now, Essel is singing a very different tune, insisting she was required to push SB 1818 due to her job. “I personally do not support SB 1818. The organization I was a member of, did,” Essel said at a Sunland-Tujunga candidate forum. “I would work to undo the damage.”

That spin has provoked bitterness. “You hear the groans and you see the eyes roll,” says Paul Hatfield, a Valley Village resident who is blogging about the race.

Then there’s Essel’s effort to take credit for curbing runaway film production. A former Paramount executive, Essel was a leading representative of the L.A. film industry in Sacramento, as chairwoman of the California Film Commission. But during her years on the commission — 1999 to 2007 — L.A. experienced a staggering drop in production. In fact, on a number of occasions, Essel actually encouraged other film locations to be more competitive with L.A. Just last year — the worst filming year in L.A. on record, according to a nonprofit group that tracks productions — Essel praised efforts by Florida and Alaska to increase incentives for filmmakers.

According to government documents, while speaking to a government committee in each state, Essel was identified as a Paramount executive but not as a California film commissioner. After all, it might have raised eyebrows to have a Westside business leader championing L.A. film production to also be cheerleading for Florida and Alaska.

Reach the writer at mandell.jason@gmail.com

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