Soon after Mito Aviles answers the last voter's question at a meet-and-greet in an apartment building next to his home, the underdog candidate for West Hollywood City Council faces an unexpected, if not quirky, political problem. Leya Miretsky, a Russian-speaking grandmother from the Ukraine who hosted the event for Aviles, wants the mannequin legs to come down.
"If you don't move them," she says in English, and only half-kidding, "I'm going to tell everyone not to vote for you."
Aviles, an affable 30-year-old with a black-stubble beard and a high, swept-back hairdo that can best be described as a pompadour, rents a green, single-story Craftsman next door with his longtime boyfriend, ChadMichael Morrisette. The couple use high-end mannequins in their successful CM Squared Designs window-display business. On their garage roof, which Miretsky can see from her window, a pair of white, fiberglass legs stand upside down in a block of cement. Aviles, who is facing three incumbents flush with campaign donations from West Hollywood political insiders and endorsements from the local Democratic Party establishment, needs a sizable chunk of the city's Russian-speaking vote to win on March 8. The legs, he assures Miretsky with an easy smile, will most certainly disappear.
In the big scheme of things, the mannequin legs, which Aviles lugged off his garage roof the next day, are the least of the candidate's problems. In a small but world-famous city where there are no term limits and only a few thousand voters re-elect incumbents year after year, Aviles and five other challengers are taking on a nearly impenetrable political system that's been set up over the years to quash its competition.
That's a dark secret that this so-called "progressive" city, with a roughly 40 percent gay population, tries to keep under wraps — and which the Los Angeles press corps rarely covers. But this year, the underdogs are speaking up and fighting back, with the possibility of pushing out an entrenched incumbent, John Heilman, who has never lost a race since he was first elected in 1984 — the year West Hollywood became a city, Ronald Reagan was re-elected president and Bruce Springsteen was singing "Born in the U.S.A." to screaming fans in packed football stadiums.
Aviles was thrown into the national spotlight for three wild days in the fall of 2008, when he and Morrisette hung a Sarah Palin mannequin in effigy off their rooftop, creating global headlines, making the nightly news and earning a visit from alarmed Secret Service agents. His take on West Hollywood: "There's a formula in place, and they keep running the same campaign, and the voters keep electing the same people."
In West Hollywood's 27-year history, only one candidate who ran without official backing from a sitting City Council member has ever won an election, and that happened 17 years ago, in 1994, when firebrand Steve Martin pulled off an upset victory. Martin also happens to be the only incumbent in the history of West Hollywood voted off of the City Council, when he lost his re-election bid in 2003. The facts make one thing very clear: Incumbents have a stranglehold on power, with very little fresh blood or new ideas coming into City Hall.
"It's like getting stuck with George Bush for over 40 years," says 28-year-old public relations consultant Lucas John, who also is running against the city's long-standing incumbency on March 8. He's referring to the combined years Heilman and his close political ally Councilwoman Abbe Land have clung to their elected seats. "The president has a term limit. Why not the West Hollywood City Council?"
West Hollywood political insiders — a cliquish group of City Council members and their handpicked staff, city commissioners and advisory board members, City Hall managers, plus a group of business owners and real estate developers and their high-priced consultants — routinely insist that "term limits" in WeHo come in the form of elections, when voters can throw incumbents out of office. "I believe that voters have the right to elect or unelect their leaders based upon their records," Land says via e-mail to the Weekly. "That is a representative democracy."
When Philip Blumel, president of the Virginia-based, nonpartisan group U.S. Term Limits, hears about the situation in West Hollywood, he lets out a loud, sustained laugh. "Truly?" he asks sarcastically. "Is that really democratic if you have one incumbent lose in 26 years and one incumbent ruling that entire time?"
Heilman and Land, a councilwoman for a total of 18 years — she took a break of a few years and then returned to office — strongly oppose term limits. They also campaigned against Proposition 20, which California voters in November approved by a landslide. Proposition 20 has ended gerrymandering, the closed-room deal-making and map-drawing in which incumbent politicians draw up their own districts — "choose their own voters," as analysts describe it.