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Herb the Inevitable

Herb Wesson still speaks of his election to the Los Angeles City Council on November 8 as a mere possibility, something that is not written in the heavens as inevitable. “Lord willing, if I am so blessed,” he begins statements of what he would do as the representative of Council District 10 in the heart of Los Angeles. It’s probably prudence at least as much as humility. It wouldn’t play well in City Hall to begin moving boxes into his office before election day. But his victory is pretty much a done deal. The former speaker of the California state Assembly jumped out of the 2006 race for the state Senate and into the special election for the City Council just as soon as it became clear that Martin Ludlow would leave his council seat vacant to head the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. His only opponents are Barry Levine, a photographer who knows politics chiefly through his job shooting other people’s political fund-raisers, and Robert Serrano, a former Marine who heads a security company. Neither has raised any campaign money.Wesson has raised $294,001. He has spent $111,187.40.Others were interested in Ludlow’s seat. For about five minutes, until it became clear that Wesson wanted it. His chief job as former Assembly speaker was fund-raising, and his chief weapon was the phone. After a few calls it was pretty clear to anyone who knew the ways of the world that the only choice was to get out of the way. But Wesson denies any power play.Wesson himself acknowledges that almost everyone deferred to him, “within 90 seconds” after he got on the phone. Except for Kevin Murray. “It took Kevin three days,” Wesson says. There was still Denise Fairchild, a community activist who went ahead and took out papers. But her calls to her natural allies in the district and in Sacramento came too late. Wesson had gotten there first. And, he insists, the backing that failed to materialize for Fairchild belonged to him anyway, given his track record on key progressive issues, like environmentalism (he shepherded the landmark global warming bill through the Legislature) and gay rights.“It was unwise for her to even think she would get” any labor or progressive support, Wesson says. Fairchild removed herself from the picture on the last day to file nominating petitions and instead took a vaguely defined post with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has let everyone know he wants Wesson on the council.Wesson objects to the implication that he intimidated others into getting out of his way. “Isn’t it just possible that these individuals opted not to run because they thought I could do a good job?” he asks. “Or maybe they didn’t think they could beat me? ... Isn’t it possible that we don’t have to have a knockdown-dragout battle?” It’s possible. It’s also possible that Wesson, having served not just as the Assembly speaker but also as the chief of staff in this district for Councilman Nate Holden, and later for county Supervisor Yvonne Burke, is the best possible candidate for the office and would be the odds-on favorite no matter who else decided to run. None of those possibilities are at odds with Wesson’s penchant for string-pulling or for the power play. For example, as speaker, Wesson had sole discretion over hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money that he doled out in personal-services contracts to friends and allies like Tony Cardenas, who got nearly $8,000 a month for the four months between the end of his term on the state Assembly in 2002 and the beginning of his term on the City Council the following year. And, Martin Ludlow, who got more than $8,000 a month for the seven months between his stint as political director of the County Federation of Labor and the primary election for the office Wesson is now seeking. And Nate Holden’s son Chris, a Pasadena City Councilman, who got $5,000 a month for more than a year. All the contracts, which carried no oversight from anyone but Wesson, were for fairly vague duties like “consulting” and “outreach.” They ended when newspapers found out about them and criticized the $350,000 in consulting fees at a time when the state was grappling with a $35 billion budget deficit.Nor is Wesson’s stature at odds with the possibility — no, the likelihood — that he will run to succeed Yvonne Burke when her term expires in 2008, meaning he’d be giving the 10th District residents yet one more abbreviated term.It’s not fair, Wesson says, to make such predictions.“People know about my decisions better than me, and that amazes me,” he remarks, adding a line that he has used from the first day of his current campaign, when he had to begin wrestling with reporters’ questions about his supervisorial ambitions.“I always say you cannot long-range plan in politics,” he says.The campaign, such as it is, continues. At a recent candidates’ forum, Serrano pitched a plan to break up the Police Department, making City Council members responsible for the cops and the schools in their districts. It’s a provocative idea. He’s a Latino candidate in a traditionally black district that now has a Latino plurality. His wife is Korean, a fact that might attract some attention in a district that includes a big chunk of Koreatown.Levine insists he’s getting a good response when he walks precincts. “They see Herb Wesson for what he is,” Levine says. “He’s a career politician who is not going to be here in a few years’ time. There are times when I think I have a shot.” But after a few minutes he lets slip that the shot may be in two years, when Ludlow’s term — the one Wesson will most likely finish — comes to an end. Or, if Wesson wins that one too, perhaps a year later, when it’s time for the handful of master fund-raisers and phone callers to file for the county Board of Supervisors.

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