Dethroning West Hollywood's Martinets
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.
Heilman and Land insist that under their decades-long leadership West Hollywood has blossomed into a progressive's paradise, where new voices and ideas are embraced, residents' concerns are accommodated and the political system is transparent and welcoming to anyone and everyone.
Aviles and the five other challengers running on March 8 — all of whom are gay men — say that's hardly the case. They charge that those core values of West Hollywood — a 1.9-square-mile urban village stuck between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills that's considered one of the world's gay meccas and a playground for the rich and famous — have nearly disappeared during Heilman and Land's long watch.
"Heilman and Land have made a complete mockery of our core values from 1984," says former council member and current candidate Steve Martin. "There's a complete disregard for public input, and there's an arrogance that they can do whatever they want."
Mark Gonzaga, an HIV-positive former public access TV host also challenging the incumbents, notes, "The city was formed for the renters," but today "the City Council is taking big money from developers who don't even live in West Hollywood."
Heilman refused to be interviewed for this article, although he's an elected official running for public office and is considered the most powerful member of the City Council. Land and fellow incumbent Lindsey Horvath refused to be interviewed on the phone or in person, demanding that e-mail questions be sent to them, allowing them to prepare responses and choose which questions they are willing to entertain.
West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran says of his colleagues' behavior: "It's silly."
Heilman, Land and Horvath are running together as a well-financed, politically connected slate and sharing campaign costs.
Former planning commissioner and March 8 candidate John D'Amico says Heilman's and Land's aloof policymaking has resulted in the "radical suburbanization" of West Hollywood.
Their controversial and confusing outdoor-smoking ban proposed for restaurants, bars and nightclubs created an uproar because it threatened the world-famous nightlife scene; their plan to make room for a child care center in a city-owned building targets an existing, renowned art gallery for gay artists and a substance abuse–recovery center used by thousands of gay men and women; and a stream of City Council–approved luxury hotel and condominium projects is pushing up rents and wiping out housing for middle-class renters and younger gay men and women.
The challengers have made the incumbents and insiders nervous, and the incumbents have been acting out in strange and questionable ways.
Two local Democratic Party groups held recent endorsement interviews with the West Hollywood City Council candidates at an office of the Atkins Research Group, which is owned by the mother of Dante Atkins, the campaign manager for Heilman, Land and Horvath and himself an employee of the Atkins marketing research firm. "That's a concern," says Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a good-government outfit. "It's no longer a neutral space."
Candidate Scott Schmidt, a political consultant and one of the few openly gay registered Republican to run for a West Hollywood City Council seat, says many people outside of the city are watching to see what happens next.
"It's not just [real estate] developers who care about West Hollywood," says Schmidt, who recently took his campaign to San Francisco, San Diego, New York and Washington, D.C., to raise money. "People from around the nation care. They either lived here, or their gay friends live here, and it's a place they enjoy."
The battle of West Hollywood is on.
When Mito Aviles isn't attending voter meet-and-greets or canvassing neighborhoods, he's obsessed with the TV images coming out of Egypt, where young activists in their 20s and 30s took over Tahrir Square, carried signs with Barack Obama's slogan "Yes We Can" hand-painted on them and demanded the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1981. As Aviles watches, he sees unexpected parallels between the events unfolding in poverty-stricken, undemocratic Cairo and the political situation in well-to-do, democratic West Hollywood.
"There's a movement of young people who want change in West Hollywood," says Aviles, who's surrounded himself with refreshingly idealistic volunteers also in their 20s and 30s. "West Hollywood has also been under a 26-year-old dictatorship because we don't have term limits. That's happened in Egypt, and that's happening here."
Aviles is no political novice. He graduated from the University of California, Riverside, with a degree in political science and international affairs, and worked as a legislative assistant for Congresswoman Hilda Solis, now the U.S. Secretary of Labor under Obama. "I had this notion I wanted to be an ambassador for something," Aviles says.
But a number of West Hollywood insiders, who insist on anonymity and seem to be threatened by Aviles' candidacy, regularly describe him as "adorable" but "not a credible candidate." It's the kind of patronizing put-down that Aviles has seen or heard in one form or another all too often on the campaign trail and, in his eyes, a grim example of how West Hollywood residents are regularly treated by Heilman, Land and their political allies.
"It solidifies why I'm running," says Aviles, who was born in Los Angeles and faced tremendous adversity after being kicked out of his San Gabriel Valley home at the age of 18, when he came out as a gay man to his Salvadoran parents. "It charges me up. Enough is enough already."
Aviles had read about some highly controversial political tactics practiced by West Hollywood City Council members Heilman and Land over the years. The most audacious of those was their pushing through in 2009 the appointment of Lindsey Horvath, then a 26-year-old advertising executive, to an open seat on the City Council to solidify a three-person voting bloc rather than allowing the democratic process — a special election — so WeHo residents could choose their own representative.
Despite a lot of grumbling throughout the city, Horvath filled the spot that opened only because Councilman Sal Guarriello had died in office at the age of 90. He held his seat for 19 years.
Horvath, a pixielike 20-something woman with short, blond hair, is oddly programmed and almost robotic in talk and style, her unnatural delivery and bland words sometimes coming across as if she's carefully rehearsed the Heilman-Land message in a bedroom mirror.
Now Aviles, Scott Schmidt, Lucas John and the other challengers are battling this political machine up close and personal. They've found it resembles something more like a gang operating an old Wild West frontier town than a sophisticated, urban metropolis.
"They don't want change," says Lauren Meister, a community activist who twice ran for City Council against incumbents and lost. "They're not progressive. They're good ol' boys. It's the same old, same old."
That reality — a far cry from the politically enlightened image that West Hollywood politicians aggressively promote — came into perfect focus not too long after New Year's Day. Aviles and the other City Council candidates were summoned to the office of the Atkins Research Group on Wilshire Boulevard to give interviews that they hoped would lead to endorsements of their candidacies by the Los Angeles County Democratic Party's 42nd Assembly District Delegation, a little-known but influential group of political insiders.
Aviles sat down at a long table with several of the local delegation members on either side and a one-way, mirrored window directly across from him. He didn't have any proof, but the challenger was certain someone was watching on the other side of the window as his fellow Democrats peppered him with questions.
"It was so bizarre," Aviles says, "but then again I hear these stories about political insiders who are willing to do anything for the incumbents."
Steve Martin sat in the same room for his interview and thought he was being observed, too. "You would have thought they could have found a more neutral place," he says.
Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles–based Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan, good-government organization, chuckles in disbelief when told about the endorsement interview. "It looks like the deck was stacked against the challengers," he says disapprovingly.
California Common Cause's Feng says that in her long career as a good-government watchdog, she's never heard of candidates being interviewed in a room with a one-way mirror. "It particularly raises concerns because if it's an observation room," Feng says, "you have to ask if someone was sitting behind that mirror and if campaign strategists were taking notes."
Feng says the office of the Atkins Research Group is obviously not a neutral site and not an acceptable place or way to interview candidates.
A few weeks later, though, the L.A. County Young Democrats mimicked the behavior of the 42nd District delegation, inviting the West Hollywood candidates back to the Atkins Research Group for their own round of questions.
Alton Reed, chairman of the 42nd Assembly District Delegation, shrugs off Feng's concerns, calling them a "red herring" and insisting there was "no conflict" in holding the meeting at the Atkins Research Group. Reed, who describes himself as "an active Democrat" since 1970, comes up with the muddled logic that "it was a neutral place because the room we were meeting in was totally neutral." Reed is actually something of a professional Democrat: The Sherman Oaks resident is also a member of the Los Angeles Stonewall Democratic Club — a gay political group — and the West Hollywood/Beverly Hills Democratic Club.
"The clubs are so stacked," says Aviles, who lost the L.A. County Democratic Party and Stonewall Democratic Club endorsements to incumbents Heilman, Land and Horvath. "It's the same group of people who go from meeting to meeting and ask the same questions."
Los Angeles County Young Democrats president David Graham-Caso refused to speak with the Weekly.
Team Heilman's campaign manager, Atkins, a young turk in local and state Democratic party politics and 2003 UCLA graduate, doesn't care what good-government experts Stern and Feng think. He tells the Weekly there was "no conflict at all."
Atkins says any fears that the Heilman-Land-Horvath slate's consultants were sitting behind the mirror is "ridiculous," and shoots back, "Are you impugning the integrity of the interview process?" Asked if he's an employee at Atkins Research Group — the firm's website cites Atkins as an "accounts manager" — he quickly ends the interview. "I'm not going to answer any more questions," he says.
It's the kind of huffy behavior that's mirrored by his evasive boss: current West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman, who's considered the brains and brawn behind Team Heilman.
Today, nearly a year after L.A. Weekly published the April 1, 2010, cover story "West Follywood," Heilman, a law professor in his early 50s who until a few weeks ago wore a bleached-blond faux-hawk, is still fuming over the article. When asked if the voters should have the right to elect a council member rather than have politicians appoint one for them, the longtime incumbent was quoted in the "West Follywood" story as saying: "I don't think that's progressive. I don't see why it's needed to call a special election, and spend a lot of money."
The cover story, in which community activists and one-time political insiders challenged Heilman's policies and leadership, is routinely distributed and cited by the challenging candidates and other critics of City Hall.
Heilman, who has now served seven one-year terms as mayor of this city of more than 23,000 registered voters and some 36,000 residents, refuses to respond to e-mailed requests for interviews, and twice shoots down the Weekly's attempts to speak with him in person. During one tense, face-to-face encounter, Heilman appears to be shaking with anger or fear or both when he is approached inside the West Hollywood Park Auditorium after winning an endorsement from the Stonewall Democratic Club.
"I am not having a conversation with you!" he tells this reporter, then suddenly breaks into a run.
Accessible information about Heilman is hard to come by. In this age of new media, he doesn't have the obligatory campaign website for reporters and voters to see where he stands on issues or to tout what he considers to be his achievements from 1984 to 2010 — a period of time when Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all served as presidents of the United States, three of them for two terms. Parke Skelton, the political consultant for Team Heilman, says he doesn't know why his candidate doesn't have a website.
Heilman does have the cash to pay for one. Recent campaign contribution statements show he has raised $67,220, with his slate mates Land and Horvath raking in $90,107 and $74,928, respectively. Among the challengers, John D'Amico took in $51,488, Scott Schmidt has $10,017 in the bank, Mito Aviles has raised $3,694 and Steve Martin has collected $1,840. Lucas John refuses to take monetary contributions, instead asking people to donate time to his campaign. Aviles has strained his own fundraising by refusing to take money from real estate developers.
Heilman's campaign finance statement for the six-month fundraising period between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2010, is an intriguing snapshot of who gives him money. Of 86 total contributors, 44 live outside West Hollywood. The other 42 contributors largely make up a who's who of West Hollywood political insiders, from former or current city commissioners and business owners to major property owners, and not all of them live in West Hollywood. Heilman's contributors include the Sunset Marquis Hotel, BOA Steakhouse and real estate developer Jason Illoulian. No one forked over less than $100. Many of them gave the maximum: $500. Heilman got no small checks from ordinary residents for $25 or $50.
Fortified by its overflowing war chest, Team Heilman rolls on, but Land and Horvath have acted just as nervous as Heilman when actually confronted with serious questions on the campaign trail.
At the same Stonewall Democratic Club meeting at the West Hollywood Park Auditorium, Abbe Land, a lanky, middle-aged woman with short, spiky hair, looks stunned and uncomfortable when the Weekly approaches her. An outspoken and sometimes combative feminist, Land declines to be interviewed in person or on the phone. Willing only to offer prepared statements, she insists all questions be sent to her via e-mail. Asked why she is running a campaign of prepared statements only, Land, who is co-CEO of the Saban Free Clinic, a major medical clinic in Los Angeles, doesn't make eye contact.
"I prefer the questions in writing," she says, and quickly walks away, saying she needs to thank Stonewall members for their endorsement.
A few moments later, Horvath, a one-time member of the College Republicans Club at the University of Notre Dame, who endorsed George W. Bush during his successful 2000 presidential campaign, acts as if this reporter is not standing in front of her, instead looking up and around. Land stands a few feet away with a worried look on her face, monitoring the situation.
Before Horvath can utter a word, campaign manager Dante Atkins steps in and offers to set up an interview, saying the councilwoman's duties on the trail give her little time to do phone interviews.
Ultimately, Horvath, who until very recently had a campaign website that gave only information about the endorsements she's received and nothing about her positions on various issues, provided a number of prepared answers via e-mail.
The Weekly asked her opinion about a recent bombshell op-ed published by the WeHo News website and written by her colleague, Councilman John Duran. He wrote: "I am beginning to sense a struggle at the core of West Hollywood between our past and our future. It is a cultural battle. It is a fight for the city's soul."
Horvath's prepared answer says nothing: "I agree that West Hollywood is unique, colorful and creative and we should strive to keep it that way. I am proud of our history and diversity and openness. I do not believe, though, that hyperbole benefits any of us."
She took part in her own brand of hyperbole two weeks earlier, at a West Hollywood/Beverly Hills Democratic Club meeting, condemning political division in West Hollywood by invoking the killing spree that left Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords with a brain injury. "We cannot be divided!" she warned.
Land, who does have a campaign website and has served four one-year terms as mayor, also responded to e-mail questions. Asked why voters should support her, Land writes: "I have a long and successful history of involvement in West Hollywood as an activist and as a member of the City Council. I have played a leadership role in helping to transform West Hollywood from a neglected part of unincorporated Los Angeles County to a thriving and creative city with a strong sense of community involvement."
Unlike nearly all of the challengers, incumbents Heilman, Land and Horvath have refused to do voter meet-and-greets, events at which anyone can meet with candidates face to face at a restaurant or bar, no campaign contributions necessary, and can ask any questions they like. Team Heilman's campaign consultant Skelton says it was a "tactical decision" to not hold these voter-friendly meetings because it takes too much time and effort to get people to come to them. "It's not because they're afraid to talk with the public," Skelton quickly offers.
A source close to City Hall says Team Heilman is running scared. "I've never seen them this desperate," says the source, who insists on anonymity due to the threat of political payback in the tiny city. "They feel they're under attack and they're going to lose."
The source notes, "They feel they're entitled to their seats, and for John D'Amico to challenge them is unacceptable. They feel they're the only ones who can govern."
D'Amico, who's been endorsed by Councilman John Duran, is considered the front-running challenger by many West Hollywood insiders. A different anonymous source attached to the West Hollywood political establishment tells the Weekly the D'Amico candidacy has made it a "complicated election" for the in crowd.
A sense of entitlement among longtime incumbents is not uncommon, says Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies. In a democratic society where elected officials are supposed to serve the public and not the other way around, Stern says, "It shouldn't be your seat. It should be anybody's seat."
Stern and Common Cause's Feng are not supporters of term limits. But when told about the 26-year run of John Heilman and the 18 years Abbe Land has held power, they pause. "[Heilman's] a really good guy and a very qualified guy," Stern says, "but it would be good for him and West Hollywood to have a sabbatical of four years."
Stern adds, "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to be a legislator, and there should be turnover. You really need fresh blood coming in. A lot of times incumbents just get re-elected and they legislate the same old stuff. New people come in with new ideas."
Stern thinks three four-year terms is enough time for any politician. Unlike the incumbents, every challenger supports a term-limits law, except for D'Amico, but he nevertheless promises to serve no more than two four-year terms. Says Stern, "In 12 years, you can make your mark. If not, you're not that effective."
Feng says, "When [term limits] are first implemented, it's all good and fresh. It does open up the process to people who haven't been able to be a part of the process." She also points out that West Hollywood's historic problems with low voter turnout — in 2009, 4,136 registered voters out of 23,131, or 18 percent of the electorate, showed up at the polls — could be attributed to the fact that elections are consistently dominated by incumbents.
"If you have the same old candidates all the time," Feng says, "then you're very likely to see low turnout."
That's something incumbents, even in "progressive" West Hollywood, rely upon to retain their power.
"Incumbents really like low turnout," Stern says. "It's their people who show up, and they can control those people."
Aviles, D'Amico and the other challengers are trying to lure, cajole and perhaps even shame a few thousand more people into voting, but it's difficult. Community activist Ed Buck, who ran for City Council in 2007, often tells the story of how some of his volunteers canvassed neighborhoods and called voters.
His own volunteers, however, failed to hit the polls themselves on Election Day. "Voter apathy is pretty prevalent," Buck says. "You have to get them out to vote."
"I would think West Hollywood would try to work to improve [low voter turnout] because of its history of working with residents," Feng says. "I guess that reputation doesn't always match up with what's really happening."
Inside West Hollywood Park Auditorium, a leather-clad crowd of muscled gay men with short-cropped hair waits to speak at a recent City Council meeting. Members of the "leather community," as they are known, are wounded and angry that the city's Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission voted unanimously not to endorse the city's annual Erotic Fair Weekend because they felt the artwork displayed wasn't family-friendly.
Gay men demand to know how West Hollywood — a beacon of tolerance and gay culture — could withdraw support for a long-running exhibit that features lustful, homoerotic drawings and paintings by noted artists such as the late Tom of Finland.
Leather-clad men line up to express their shock and disappointment. Then Sharp, a bearded man in a dark suit who's vice president of the Tom of Finland Foundation — which co-sponsors the event — steps up to the mic. He tells the council members he's not very political, and asks: "I see West Hollywood as singularly progressive. I just need to know what's changed? I guess I need more information."
Under pressure from the leather community, the West Hollywood City Council relents: The erotic art enjoyed by the leather crowd will be shown. Sharp looked up at West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman, sitting, as usual, high on a stage with bright TV lights shining on him. If anyone can answer why and when West Hollywood lost its progressive edge, it's the incumbent who has reigned for 26 years. Heilman presided over it all.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.