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Distant Port

Watts, San Pedro, Wilmington and Harbor City are the southernmost communities in Los Angeles. Together they form the 15th Council District -- the most isolated in the city.

The latter three communities live by (in both senses) the city’s huge port. Watts, on the other hand, has symbolized what‘s wrong with Los Angeles ever since the 1965 riots.

But there’s a longer history of resentment. The communities were once self-governing. We usually think of the secessional resentment of the San Fernando Valley. But the grudge here is 80 years old. While the Valley rages at City Hall, the 15th resents the city‘s omnipresent Harbor Department, whose looming cranes fill the skyline.

The most recent departmental affront was the 1993 construction of the so-called LAXT. This huge facility was supposed to store only coal dust, but was piled with hazardous coke; it was supposed to be completely enclosed, but was left uncovered to the winds.

Harbor-area residents are predominantly working-class, with a strong waterfront labor tradition dating to the bloody strike of 1934. Yet the region has long been represented on the nonpartisan City Council by Republicans.

From the legendary, long-serving John Gibson to his top-deputy successor, Joan Flores, to the termed-out Rudy Svorinich, the locals feel their representation has gotten worse. And the nonwhite communities consider it time to reach beyond the San Pedro business people. That may be why three of the five 2001 candidates are Democrats.

Even so, only one candidate in this ethnically multifarious area is non-Anglo: Hector Cepeda. A former aide to emeritus Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, Cepeda has actually done a three-day walk from Point Fermin to Watts, where the last city election’s turnout was as low as 7 percent. Says Cepeda, ”This fight will be won on the ground, from house to house.“ He carries the Committee on Political Education and state Latino Caucus endorsements. ”I want to be the labor leader on the City Council for the city workers and for all workers.“

Although he would replace the most conservative councilman -- for whom he once worked -- he seems determined to be the new Jackie Goldberg -- who endorsed him.

Cepeda blames the 15th‘s political alienation on its most recent representative. ”Rudy should have come out and explained why he supported the coal port. Instead, he left it to me.“

The 33-year-old candidate is the youngest and most progressive in the race. Yet in conversation, he shows varied politics. Not only did he ”learn the most“ from working for incumbent Svorinich -- as opposed to his later, briefer stints working for Democrats Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal and former Speaker Villaraigosa -- he says he’s determined to show that development need not be ”a four-letter word“ in the district. But when it comes to the Harbor Department, he says he wants to revisit the department‘s entire set of mandates within the state’s tidelands statutes. He‘s raised close to $100,000.

Frank O’Brien was disappointed not to get the League of Conservation Voters‘ endorsement. This went to fellow Democrat Janice Hahn, who flaunts few environmental accomplishments. O’Brien, on the other hand, has been the leading local activist. ”They said I‘m not a viable candidate, and so I asked them, ’How can I be if you do this?‘“

But this is one of O’Brien‘s key problems: Many people say they’d certainly support him if he had a chance. Sometimes called ”a progressive throwback“ to the golden era when it was a matter of pride to get elected by opposing all the established interests, O‘Brien has the Sierra Club’s endorsement as well as that of the acerbic local paper Random Lengths. O‘Brien, who decided to run for the council about the time his family’s food business was sold in 1998, ”has fought in most and lost many“ local and citywide environmental battles over the past six years -- including the Friends of the L.A. River‘s (on whose board he used to sit) publicity-winning fight against downstream channeling. The Sierra Club credits him with obtaining $1 million for improvements to Harbor Park; $250,000 for a park-improvementyouth-employment project in Wilmington; and completing a 250-acre master plan for Ken Malloy Harbor Park in Wilmington (one of the few riparian woodlands in Southern California) as well as a local land conservancy.

With his fingertip knowledge of the area, O’Brien might pass for a native son but for his lingering Boston accent. ”I moved here 15 years ago because it‘s wonderful here,“ he says, ”not [in order] to run for office.“

What’s most wrong with the district, he said, is best expressed by ”the fact that we just had a 20 percent annual growth of port revenues and a 20 percent dropout rate at [Wilmington‘s] Banning High School. How do you deal with that?“ More and better after-school programs, for one. Better recreational facilities, for another. Get as many kids as possible involved in the environment. He wants to build new partnerships, but ”I’m independent. I‘ll call them all on their insider projects.“ He says he’s referring to those benefiting from the tax-endowed developments that turned into 15th District fizzles. He‘s behind with under $50,000 raised, including matching funds.

Janice Hahn can seem an at-large political heiress apparent, due to the celebrity of her late, legendary, long-serving father, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. So far, however, out of her four bids for office -- including her 1993 15th District council loss to Svorinich -- she’s only won once. But she speaks of that two-year term on the Elected City Charter Commission as her life‘s transforming experience: ”A front-row seat in City Government 101.“ Even so, she dropped her charter post to run for Congress.

Indeed, you can’t say she didn‘t get down with the message. She shouted ”Power to the people“ during the vote to establish neighborhood councils. Hahn says, ”As Kenny Hahn’s daughter, I had always learned that government is good.“

But the testimony was the opposite -- ”from people who had sustained abuse“ from government. She helped put a local resident on the Harbor Commission, and eventually wants at least three out of the five members to be locals.

Now, asked what distinguishes her in this race, she jokes, ”I‘m the only girl.“ Gender aside, she’s got top political consultant Mike Shimpock and will probably be the first candidate to approach the $330,000 council-election spending limit. Her last name by itself wields huge clout, particularly in Watts, where she‘s done volunteer work.

Well into her race, Hahn was a public- and government-relations executive with now-staggering Southern California Edison. She says her knowledge of utilities would help her grasp DWP matters. But the connection appeared a conflict of interest on the Charter Commission, when she debated how much secrecy the DWP should be allowed in its long-term planning. Openness on this subject would benefit DWP competitors. Like Edison.

It is widely supposed that Hahn, like her brother Jim in the mayor’s race, will make it into the June runoff. But Councilwoman Flores lost in 1993 after running for too many other offices. This overeagerness factor -- plus a sense that she may be too much a city insider -- could hurt her.

Attorney Bob Nizich is the leading Republican candidate. He‘s been a Recreation and Parks commissioner, and managed to pass a motion in support of a major waterfront-improvement proposal. He’s been prominent with the local Boys and Girls Club. ”What the city can do best is to offer off-track and after-hours programs for our youth,“ he said.

He has Mayor Dick Riordan‘s endorsement. (His Rec and Parks boss, Steve Soboroff, however, endorsed the other Republican candidate, Ken Hillman; Hillman could not be reached). Nizich also has the support of school-board members Genethia Hayes and Mike Lansing. Nizich wants the port to benefit the community. He wants a harbor-impact fund to make the community whole.

Conservative on local-planning issues, Nizich wants to curb ”proliferation of special-needs housing“ (drug-treatment and probation facilities) in residential areas.

He wants further reform of the business-tax system and would abate the utility tax, which is high compared to adjoining cities’.

Nizich, a lifetime community resident and father of five, is jovially cynical about some of the local CRA redevelopment failures. He thinks the private sector can do better. He wants enough neighborhood detail improvements to ”attract new businesses and well-paying jobs.“

This last must be a primary goal for any council member. The harbor area has long been hammered by negative economic factors that have hurt the region far worse than the missteps of the Harbor Department: the decline of the San Pedro Ports attraction; the 30-year plunge of fisheries and associated canning businesses; and the constant job shrinkage in the port itself. A renewed waterfront is one solution offered by local boosters. The northbound Alameda rail-freight corridor may be another -- if it doesn‘t suck still more jobs from the area. Whoever wins the seat must weigh such alternatives against the fact that the worse things get locally, the more likely secession becomes.