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Fight for Council District 12

The glossy item in the mailbox might have been a gossip magazine, because on its cover was an heir apparent standing regally in a dark suit and red power tie with a toothy, confident smile and receding hairline, faintly suggesting a young royal.

It turned out to be an expensive, four-color campaign mailer from Mitchell Englander, whom the Los Angeles media have all but named as City Council District 12's councilman-in-waiting.

In L.A. politics, Englander, 40, longtime chief of staff to retiring San Fernando Valley Councilman Greig Smith, who in turn assumed the mantle years ago from his own boss, Councilman Hal Bernson, is about as close to the crown as you get.

In the March 8 L.A. city primary, still more than two weeks away, Englander is solidly backed by the establishment, including former Mayor Richard Riordan, former Police Chief William Bratton and the editorial boards at the Los Angeles Daily News and the Los Angeles Times — which nevertheless used the word "unseemly" to describe Englander's vast $440,000 campaign chest.

Analysts say Englander hopes the huge sum — given to him by developers, unions, lobbyists and others — is enough to crush five others running in CD 12: Armineh Chelebian, Danny Lakhanpal, Kelly Lord, Navraj "Singh" Singh and Brad Smith.

Yet those five non-insiders have earned kudos for their grasp of Valley issues, ideas for turning City Hall around, business savvy, personal stories — and sheer nerve in trying to cross the political moat that keeps outsiders from gaining a spot on the Los Angeles City Council.

In L.A. municipal history, 1987 was the last time an outsider — Ruth Galanter — beat the experienced and anointed insider, incumbent Pat Russell, for a City Council seat.

The winner gets broad powers over a huge swath of land containing 260,000 residents — about half again more than the 165,000 or so residents represented by each of New York City's 51 council members.

UCLA political science professor Joel D. Aberbach says the risk created in L.A. by electing only insiders to the City Council is "stagnation."

Over the years, the long-reigning insiders have moved away from addressing core duties such as L.A.'s deteriorating citywide infrastructure. Today the City Council is seen by many critics as far too involved in pursuing individual, fiefdomlike powers over land development inside its 15 giant districts.

Aberbach says the debate over giving newcomers a chance or sticking with insiders is "a tradeoff. You always want expertise, and you want to give new people a chance to run. ... The question you have to ask is, just how hard is it to break through?"

If Englander wins more than 50 percent of the March vote, he'll be the outright winner. There won't be a June runoff or an extended debate about what it might mean for L.A. to have a successful businessperson, restaurant owner or active neighborhood council member representing them in City Hall instead of another chief of staff.

For his part, Englander says Greig Smith gave him the "freedom and flexibility" to work in the district rather than get tethered to downtown.

He touts his chief-of-staff job — for which he's paid about $154,000 a year — as having given him the chance to help galvanize opposition to the now-scuttled Las Lomas mini-city and support the successful expansion of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.

"What's important is who's most qualified for the seat," Englander says.

Every City Hall insider who's run for office since 1987 — each one of whom has won the post — has said that.

Has the long reign of insiders served L.A. well? Englander's list of supporters and endorsements runs two pages.

But at candidate forums in Chatsworth and Northridge, Englander's five challengers have put out new ideas and ably discussed L.A.'s worsening, unfixed problems.

Residents attending the forums describe the five candidates taking on Englander as an unusually impressive group of private citizens choosing to stick their necks out.

One crowd-pleaser has been "Singh" Singh, 63, a former Indian army captain who has spent about half of the $30,000 he raised and will qualify for public matching funds. He lost twice in past bids for the 27th Congressional District, and is comfortable in front of a crowd.

Singh is hoping that growing discontent with City Hall's many controversies and problems, and his own campaign style — which includes meeting with constituents one-on-one and handing out tote bags emblazoned with his singhforla.com website — will get him past the March primary.

Singh recently sold his Tantra restaurant in Silver Lake and is remodeling a Beverly Hills boutique hotel, the Sirtaj.

He wants the City Council to return to its overarching duty of providing core services. Los Angeles is about 50 years behind on paving its roads, and City Hall now insists that residents pay to repair the buckled public sidewalks in front of their homes.

Englander, Singh says, will "be the 15th voice of the same mentality that exists there now."

Another CD 12 candidate, Brad Smith, 46, who is vice president of the Granada Hills South Neighborhood Council, sums up L.A.'s elected political class this way: "The status quo has proven itself incapable to deal with the realities of the city."

Smith got some campaign help when L.A. County's Democratic Party endorsed him for the nonpartisan race, but after that he temporarily suspended his campaign. A former journalist, now a project manager for the engineering firm Parsons, Smith then jumped back into the race, taking an unpaid leave from Parsons and making a $25,000 personal loan to his campaign.

Smith says of L.A.'s dynastic city elections: "The concept that one officeholder can groom someone and hand it off to them — it's undemocratic."

Taking a strong stand against Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council, Smith backs Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to shut down the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency.

Smith says Brown's CRA dismantling plan would shift hundreds of millions of dollars out of the redevelopment agency's grip and divert it to essential government services instead of private development — enough cash to meet L.A.'s huge projected deficit.

Smith sees taxpayer-subsidized CRA projects as a gamble that should be halted. He says: "I don't see how anyone can argue against meeting the services in the here and now" while handing public money to developers in hopes that "10 to 15 years" down the road, their subsidized projects will create economic growth.

"It's like there's a hole in your roof, but you don't fix it — because you're saving for a pool," Smith says.

Smith makes a fiscal pledge that no sitting City Council member has made: He will give back about $60,000 of his $178,789 annual council pay if elected.

Focused on trying to re-create a healthy business climate in recession-ravaged L.A., candidate Dinesh "Danny" Lakhanpal, 65, says Englander equals "no change."

Lakhanpal owns Dennish Insurance and Dennish Engineering and Consulting in Chatsworth. He says he's cobbled together an economic recovery–oriented coalition of contractors, Realtors and residents in the Indo-American community.

He's spent most of the $10,454 he's raised.

Lakhanpal, as a councilman, would push city leaders to help grow and woo a privately based solar energy industry, not one controlled by the controversial Department of Water and Power. And he proposes something novel for the Valley: a cultural museum for its 1.6 million residents, who currently have no museum.

If Lakhanpal or Singh won, he would be a rarity in council chambers: a successful businessman on a 15-member body dominated by lifelong politicians who've never run a business — and often have never even had careers outside government work.

Like the others running in CD 12, Armineh Chelebian, 49, is hoping for something of a voter backlash. She says Englander would "be beholden to the groups and organizations that have given him that $440,000."

Chelebian adds: "Mitch thinks he's automatically entitled, [but he] does not have the independence" to put the desires of residents "above the special interests, the unions, the well-connected developers."

An accountant, Chelebian is a member of the Reseda Neighborhood Council board and was active in the failed Valley secession effort, which sought to break Los Angeles into two cities after years of dismay over City Hall's heavy focus on bringing amenities to downtown as it shifts taxes out of the Valley.

Chelebian tried for, but lost, a CD 12 bid in 2003 and twice ran for the 40th California State Assembly District.

She says it's tough to attract backers and contributors to new faces like those taking on Englander, because in L.A. the longtime vested interests — who generally make up the bulk of campaign giving — automatically back the agreed-upon insider for any City Council slot.

She's raised about $7,000.

Candidate Kelly Lord hopes to reduce government, end City Hall's lack of public transparency, fix the budget — the City Council and Villaraigosa currently are overspending by about $3,424 an hour — spend more on infrastructure and break the grip of bureaucrats.

He and Brad Smith been endorsed for CD 12 by Clean Sweep, a civic reform group led by former Daily News editor Ron Kaye that's seeking to challenge the strong influence of developers, unions and other special interests at City Hall.

Lord, 61, is the co-owner of Equity Trust Realty in Northridge, and is treasurer of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council.

Englander doesn't seem worried. He says he's the only candidate who can cope with "drinking out of a fire hose" — his metaphor for the overly complex and inefficient way in which Los Angeles City Hall continues to be run.

He's eyeing one of the 15 high-backed chairs in Council Chambers — furnishings that some Angelenos say look a bit like thrones.

Contact the writer at bbarr223@yahoo.com.