If you’re looking for an American political contest not yet fully scripted by the influence of professional politics, look no further than L.A. City Council District 5.
Start with David T. Vahedi’s campaign Web site, where visitors are greeted with a spoken message from the candidate himself:
[An oval picture of City Hall sits at the center] + [buzzing background noise is cued] + [one-second delay] + [a man with black hair and a matching suit with a red tie steps into said oval. Thanks to the magic of a Hollywood studio-style “green screen,” he appears as a superimposed, giant man whose head abuts the tip of a great white shaft—that is, L.A. City Hall.]
“Hello,” chirps the man. “I’m David T. Vahedi [followed by redundant welcome message] + [followed by political monologue] + [punctuated by the very large man’s sometimes-crackling voice, some awkward gesticulations, the introduction of his wife and the unshakable reminder of the phallic-like qualities of City Hall].
“But I like it — for some reason,” says president of the Center for Governmental Studies, Bob Stern, an oft-quoted political observer in the city. “It’s growing on me.”
“Yeah,” says Vahedi, an attorney and former auditor, taking recent jabs at his site in stride. “I wanted to be on grass in front of City Hall, but then the campaign got going.”
Vahedi is an amiable type whose simple, aw-shucks language masks a savvy policy nerd. Local bloggers have become “the street” on Vahedi, giving him high marks for hitting the right notes in several candidate forums so far in this multicandidate, wide-open race in the huge Westside/West Valley district.
Vahedi might normally not stand a chance in a crowded field of very active candidates including Adeena Bleich, Ron Galperin, Paul Koretz, Robyn Ritter Simon and Robert Schwartz. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the district, but not much name recognition and no big endorsements. He’s not Jewish — more on that later. And he prefers to give detail-laden responses over facile, front-loaded talking points — though he has those, too. Four years ago, he ran in this race and lost to Jack Weiss.
But in this long winter of 2009, things have changed in Council District 5.
Weiss, a deeply divisive figure thanks to his abrasive personality and his pro-development alliance with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is abandoning the council job to run for city attorney. Weiss faces a real challenge for the city attorney’s seat from well-spoken environmental attorney Carmen Trutanich and a cast of sharpies including thoughtful Deputy City Attorney Michael Amerian, activist lawyer Noel Weiss and the hilariously bombastic Englishman, Deputy District Attorney David Berger.
Weiss’ Fifth District seat is a springboard to power held in the past by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Assemblyman Mike Feuer. The district is big and curvaceous, snaking from Encino, Sherman Oaks and Valley Village over the mountains to Bel Air, Beverlywood, Westwood, Cheviot Hills, Fairfax and Palms. Nearly 75 percent of its voters are white, and Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1.
The influence and money in District 5 — and the growing anger toward a tin-ear City Council that heavily caters to lobbyists and land speculators — have attracted six candidates, all burnishing their anti-development credentials.
It’s not an insider crowd. The only previous officeholder is Koretz, a bloated-faced pol who is also a carpetbagger in the race, having moved to District 5 recently so that he could run. He’s a former West Hollywood councilman, and was once a state assemblyman. Despite his higher profile, nobody sees him as a lock in sophisticated District 5.
The others have raised modest campaign war chests, and by virtue of each candidate’s seriousness and the chaos of a six-way race, each of the six has a shot. Nobody is expected to win outright on March 3, and nobody knows which two will face each other in the May 19 runoff.
Homeowner groups hold great sway in District 5, and have hosted most of the nearly two dozen debates. So the candidates have narrowed their campaigns’ goals — almost exclusively — to appealing to those concerns.
All six have pledged, essentially, to storm into City Hall as the only outright slow-growth representative on a decidedly pro-development City Council that aggressively rubber-stamps developers’ plans for multistory apartment towers.
“That’s the story of LA!” says Bleich, in her early 30s, who is so untrusting of City Hall that she wants to hire her own traffic planner to investigate developers’ claims about traffic impacts. “Let’s approve that building ’cause we’re building a subway!” she says witheringly. “How many times do we take the subway’s name in vain?” Bleich, who worked as a senior field deputy in the Fairfax and Carthay neighborhoods for Weiss, has the support of former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.
But no candidate has gone quite as far as Vahedi to please homeowner groups. He tells L.A. Weekly that he will never meet with a developer without a representative of a homeowner group present — a stark contrast to current practice, where developers frequently meet with council members, and homeowner reps are increasingly shut out.
Candidate Simon, a Beverlywood Homeowner Association member, takes a more rebellious tack with regard to Westside politics, saying, “There are some very vocal homeowner groups that exercise a lot of influence. I’m not sure who they represent.”
Simon plays up her ability to resist developers, wants more cops and is opposed to Villaraigosa’s one-way Pico Boulevard plan. Of Weiss, she says, “We’ve had someone for the past eight years who was more interested in policy than ensuring the quality of life.”
Simon has lost three political races before, and has done a lot of civic work. She was on the city’s Planning Commission for five years, gaining firsthand knowledge of all those variances, zoning changes and development approvals that so infuriate residents in Council District 5.
Another angle the candidates are mining is the fact that the district’s Jewish population is so influential. “I can’t remember a time when someone who wasn’t Jewish represented this district,” says Sue Burnside, an L.A.-based political consultant. So all the candidates display their Jewish street-cred.
Bleich, a former aide to Weiss, is an Orthodox Jew who was L.A. director of the American Israeli Political Action Committee. Simon’s got pictures of herself reading at temple. Koretz is the son of a Holocaust survivor. Galperin, an openly gay candidate married to a rabbi, was a “Super Sunday” phone volunteer for the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles.
Unlike his competitors, fiscal reform at City Hall is lawyer Galperin’s top priority. “We’ve got people who owe” the city $1.1 billion, he says. “We’re failing to collect. Imagine the income we could be bringing in if we actually enforced our own laws.”
Schwartz is the only Valley resident in the race. He did not callL.A. Weekly back, but the entertainment attorney is promising Valley residents that he’ll create a district director focused just on the Valley, and that he’ll try to revitalize L.A. film production.
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Amidst these strong personalities, former officeholder Koretz has not gotten traction in the “free media” — nor is his record memorable. He authored a law banning a type of sniper gun, and others favoring labor. But he has often focused on small-time issues like his West Hollywood leaf-blower law. (He cut the number of leaf blowers allowed to operate simultaneously by one — that is, one, single leaf blower — which Koretz describes as “protecting the environment.”)
Speaking to L.A. Weekly, Koretz sounded defensive, demanding of the other candidates, “What have they actually done? Nothing! There’s no reason to expect them to be able to accomplish anything!”
That’s not entirely, or even mostly, true — so the other five candidates, most of them long-involved activists who are sick of insiders, have reserved their attacks almost exclusively for Koretz.
“He doesn’t have a history of achieving real results,” shoots back Galperin, noting that past District 5 elections show the residents prefer newcomers.“The Fifth has a history of electing people who have never run for office before,” says Galperin. “This goes back 60 years.”