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Still L.A. — With Regrets

Could there be an unlikelier pair of candidates vying to represent the northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley on the Los Angeles City Council than Greig Smith and Julie Korenstein?

This district is, after all, secession country, where last November 61 percent of voters gave a big thumbs-up to carving a new Valley city out of Los Angeles. Contempt for City Hall, apparent throughout the Valley, is at its apex among the riding stables and office parks of Chatsworth, the gated developments of Porter Ranch and the spacious single-family homes of Northridge and Granada Hills. Residents and business owners make no secret of their disgust with the policy, politics and bureaucracy that emanate from downtown city offices an hour’s freeway drive away.

The reluctant Angelenos in the 12th Council District will not forget that voters citywide are to blame for secession’s defeat. No single institution inspires more outrage here than City Hall — no institution, that is, except for the hated Los Angeles Unified School District.

So voters in March weeded out 10 fresh faces, secession gadflies and old pols from their ballots and set up a May 20 runoff between Korenstein, the longest-serving active school-board member, and Smith, a 23-year City Hall employee backed by big money from downtown lawyers, corporate lobbyists and city-employee unions.

It’s enough to make Walter Prince scream.

“I think people here are still reeling from the secession problem,” said cityhood advocate Prince, one of the unsuccessful candidates in the March primary. “People just said, ‘The hell with it.’ Now we have these two, who are sidestepping the issues to just take potshots at each other. I didn’t do that kind of stuff. But then I didn’t do very well.”

A closer look at Korenstein and Smith reveals not only the bureaucratic backgrounds and downtown links that 12th District residents love to hate, but also the traits that often bring success in local politics, even in the breakaway-oriented northwest Valley. Both candidates have garnered a certain degree of grudging loyalty among their constituents. Korenstein has the edge in name recognition from her 16 years on the school board, but Smith, too, is well-known among the chambers of commerce and homeowner-association leaders. Smith is far ahead in fund-raising — having raised an amazing $300,000 since the primary — but Korenstein has pumped in $22,000 of her own money to bolster a respectable $100,000 in donations from teachers and labor interests.

Both candidates also tapped seasoned and expensive political consultants. Smith, the chief of staff to retiring Councilman Hal Bernson, went with Mitchell Englander. Korenstein, a former tutor, went with John Shallman. The campaigns have been heavy on mail and personal attacks.

The nasty tone has spilled over to raucous campaign appearances, where accusations are shouted from the audience and partisans scoff and boo when either candidate speaks.

“You’re being very rude,” Korenstein told a crowd at a Galpin Motors debate when her recital of her accomplishments drew laughter. “You may not like what I have to say, but it’s true.”

She repeatedly reminds voters that she battled the school-district bureaucracy to put air conditioning in stifling Valley schools, and that she led the charge to bring back phonics. Both statements generally bring cheers at candidate forums.

Her opponent has faced spirited audiences, too.

“Is this a question or a lynching?” Smith blurted when greeted with jeers over the independent-expenditure campaign featuring his name and his face on giant billboards. “I have nothing to do with those. I’m not even allowed to ask about them.”

The scoffing turns to wild applause when Smith shows — as he does routinely in debates — his LAPD badge and reminds this traditionally law-and-order community that he is a reserve officer.

“I carry a badge, and on weeknights I go out and serve the people of this community,” Smith said at one recent forum. “As a councilman, I will not only serve you, I will protect you.”

 

Emotions run high because of a perception that a style of life once common to the district is slipping away. Residents here enjoy the lowest population density and the most open space of any district in the city, and about 2,000 acres are zoned to allow property owners to keep horses. But riding trails that once led through open fields of wild mustard and sagebrush now are hemmed in by the huge Porter Ranch development. Plans for new bedroom communities just outside the city limits threaten to add thousands of commuters to clogged surface streets and freeways. A proposal by developer and Airport Commission president Ted Stein that required a zoning change spurred a suit by horse owners, who see it as the beginning of the end of the ranch character of Chatsworth. Homeowners blame the Sunshine Canyon landfill for polluting the water and sickening schoolchildren, and they study perchlorates and other contaminants leached from a closed Rocketdyne plant.

 

The district’s image already has been well-outstripped by reality. Chatsworth residents may tout their equestrian heritage, for example, but there are more low-slung office parks than ranches, and the community has quietly become the world capital of pornography, known more for its adult-video production than for cowboy poetry. The district may be one of the city’s whitest, but it has become increasingly diverse, and now is the home of a growing population from India and Pakistan. Demographic changes — along with the recent redistricting that traded off Sylmar for a swath of Encino — have ended the Republican voting majority.

Residents from less affluent and more cramped quarters of the city may find it difficult to feel much sympathy for their distant neighbors in this conservative and secession-oriented Valley corner. But environmentalists and open-space advocates from south of the Santa Monica Mountains would be foolish to dismiss the growing legion of soccer moms with their perchlorate tables. And the election here could well shape the entire council. A labor-oriented vote from Korenstein, a Democrat, or a more conservative law-enforcement bent from the Republican Smith may tip the balance on the council presidency and a host of citywide issues such as responsible contractor ordinances, airport expansion and police reform.

 

The 54-year-old Smith grew up in Whittier and left high school with an interest in Republican politics. He worked on the campaign staff of U.S. Senator George Murphy, and during the Nixon presidency headed a group that worked to keep Spiro Agnew as the vice president. Agnew eventually resigned in disgrace after revelations of bribe taking. Thirty years later, Korenstein’s campaign accused Smith of lying about his role with Agnew, citing a résumé in which he said he served on the staff of the vice president. Smith reversed the attack, accusing Korenstein of pettiness.

Smith later earned a business certificate from UCLA and opened a menswear store, called Greig’s Formal Wear, in Northridge. At various business functions he ran into another clothing-store owner, Hal Bernson. The two men became friendly and worked together in a secessionist group in the 1970s.

Bernson ran for the council in 1979 and picked Smith to help lead his campaign. Smith was taken by the process and by local government.

“After Hal was a couple months in office, I found this is what I really love,” Smith said. “So I sold my business and went to work for him.”

While working at City Hall, Smith earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in public administration and completed training at the Police Academy. His wife worked for Mayor Richard Riordan and now works for Jim Hahn. The couple have two children.

Much talk during the campaign has been about how much Smith is, or isn’t, Bernson’s man. “We need drastic change in the city of Los Angeles,” he tells forum audiences, seeking to sound like both the experienced veteran and the indignant agent of change. Smith points out that he differed from his boss of 23 years by supporting neighborhood councils. He almost quit, he claimed, over Bernson’s stance on spending city money for the 2000 Democratic National Convention. A Smith supporter claims to have witnessed arguments between the staff chief and the councilman that ended with Bernson firing Smith. The firings were routinely ignored by both men.

The 59-year-old Korenstein, a divorced mother of three and grandmother of three, pushed Bernson into a runoff 12 years ago and came within a few hundred votes of ousting him. She sees Smith as a continuation of a regime that she insists began in the 1950s and continued with Councilman Robert Wilkinson and Bernson.

“Hal Bernson never met a developer he didn’t like,” Korenstein repeatedly tells forum audiences. “I think that when you are trained by the master, either you are ineffective at convincing the councilman to change his mind or you agree with him.”

Korenstein has won the backing of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and enjoys support from United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union with which she has been allied since first being elected to the school board. But the County Fed, perhaps looking at the fund-raising numbers, has focused far more attention on the contest in the 10th Council District and has to a large extent let Korenstein fend for herself. The UTLA’s backing, meanwhile, may come with mixed feelings.

“They can’t really want her off the school board,” says political consultant Fred Huebscher. He adds that the district, with all its changes, still is not ready to let go of its Republican tradition to back a candidate who was once a member of the Peace and Freedom Party.

 

“Bernson voters will never go for a lefty like Korenstein,” Huebscher says.

City Environmental Affairs Commissioner Kim Thompson sees it differently.

“The horse people have taken us from ranch to ranch to ranch to meet all the equestrians, and they’re lining up behind Julie because of what is happening to their land,” Thompson says. “Republican, Democrat — it means nothing. It’s about the land. Julie will definitely be the right person. If we can get her elected.”

Norm Huberman, who was elected in November to a council seat in the secessionist San Fernando Valley city that never materialized, acknowledges that Smith has close ties to the hated City Hall. But he says that’s okay.

“He’s been on the front lines dealing with a lot of the problems we have today,” Huberman says. “And he has a feel for it. He will be fabulous because he knows how to play the game.”

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