As she campaigns for mayor, Wendy Greuel has repeatedly stressed one thing that distinguishes her from her top two rivals: She has private-sector experience.
Indeed, Greuel's resume includes a four-year stint at DreamWorks -- something that neither Jan Perry nor Eric Garcetti can claim -- which says taught her to understand the world of business.
However, Greuel's job at DreamWorks was to lobby L.A. City Hall for approval of a controversial development at Playa Vista. She was hired not because of her entrepreneurial acumen, but because she knew City Hall, having spent 10 years working for Mayor Tom Bradley.
In other words, her "private sector" job was to influence the public sector. From all accounts, she did it quite well. She was part of a team that won a $35 million package of tax credits for DreamWorks' Playa Vista development.
Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen founded DreamWorks in 1994, and soon after undertook plans to build a new movie studio -- the first new studio in L.A. in 75 years. They hired outside lobbying firms, including Marathon Communications, but they also beefed up their government relations staff, hiring Greuel as negotiations heated up.
"Community relations and government relations was what we were doing on their behalf as an outsource," says Richard Lichtenstein, Marathon's founder, who was one of DreamWorks' registered City Hall lobbyists. "She came in and was able to do that in-house."
From her years working for Bradley, Greuel brought an intimate knowledge of the workings of City Hall. But she had connections in the broader community, and understood how to work the issue both inside and outside City Hall.
"Some people are good hall walkers and lobbyists," Lichtenstein says. "They open doors and know lots of people. Other people are good in terms of listening to stakeholders and trying to process concerns in a thoughtful way."
Greuel, he says, was a rare combination of both. "For someone to have the skills to take what you're hearing in the community, and build consensus, and then take it back to the building -- that's an artful skill," he says.
One of the key people she dealt with on the issue was Adi Liberman, who was chief of staff to Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. The Playa Vista property was in Galanter's district, so she had tremendous clout over the project.
According to Liberman, Greuel was the key player who convinced her bosses that they had to offer a package of community benefits in exchange for approval of the project.
"Wendy's management didn't understand why they had to offer anything," Liberman says. "Wendy managed to convince them this was essential to concluding a deal with the city of Los Angeles... Otherwise it looks like the city is doing a special giveaway just because these guys are hotshot celebrities."
Greuel also advised the DreamWorks team as it made charitable donations -- and just as importantly, about which donations not to make.
"As soon as it became known DreamWorks was coming in the door, supplicants began lining up with their hands out," Liberman says. "And all of it was couched in terms of, 'This is this council member's favorite group,' or 'We work closely with the mayor's office and can deliver this community or that community.' Originally DreamWorks' thinking on this was, 'Let's go ahead and do that.' And when Wendy came in she basically shut that down... It looks horrible, and all it does is it encourages even more to come forward. It turns into this huge feeding frenzy."
Greuel spent much of her time building relationships at community meetings.
"When she was out of the office, she was at a community meeting or an organizational meeting," says Andy Spahn, who was her boss at DreamWorks. "Every evening she was out in the community."
DreamWorks ultimately agreed to set up a program called Workplace Hollywood, which would train low-income people for jobs in the entertainment industry. That program helped win over support from council members in black and Latino areas of the city.
Some environmental activists loudly opposed the Playa Vista project because it threatened the city's last undeveloped wetlands. Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Action Network, said that DreamWorks carried a lot of clout in political circles.
"The Democratic Party was so beholden to DreamWorks," she says. "They were always putting on big fundraisers for Clinton."
Hanscom said she did not deal with Greuel at the time, and only learned later, when Greuel ran for City Council, that she had been involved in the project. "Wendy was always really kind and open to me," Hanscom says, noting that Greuel even agreed to serve on a host committee for one her events.
In 1999, soon after winning City Council approval for the $35 million tax incentive package, DreamWorks pulled the plug on the studio project. It appeared the project had become too costly, and too much of a distraction, for DreamWorks to pursue.
But Liberman says that Greuel was still able to convince her bosses to follow through on a pledge to donate $3 million to launch Workplace Hollywood. "For her to get these guys to give up $3 million of their personal money -- even for those guys, $3 million is not a small contribution. This was a pretty good consolation prize."
Three years later, Greuel left to run for City Council. In that campaign, her opponent, Tony Cardenas, sent out a mailer calling her "a lobbyist for a $35 million city tax credit." Greuel -- who was never required to register as a lobbyist -- argued that she was not one. She has also defended the project as a major job creation effort.
Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen have each given $50,000 to an independent committee backing Greuel's campaign for mayor.
Spahn, her old DreamWorks boss, says she left an impression. "She was very smart and very thorough," he says. "I wish she was still working here."