Photo by Kathleen Clark

The stage at the Pacific Design Center was crowded last Saturday as 13 aspirants for a seat on the West Hollywood City Council were on hand for a locally televised candidate forum. Yet despite the apparent competition for his job, Mayor Steve Martin brimmed with confidence from his seat at center stage.

“When I ran four years ago,” the dapper Martin said, his eyes locked on the TV cameras, “I promised you change. I have delivered that.”

Martin’s critics wouldn’t disagree. It is precisely the nature of the change to which Martin refers that some activists find unsettling.

Once the Southland’s most radical enclave — where gays, leftists and seniors rallied around rent-control and social-justice issues — today West Hollywood has a stylish new city hall and is preparing for a $17 million face-lift of Santa Monica Boulevard. West Hollywood, some fear, has entered middle age and left its progressive politics behind.

Martin, who earned headlines far outside the municipal boundary by going public to challenge Jerry Falwell’s attack on the Teletubbies, is secure in this new environment. A savvy, ambitious politician who has already announced his intention to run for the California state Assembly next year, Martin presides over a prosperous, increasingly self-satisfied city.

“People don’t seem to have the alienation they did four years ago,” Martin said after the forum, commending the pacification of a city founded by gay activists, seniors and rent-control advocates in 1984. “The city has grown up. People are more concerned with quality of life.”

The mayor’s critics agree that West Hollywood is doing well, but hope that next Tuesday’s election will be a referendum on Martin himself. They fault the mayor as being a self-interested leader who makes political decisions based on how they will affect his climb to higher office. The result, they say, has been bending to the will of developers and a shift away from the leftist advocacy that built the town.

“In the early days we were idealists. Council members were motivated by what was best for the city,” commented John Heilman, who is seeking re-election to a council seat he has held since the city’s founding. “The last five years it’s much more political — all about jockeying for political advantage. It’s disheartening to lose that idealism.”

On Tuesday, March 2, three seats on the five-member council are up for grabs. Despite the large field, less than half are real contenders. Last weekend’s forum provided the candidates an opportunity to debate the issues of the day: replacement of ficus trees along Santa Monica Boulevard, the pros and cons of two-sided billboards. Catch phrases from the city’s past, such as “renter rights” and “ACT UP,” were barely mentioned. It was, as challenger Chris Patrouch said, a sign the city’s politics have been “gentrified.”

Under the surface, however, battle lines were being drawn for the final week of the campaign. Heilman is leading a loose progressive slate against Martin that includes Patrouch, a local bookstore owner and Green Party member. In addition, the Coalition for Economic Survival and the city’s employees union have endorsed these candidates and are mobilizing forces to defeat the mayor. Yet unseating Martin should prove an uphill battle. The CES is not the force it once was, and the activist agenda has been marginalized in West Hollywood since Heilman lost his majority to Martin in 1994. Martin’s influence waxed again in 1997 with the election of former Martin roomie Jeff Prang.

Much of the animosity toward Martin, especially by renters’ activists, stems from several pivotal events in recent city history. In 1996, the Martin-led council fired Mark Johnson, a strong renters advocate and the popular director of the city’s Rent Stabilization Department. Though Martin had himself served on the rent board in the early ’90s, some doubt his support of tenants’ rights.

Early the following year, the city purchased land on Kings Road to build affordable housing. When owners of adjacent upper-income condos caught wind of the project, they organized to kill it. Within weeks, Martin did exactly that, leading an effort to convert the area into a park. Heilman believed he was witnessing a sea change in the city’s politics. “It was the first time we defeated affordable housing,” Heilman said. “It was disturbing.”

For tenant activists, this legacy has real consequences in an era of scaled-back rent control. “We need to have a City Council committed to take necessary actions to preserve affordable housing,” said Larry Gross, executive director of CES. “Rents have skyrocketed, and [measures] need to be taken to ensure this doesn’t become a totally upscale community.”

Martin insists he supports construction of affordable housing. Kings Road, he contended, was a watershed for neighborhood self-determination. He said CES is out of step with the community. “CES used to be a political machine, but they managed to somehow blow it,” Martin said. “They were good with rent control and social services, not particularly good at listening to what people wanted.” It was his attention to the basic issues they were ignoring — such as street prostitution and the need for more parking garages — that made him a popular leader.

As election day nears, the greatest threat to the continued sway of Martin and his allies is Chris Patrouch. While incumbents Martin and Heilman seem headed for re-election, maverick Councilman Sal Guariello — nearing his 80th birthday — is vulnerable. And as a well-liked activist who ran for the council two years ago, Patrouch could be a permanent thorn in Martin’s side. Although young, Patrouch is an idealistic urban planner who likes to challenge mainstream orthodoxy.

As a foil to Patrouch, Martin enlisted Ruth Williams, a longtime neighborhood activist and four-time candidate, to run again. As in the last election, when he helped elect Jeff Prang, Martin has helped Williams raise money.

Although he has no record on rent control, Patrouch has been an active watchdog of the Santa Monica Boulevard plan and of development on the east side. Although mainly interested in “greening” West Hollywood with bike lanes and increased public transit, his campaign recently discovered the issue of campaign-finance reform.

“A lot of money coming in is from real estate developers,” Patrouch said. “There is so much development out there, and it casts a shadow on the people making the decisions.” Patrouch does not have a precise formula for reform, but supports limits on contributions, or a total spending cap. The most recent estimates have Martin raising $40,000, Heilman and Williams raising over $30,000 each. Patrouch, in contrast, has not broken $10,000 in contributions.

Williams and Martin, in a tactical move, have singled out Patrouch for considerable criticism. On campaign reform they accuse of him of grandstanding, saying they are not beholden to contributors. On most other issues, they say he has little experience or is out of touch with the needs of the city. While the differences between the two quasi-slates seem subtle, they were highlighted on Saturday by a Chamber of Commerce request that candidates rank a list of civic capital improvements. Martin and Williams rated new parking structures for shoppers near the top of their lists; Heilman and Patrouch preferred a new municipal library — the lowest priority for Martin. The answers reflect differing visions — Martin-Williams oriented to “business friendly” priorities, and Heilman-Patrouch to the city’s traditional commitment to local social services.

For her part, Williams has run into her own political problems. It was recently revealed that she has filed for bankruptcy twice in the past 10 years, the last time in 1997. She insisted, “It will have no impact on the kind of council member I will be.

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