Joel Wachs likes to say no. For instance, while discussing the Belmont Learning Complex with the Weekly’s editorial board, he grants a glimpse into how his mind sometimes works toward the negative. He’s just said that he’d strongly oppose using the costly, controversial L.A. Unified site for education unless it could be proven that it could be made safe. Then, asked whether he’d want the site used if the oil-field gas hazards could be mitigated, he also says no. Why? “I think [that] if it were safe, we’d be using it by now,” he concludes.
Saying no has been Wachs’ habit since he was a City Council newcomer about 30 years ago. Nowadays, Wachs is the second senior-most council member (just behind the ailing John Ferraro), but in many ways he’s still trying to be the contrarian new kid on the Los Angeles City Council block. And also, some would contend, the one with the most new ideas — not all of which pass muster with his colleagues. And even those that do pass muster can fall short of actualization.
“Great inspirations, not enough follow-through,” said one senior city manager whose department has generally been on Wachs’ side in his most celebrated recent fights.
The one fight Wachs keeps coming back to is the Staples Center, and how he uncovered and defeated the city’s commitment to give $180 million to the arena project. â Wachs’ 1998 campaign against this handout not only triumphed (actually, it reduced the city’s obligation by about 60 percent), he set a new standard whereby, as he always puts it, big lobbyists, investors and insiders can’t take a free ride at City Hall’s expense.
Even more noteworthy was Wachs’ earlier effort to reform city purchasing practices. Not as showy an issue (probably because there were no prominent bad guys against whom he could posture), this reform may save the city more money than anything else the councilman has done. Wachs also has a progressive past, as the father of rent control in L.A. Indeed, he may have been the only Republican in any big U.S. city to back rent control in the 1970s.
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Steve Soboroff likes to say yes. He is what you might call a generous-spirited guy. See him in action, as president of the Board of Recreation and Parks Commission hearing last year, where the top item is something as minor as the renewal of a contract for a pony-ride concession. He is completely engaged, all there. Also on the agenda is the awarding of a 30-year pin to a midranking parks employee. These occasions are usually pretty stiff and hasty. Forced smiles, a bit of embarrassment on both sides.
A quick Polaroid snapshot: Not the way Steve Soboroff does it. He really enjoys working with people, and he wants everyone else to know it.
“Here, it’s your day,” he says, offering the 30-year man his official chair of office. Then he lauds the employee’s accomplishments and jokes with him. Soboroff is sincere and funny. Everyone leaves grinning, and you get the feeling that it actually meant something to the city that someone would put 30 years of his life into the Department of Recreation and Parks.
Wachs and Soboroff, in their quest for the Valley vote, have turned their candidacies into a kind of mayor’s race within the mayor’s race. Instead of focusing their ire on the ostensible mayoral front-runner, Jim Hahn, they keep spilling it upon one another. Both are middle-aged and Jewish, and both have spent most of their political lives as registered Republicans, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Wachs — who switched to “independent” eight years ago — is gay, Soboroff a straight and philoprogenitive (five kids, all under 18) family man. Wachs has an unpretentious house, said to be filled with great modern art, in a decent Valley area. Soboroff, with a personal fortune said to be in the low eight figures, has two homes in two gated communities, one of them Pacific Palisades, the other Palm Springs. Wachs, 62, went to UCLA and has a Harvard law degree. Soboroff, 52, whose parents’ fortunes came and went as he grew up, got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from the University of Arizona.
The key element in their conflict, however, has mostly to do with what the pair did after college. Ever since one Studio City neighbor, local activist Chris Hewitt, suggested he run for the City Council in 1971, Wachs has been involved in elected office. Since 1978, Soboroff has been a major player in the game of big-time Southland development with his company Soboroff Partners. Developers must learn the City Hall political game early, but in a specialized, outsider way. To Soboroff, obviously, Wachs is an insider at that game, and to Wachs, Soboroff seems something of a special-interest intruder. And, for all the popular perception of collusion between developers and council members, generally speaking, their relations include at least as much friction as cooperation.
This friction would probably be evident today even if Wachs and Soboroff, three years ago, had not already fought a highly publicized battle over the financing of the downtown Staples Center arena. Wachs now insists that, although Soboroff was a key figure in the deal, he bears him no animus.
“Steve,” Wachs explains, “just happened to be the architect of the deal that was going to give the money away. But the face-off wasn’t against him. The face-off was against the whole system that was willing to give it. The face-off was against the system of mayor and council members who were listening to the â downtown business establishment at the time. Some of the key unions, and every high paid lobbyist money could buy, were willing to give it [away].”
Thus, Wachs positioned himself against Mayor Dick Riordan and City Council President John Ferraro, as well against as the council majority, plus the mighty construction unions. But at the time, let us recall, Wachs also spoke, with no great respect, of favored insider parties he called “the billionaire team-owners and gazillionaire players.” And there was little evidence then that he had any more respect for the entrepreneurs, like Soboroff, who promoted these parties’ interests.
Actually, each of the two candidates could claim a win with Staples. On the one hand, Wachs can say he pulled the city back from the brink of a costly insider deal with developers. Soboroff, on the other hand, can point both to the center’s extraterrestrial-blue-glowing nighttime presence in a reviving downtown Los Angeles and to its continued success as a sports, convention and concert venue.
Instead, the two, at least in their early debates, sparred fecklessly on the issue of who was being truthful about what really happened at Staples. In January, a Times reporter implied that Soboroff, in getting the better of these jousts, was proving himself the most confident of all the mayoral debaters. This may have been because he’d already practiced engaging Wachs in public debate on the subject three years earlier.
But even some of those who were on Soboroff’s side in the Staples fight now recall having had a rough ride during the dispute. Some proponents even wonder whether Soboroff didn’t occasionally harm the Staples cause as much as he helped it: “He was like some fucking lone ranger. You never knew where he was going to show up or what he was going to say to whom,” said one Staples-project insider. Some would say that this randomness of focus has become a signature aspect of his mayoral campaign: You can’t quite be sure what issue will emerge from Soboroff when.
It’s a February night in Granada Hills, which is in the dead center of the West Valley area in which Soboroff and Wachs are competing hardest for voters. The nominal opening topic has to do with the anticipated and locally detested reopening of the city’s end of the nearby Sunshine Canyon landfill. But first Steve Soboroff wants to talk about something else: traffic. Specifically, the traffic he encountered getting to the debate venue from the Westside.
“We would have all started on time here if street maintenance were not going on during rush hour . . . We would have got here on time if Sepulveda had three lanes each way,” the former Rec and Parks board head thundered. For months now, Wachs and his allies have been mirthfully lampooning Soboroff’s proposal to widen Sepulveda Boulevard, pointing out that this would necessitate an incredibly costly additional pair of tunnels through the Santa Monica Mountains under Mulholland Drive (think MTA through the Hollywood Hills). They also like to point out that Sepulveda is a state road, out of the mayor’s jurisdiction. Others note that there are economic and efficiency factors that actually favor continuing roadwork during heavily trafficked times. None of these counterarguments has slowed Soboroff’s road rage a bit. But having vented it tonight, he moves on to assail “the politicians” — i.e., every other viable contender in the mayor’s race — against whom he, as “a problem solver” (as his campaign slogan puts it), is battling.
“The politicians have over and over again ignored the red flags put up by this project,” Soboroff says of Sunshine. He blames the canyon site’s regulatory mess, whereby the county continues to use it, on “an agreement negotiated by this city attorney” — that’s James Hahn, who is seated nearby — “which has . . . a loophole bigger than any garbage truck.” He adds that the embattled North Valley burghers are also about to face, in addition to city refuse, garbage from “our neighbors from Santa Clarita.” He vows, as mayor, to stop the entire operation, but fails to suggest how he will go about it. â
Joel Wachs has his own manifestation of villainy to blame for the big dump site that sits on the city’s northern boundary: “What you are seeing is the power of big money in Los Angeles.” In Wachs’ expressed view, this money somehow bought off someone at City Hall and got the landfill located here.
Wachs also said he would “litigate against the county” to stop further use of the canyon for dumping by anyone. Now, as it just happens, the mayor cannot, by himself, litigate against anyone. And Sunshine has already been subjected to just about every legal challenge imaginable. But it is interesting that neither candidate mentions, as others already have, possible positive alternatives to local landfills — such as intensified recycling.
Perhaps it’s that both men are populists in their own ways, although each man’s way seems to be the opposite of the other’s. Wachs’ populism purports to seek the widest possible public involvement in the city and its decision-making. He wants to set up the broadest, most inclusive form of neighborhood council: Ideally, he believes, these councils would have some power to govern, or at least to help select appointed officials. He wants an early-warning ordinance that would alert citizens to city projects that would harm them and their neighborhoods — giving the local residents a head start on opposing such proposals. His basic premise is that city government is, by itself, simply not to be trusted. Therefore, as mayor, he will encourage the interposition of the popular will against City Hall. He opposes Valley secession, but his ideal of a future Los Angeles seems to be a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods rather than a unified city. It is an example of Wachs’ problem with follow-through, however, that council colleagues have beat him in setting up neighborhood councils; he’s failed to start even one.
Soboroff, on the other hand, talks as though he wants to be the strong leader of a powerful central government that can be trusted. He comes from the farther — and, historically speaking, more perilous — shore of populism which contends that it takes a vigorous and honest leader to serve the people’s will and keep the rest of government trustworthy.
But he is also a vigorous entrepreneur. And it goes without saying that this is where most of his career experience lies. As Howard Blume and Dennis Dockstater reported here recently, in this context, Soboroff “declared open season on himself” when he brokered the sale of a highly desirable 13-acre potential San Fernando Valley school site to a private party. This he did while serving as mayor-appointed chairman of the Proposition BB school-bond-funded construction and repair committee that was ostensibly in quest of just such sites for the LAUSD. The property deal may have netted Soboroff a $300,000 commission, equal to about half the personal total of $667,000 Soboroff has said he will spend out of pocket on his mayoral campaign. No one has charged Soboroff with breaking any laws. But this incident, wherein Soboroff so palpably set his own interests ahead of the school district’s, reminds one of the old fable about the scorpion which, to save its own life, cannot change its lethal nature and kills the frog that tries to carry it to safety.
To be fair to Soboroff, however, he gets high marks from fellow BB committee members on virtually everything else he did there as chairman. “He gets involved far beyond the press releases,” says Deputy Controller Tim Lynch, who worked with Soboroff on the same committee. “He’s quick on his feet and versatile.”
And — perhaps unlike his major endorser, Dick Riordan — he’s willing to work with those who have opposed him. Lynch notes that Soboroff fought the rest of the committee for a while, trying to persuade the majority to fund the Belmont Learning Center out of BB resources. “But after he lost to the majority, he eagerly advocated our position,” Lynch recalls, adding that Soboroff demonstrated a fast learning curve when he was instrumental in getting a law saving the district a lot of money on insurance through the Legislature in under three months. Did Lynch see a downside to Soboroff’s BB career? “Only that he tends to believe that the private sector has better solutions than the public sector.” â
Indeed, Soboroff took this attitude to the extreme recently at a debate at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in which he actually advocated privatization of regional public transportation. One UCLA transportation expert later joked, “Then the transit entrepreneurs could sell out the whole system to the gas and auto interests all over again.”
Wachs has his own dim back pages as well. This is largely because, as one county official put it, “Populism has a dark underside that verges on prejudice.” Wachs, for instance, in 1992 helped lead a campaign (before the MTA’s predecessor agency, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission) to reject a low contract bid for light-rail cars by Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation. The effort, also supported by Councilman Nate Holden and then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, seemed to follow on a wave of Japan-bashing. It succeeded at first, but eventually backfired when the contract had to be re-bid. The ultimate price of the eventual new contract for German-built rail cars was millions costlier than the original would have been.
Recently, Wachs got in rather deep in his campaign-associated effort to halt a long-standing proposal to recycle treated sewage effluent into a San Fernando Valley well field. The Department of Water and Power plan was something Wachs himself had voted for years ago. But then Wachs turned the issue into a water-purity holy war, which he also associated with the unrelated problem of Chromium 6 levels elsewhere in the water supply. While Wachs’ staff couldn’t turn up any scientific caveats against the recycling proposal, the related council hearings did attract the testimony of some singular water-purity loonies — including one woman who blamed the state’s chronic water ills on Mexico, which demands a share of “our Colorado River” and also, she said, sends illegal immigrants “who come here and use up our water supply.”
The basic vulnerability of Wachs’ campaign is quite close to its main point of strength. He wants an open process, in which every voter has a say. He’ll say no to rule from the top. But can any city government perform its necessary functions by pleasing everyone all the time? At one point in his Weekly interview, Wachs spoke of his expectation that many Los Angeles neighborhoods would bond to resist any project that threatened any one area. (This was just days after the passage of Pasadena’s initiative A to finish building the 710 freeway, the completion of which would devastate neighboring South Pasadena.) Although Wachs hopes for a kind of progressive solidarity among differing neighborhoods, the philosophy of NIMBY has always implied some other person’s back yard is just the spot for the halfway house you don’t want in your own.
Then again, who gets to say what is good for whom? Wachs suggests that local interests should always dominate. Here, for instance, he speaks of creating a more San Pedro–friendly Department of Harbors if he is elected: “At least three, maybe all five of the harbor commissioners will come from the harbor [region].”
But the harbor belongs to all of Los Angeles, not just San Pedro and Wilmington. However badly these communities have been skimped by the department in the past, is that any excuse to risk a key element in the prosperity of a city of 4 million for the sake of the interests of a community of 40,000 or so?
Soboroff obviously thinks differently. “Everywhere that I have gone, my message of getting things done versus the political process of it is out there,” he said in a recent Daily News interview. Here and elsewhere, Soboroff comes on strongly as the man who might get things done first and then ask the people later how they felt about it, a follower of Riordan’s credo that it is easier to seek forgiveness than ask for permission. Wachs passionately claims he intends to do precisely the reverse.
And right there, you see the key difference that will probably keep them sparring along the campaign trail until the April 10 primary. At least.