After three decades on the City Council, with term limits breathing down his neck and his mayoral aspirations dashed, Joel Wachs has resigned his seat and moved to New York, where this bubbly arts maven now heads up the Andy Warhol Foundation, a major source of funding for American artists. On December 11, his erstwhile constituents in the city‘s 2nd council District will choose his successor.
The 2nd is itself something of a surreal collage — a classic L.A. hodgepodge incorporating upscale Studio City, the Latino East Valley communities of Arleta and Lakeview Terrace, and the faraway lands of Sunland and Tujunga, home to aging bikers in transition from choppers to walkers. The two main candidates to succeed Wachs in this rather incoherent district are Tony Cardenas, a state assemblyman from the east Valley who chairs the Assembly’s budget committee, and Wendy Greuel, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley and HUD Secretaries Henry Cisneros and Andrew Cuomo who for the past four years has been a public-affairs liaison and lobbyist for DreamWorks SKG.
For better and worse, the two candidates share a number of perspectives and positions. Both support the emerging “L.A. model” for development — conditioning the granting of city funds to developers who commit themselves and their retail tenants to local hiring, paying a living wage and not obstructing workers‘ attempts to unionize. Both favor a sizable affordable-housing trust fund, though both shy away from a specific requirement that developers set aside units for low- or moderate-income tenants, or pay an equivalent amount to the city to build such units elsewhere. Neither seems at all interested in pursuing serious police a reform now that the Rampart case has been put to sleep. One clear difference is on the issue of Valley secession: Cardenas, commendably, opposes this delusional and divisive piece of mischief, while Greuel takes a wait-and-see attitude that must have her mentor, Mayor Bradley, spinning in his grave.
But the more instructive difference between the two candidates is in their records — and there’s much in Cardenas‘ record that should give the city pause. His rise to power has been fueled by cultivating the backing of wealthy special interests — most especially, California’s Indian casinos. In Sacramento, he‘s the guy who does the casinos’ bidding — for instance, endeavoring to make it very difficult for their employees to form unions. In return, the casinos have a history of dropping major bucks into Cardenas campaigns, including a quarter of a million dollars when he was considering running for California secretary of state earlier this year. The tribes also back candidates whom Cardenas supports and oppose those he doesn‘t, most prominently, Antonio Villaraigosa in this spring’s mayoral race. Out-of-town tribes put $350,000 into the L.A. mayor‘s race, much of it for scurrilous anti-Villaraigosa attack ads — for which Cardenas denies any role, though he acknowledges a shared antipathy with the tribes toward the former Assembly speaker over his politics in Sacramento.
What’s more, Cardenas has more than once demonstrated a disquieting willingness to play the race card to further his ambitions. He sought to enlist the Latino legislative caucus to ensure that a Latino (likely, Cardenas himself) would succeed Villaraigosa as Assembly speaker. This kind of race-based politics undervalues and undermines the contributions that non-Latino progressives like east Valley Congressman Howard Berman (whose seat Cardenas has eyed covetously for years) make on behalf of their Latino constituents. (For 30 years, Berman has been the pre-eminent legislative champion of the United Farm Workers and the most able and diligent congressional defender of Latino immigrant rights.)
Nothing in Wendy Greuel‘s record suggests she’ll be the Valley‘s version of Fiorello LaGuardia, but she’s a damn sight better than Tony Cardenas. As a young aide in the Bradley administration, she created the city‘s first AIDS task force and helped develop the policy under which the LAPD doesn’t hand undocumented immigrants over to the INS. She helped shape L.A.‘s Best, the after-school program at many inner-city schools, and was HUD’s point person in L.A. after the Northridge quake. Greuel went to DreamWorks after it had already decided to locate itself on the site of the old Hughes Aircraft facility at Playa Vista; there, she worked with such progressive groups as the L.A. Metro Alliance on guaranteeing inner-city hiring and job training. Still, Greuel‘s environmental credentials are tarnished by her lobbying for DreamWorks at the time it was targeting Playa Vista. It’s notable, however, that she‘s been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.
Though the 2nd’s not a notably progressive district, and the mini-electorate of special elections tilts the playing field even more rightward, we regret that Greuel feels compelled to pander, by commission and omission, to the fears and parochialism of potential supporters. Nonetheless, Greuel has a decent record as a public servant and certainly needs no introduction to City Hall, while Cardenas boasts a familiarity with a kind of political netherworld from which the city would do well to keep its distance. Wendy Greuel is our clear choice to represent the 2nd District on the council.