Pat Russell was looking for her eel, the most reclusive and the most prized inhabitant of the large saltwater aquarium in her living room.
"He is not one to show off in public," said Russell, "but he's worth seeing if you can find him."
There was a time, before she was elected president of the Los Angeles City Council, when Russell showed off more in public, when she wore muumuus to work along with earrings shaped like watermelons, when she quoted Chinese philosophers, made no secret of the personal flotation tank she owned, and once missed a council meeting in order to attend a wilderness retreat sponsored by est. (Standing for Erhard Seminars Training, est was a prototype for the 1970s human potential movement.)
These days, the highest-ranking member of the Los Angeles City Council bears little resemblance to the woman in the funny earrings. She has replaced her flotation tank with a home computer. She said she is no longer associated with est. Her redecorated office, with its neoclassical stone end tables, is easily the sleekest in City Hall.
Usually dressed in a suit, Russell presents a tailored, stylish appearance and a politely distant manner that has been described as both presidential and imperious. Her demeanor, her ties to Mayor Tom Bradley, her desire to succeed him someday and her recent voting record, favoring commercial over consumer interests, have led people to look at Russell more closely than ever before.
"You get the feeling that Pat Russell has had a long talk with herself about what it is to look and act like a leader," said a colleague on the council who considers himself a friend.
"I think she's a lot tougher, a lot more pragmatic and a lot more ambitious," said another colleague, Councilman Marvin Braude, who supported Russell for the council presidency but who has disagreed with her recently on a number of issues.
Russell, who is 61, said she has made no effort to change her style, and she said she is not worried about how she is perceived as long as she is seen and heard amid the clamor of her more raucous male colleagues.
Russell, who has been a member of the council since 1970 and president since July, 1983, says that she is at her best behind the scenes. It is a view shared by others on the council.
Reputation for Leadership
In meetings, rarely attended by reporters, on subjects such as mass transit, building densities and water quality, Russell, colleagues say, has developed a reputation for knowledgeable, if less than charismatic, leadership.
It is a reputation that she brought to the council as a former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Women Voters and that she hopes will propel her someday into the mayor's office.
"My view is that I'm something of a pioneer in being a woman who does not have a male aggressive style, but a style which is more female, a style of building a team," she said during a recent interview.
"All my life I have been low tension, low key. I don't go out stomping around and having tantrums and making excuses for what I do. I get the job done, and I think that has been a hallmark of mine."
Russell is especially inclined to stress her role behind the scenes these days, after a power play involving rent control, one of the city's more volatile issues, backfired in public. The incident drew rebukes from her friends, raised questions about her independence from local real estate lobbyists, and, for the first time in her term as council president, aroused speculation about her vulnerability.
Term to End in July
Russell's first term as president expires in July.
Russell got in trouble by trying to cripple a rent-control study the council had authorized and which she previously had supported. To many of her colleagues, the move, which failed, smacked of collusion by a group of influential landlords who had Russell's ear. The harshest criticism came from Russell's staunchest political ally, Councilwoman Joy Picus.
"It was an attempted manipulation of the council which backfired and made us look stupid," Picus said.
The rent-control incident, combined with several other controversial stands by Russell, put her on stage in the kind of "aggressive" role she so pointedly eschews.
It caused people to wonder about what she was up to. Was she shedding her image as the quiet guardian of good government for something flashier?
"I think Pat has gotten a little more political," said a veteran City Hall lobbyist in assessing actions by Russell that aroused, at least temporarily, the ire of homeowner and environmental groups.
Russell was elected council president with the help of a group of council members who are generally liberal and generally sympathetic to the mayor.
But some of those members have been hard pressed to explain Russell's recent stands favoring oil drilling in Pacific Palisades, opposing limits on high-rise buildings in Westwood, weakening a smoking ordinance and tampering with rent control.
"I've been very disappointed by the way she has voted on a number of issues where I didn't get her support, and I have been one of her strongest supporters. I can't explain why she has voted the way she has, but I have been surprised," said one council member who asked not to be named.
"I don't think she has lost any friends," another councilman said, "but I do think everybody is watching her a little more closely than they did before."
"The president of the council always appears to move more in the direction of the Establishment," Braude said. "I don't think Pat has done anything different in that respect than her predecessors."
Russell's foes on the council often characterize her as the handmaiden of the mayor. Although she tends to dismiss such talk as sexist carping, she has intervened on Bradley's behalf more than once.
Russell said she is sorry if her positions on a few current issues upset her friends on the council. But she said she resents any suggestion that she cannot stand on her own, or that she could not have won the council presidency if the political skills of certain key officials had not been exerted on her behalf.
"I was the general who put that together," she said. "It was not the mayor or Cunningham (Councilman David Cunningham) or Zev (Councilman Yaroslavsky) who said 'Go over and stand in the corner while we put this together.' "
Joy Picus, her recent criticism of Russell notwithstanding, described Russell as "absolutely the strongest council president I have seen in my seven years on the council." An outspoken feminist and longtime friend of Russell, Picus said that Russell's strengths are in getting the council to grapple with issues, such as transportation and urban planning, that do not offer a quick political payoff but are extremely important to the city's survival.
"Pat gets the council to behave like adults," Picus said.
Russell's own view of her accomplishments are similar to that of Picus.
"I think I have done things that other council presidents have not done in terms of setting goals and of achieving a consensus on some pretty touchy issues. I think there have been a number of times when I have kept things from blowing up."
Indeed, several council members have given Russell credit for holding together a bitterly divided council long enough last year to resolve a highly sensitive lawsuit accusing the Los Angeles Police Department of illegal spying on civilians.
Russell also has used her skills to help the mayor.
Most recently, she used her power as president to influence the course of a council inquiry into the controversial appointment of Bradley's longtime friend and aide, Ezunial (Eze) Burts, to head the harbor department. Russell placed the investigation in the hands of a council committee sympathetic to the appointment.
Later, she briefly promoted the idea of appointing lawyer Daniel Garcia, another close friend of the mayor, as city attorney (a position that became empty after the election of Ira Reiner as district attorney) until the next scheduled election in April. The council, however, picked Gary Netzer, one of Reiner's top assistants, to run the office until the election. Garcia retained his post as chairman of the Planning Commission.
Yet, Russell insists that she seldom consults with the mayor on most issues that come before the council. "You would be surprised at how seldom the mayor and I discuss major issues," she said. "I can tell by what he says or does if he has any major objections to anything. Then, I'll talk to him about it."
Russell said she loses no sleep over charges that she is building a reputation as an ally of developers and other moneyed interests.
She points to her record in the 6th District, to her part in forcing the Los Angeles Airport to adopt noise regulations, in preventing high-rise development along Venice Beach and in drawing up the first ordinance in the city requiring developers to help pay for transportation improvements.
On citywide issues, Russell reminds critics of her role in outlawing apartment buildings that prohibit children and of the zoning reforms she promoted to make it easier to establish more centers for the care of both children and old people.
"I started out running for office with the motto 'you can have a council member who cares.' I think I have been that kind of council member, and I think that, generally, people know that."
Russell worked many years to get where she is. She endured painful political setbacks, losing two earlier bids for the council presidency, and went through difficult personal changes, including a separation from her husband.
For a long time, she said, her greatest frustration came from trying to gain the respect of male colleagues on the council.
"I can't tell you how many people used to say to me it's really good to have a woman on the council. We should always have a woman on the council," said Russell, the only woman on the council at the time of her election.
Russell said she now feels that the mostly male council has made significant accommodations.
But people who have worked for her say that Russell, too, has made some strategic adjustments in her style.
"I think she came to feel that her career required some compromises on her part, dressing for success, that sort of thing," said Tom Moran, who worked for Russell from 1975 to 1979.
"She clearly has become more Establishment oriented," said Larry Kaplan, another former assistant.
During her early days on the council, former aide Curtis Rossiter said, Russell was seen by local politicians not just as a woman but as a "dippy lady" who dressed oddly and latched on to the latest fads. Rossiter was Russell's chief of staff for 12 years until 1982.
As much as anything, sources said, Russell's involvement with the est organization drew attention to her personal life. Essentially a crash course in confidence building, est acquired a quasi-cult standing during the 1970s, when testimonials by rapturous converts caused some critics to liken est to a form of brainwashing.
Kaplan and others who worked with Russell say that they did not see her turning to est as an admission that she needed a dose of courage, but they wondered what the public would think.
"You wondered if people would question her capacity for independent thinking," one former aide said.
Russell said that est is no longer part of her life, but she does not apologize for the time she spent with it. Est heightened her sense of "empowerment," she said.
Today, it is clear that Russell has not abandoned all traces of her old self along the road to political refinement.
The small stucco house she shares with a grown daughter and a niece is full of books, maps, plants, fish and other signs of an active life away from politics. Russell's living room is bathed in the eerie glow of two large aquariums and her back yard has been taken over by the family herb garden.
Most mornings, Russell and her daughter run several miles, and, with her three children, she has hiked most of the John Muir Trail.
She said she also remains in close touch with the man to whom she was married for nearly 30 years, taking outdoor trips with him and having dinner with him virtually every night during the Christmas holidays.
"We have lived our lives both together and separately since 1975," Russell said. "It's more of an arrangement of how a man and a woman share their lives in our kind of world. I don't know if it's the best way, but it is a good way."
Talking about her role as council president, Russell cited the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, indicating that she still looks for inspiration off the beaten political track.
Her reference to Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" was on the subject of winning battles without firing shots in anger, a strategy dear to Russell's heart.
"You avoid fighting by taking care of everything, all the opposing arguments, ahead of time," she said.
It is a strategy Russell has been largely successful in applying. There have been few instances when she has lost control of issues that mattered to her.
Russell admitted that she has not been entirely successful, but she made it clear she is working with a Zen-like determination to strengthen her grip on the future.
"I'm trying to hone my skills, using the concept of high intention. It is the whole idea that if there is something I want to accomplish, then I must really intend to do it and be conscious of that in all of my contacts and work."