ZEV YAROSLAVSKY : He’s Spruced Up and Slimmed Down--but Retains Old Intensity and Driving Ambition

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

At night, when it’s time to put away the cares of the nation’s second-largest city, Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky dreams to the chatter of an all-news radio station.

His home, in the Fairfax district, is a drab yellow structure with peeling paint and a dirt-patched front lawn. But Yaroslavsky says that he has little time for home improvements--not when there are greater problems to worry about, such as hostilities in Beirut, budget problems in Washington, and potholes on Pico Boulevard.

He spends five, sometimes seven nights a week at community meetings, speaking engagements or political fund-raisers, his wife Barbara said. On those rare evenings at home, he raps out letters on his computer or follows world events on television, scanning the networks with a remote control device. Often he travels miles downtown to get the latest evening edition of the newspaper.

“Last night I came home and he had the New York Times spread open on his chest,” Barbara Yaroslavsky said. “He was sleeping.”


His council colleagues agree that Yaroslavsky has a voracious appetite for news--particularly, his critics say, when he is a part of it. But colleagues also describe Yaroslavsky as perhaps the most driven and ambitious of the city’s 15 council members.

“He’s a very calculating politician,” City Councilman Ernani Bernardi said, couching the comments as a compliment. “He’s very aggressive, very bright. He knows the value of . . . good box-office issues.”

In recent weeks, Yaroslavsky’s aggressive politicking has made him a major player in a critical issue now before the City Council--the extent to which Los Angeles should grow.

That fight over planning and zoning issues pits developers against neighborhood groups and environmentalists anxious to restrict growth. Yaroslavsky has allied himself with the neighborhood groups, accusing many of his council colleagues of responding too willingly to the blandishments of the big money developers he blames for overbuilding in many traffic-congested parts of the city.


Hoping for Hero Status

If the neighborhood groups win most of the battles over planning, Yaroslavsky’s supporters hope that he will emerge as a popular hero and find himself in a good position to realize his long-time goal of becoming mayor of Los Angeles.

“There’s no bigger challenge facing the city right now than to set the priorities straight about what our quality of life is going to be . . . about who’s calling the shots,” Yaroslavsky said in an interview. Those shots, he said, are being called by the men building high-rise office towers, not the homeowners who live in their shadows. “The average person walking into City Hall is behind the eight ball before he ever gets to the first step.”

In his own Westside district, Yaroslavsky boasts of “killing more hotel projects than you can name in your lifetime.”

But he has been criticized by some homeowner groups for supporting a 14-story, 214-room hotel now being planned for the southern edge of Westwood Village.

Yaroslavsky says that a luxury hotel there might help improve the image of an area marked by fast-food stands and T-shirt shops.

“Let’s have a little vision,” he said. “What does Westwood Village need? Another McDonald’s? Pioneer Chicken? What this town needs is a little vision.”

Yaroslavsky recently injected himself into the selection process to find a successor for city Planning Director Calvin Hamilton, who will retire sometime next year.


Hamilton was criticized by developers for being anti-growth and by homeowners for being ineffective.

Yaroslavsky asked Mayor Tom Bradley to include homeowners, neighborhood leaders and environmentalists on an advisory panel to help pick Hamilton’s successor.

Yaroslavsky has generally refused to criticize other council members by name for their part in the city’s rapid growth. But he made an exception this spring by speaking out against the reelection of Peggy Stevenson, the councilwoman from Hollywood. Stevenson was a pro-growth representative who had helped defeat a controversial building moratorium planned for part of Yaroslavsky’s district.

Council Tradition

In endorsing Stevenson’s opponent, Michael Woo, Yaroslavsky broke with a council tradition that members do not campaign against each other.

Woo’s victory brought to the council a voice on growth issues more in tune with Yaroslavsky’s views. But whether the gain of one prospective ally was worth alienating other council members is not clear.

Councilman Dave Cunningham, for instance, likened Yaroslavsky’s move against Stevenson to back-stabbing.

Other council members noted that it was not the first time Yaroslavsky had bucked a colleague, pointing to his role in the unseating of Councilman John Ferraro as council president a few years ago.


But Yaroslavsky said he is unconcerned about the council support he may have lost, dismissing many of the critics as “the same ones who have been sticking it to the Westside of Los Angeles the last 25 years"--a reference to liberal city growth policies.

Different Image Now

These days, Yaroslavsky bears little outward resemblance to the disheveled, rough-cut young ex-radical who pulled off one of the great upsets in Los Angeles political history 10 years ago, when he overcame his own youth, inexperience and two powerful front-runners to win a seat on the City Council.

He has become, at 36, a polished political figure. He wears white dress shirts, fitted jackets and ties that hang neatly to his belt. The dark hair is style-cut and the once portly frame is now slim--the result of jogging. Gone are the ill-fitting suits and the cigarettes he seemed always to be puffing. Gone too is the 9-year-old Rambler whose bashed-in fender became a symbol of his 1975 campaign--sold into political folklore. Yaroslavsky, like other City Council members, is provided a car by the city. He drives a royal blue Buick Skylark.

He moves easily in the moneyed circles of big business and power. His hair is always combed, and he removes his glasses when the TV cameras are on him.

Aware of the Changes

“Of course I’ve changed,” Yaroslavsky said, impatience creeping into his baritone, businesslike voice. “I have two kids. I’m married. I have a house. Has it changed my fundamental value system? Absolutely not.”

For Yaroslavsky, there remains a sense of mission. Supporters and critics alike describe him as a talented, complex man still driven by his great ambitions--ambitions he has long acknowledged: To be mayor. To move on to Congress. To do something spectacularly big with his life.

“Why did I run for office? To save the world,” Yaroslavsky said without flinching. “If I fall slightly short of it, and just make a few improvements here and there, that wouldn’t be the worst thing either. . . . But I’m not in it for a career and I’m certainly not in it for the money. And if I can save the world in some capacity, 5 or 10 years from now, I will. Don’t be surprised.”

Yaroslavsky first gained notoriety in Los Angeles in the early 1970s for his campaigns on behalf of the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate.

Still an Idealist

His supporters say that he is still a high-minded idealist willing to fight for the common people--a political rebel with a cause; and yet his critics portray his clashes with colleagues as evidence that he can be overly aggressive, vengeful and tactically ruthless.

Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, an 84-year-old who represents downtown and frequently opposes Yaroslavsky on growth issues, labels his young colleague a sourpuss.

“I don’t think you’d classify Zev as being a popular council member,” another council member said, in a tone of understatement. "(But) being popular with his colleagues is not important to him.”

“I’m intense,” said Yaroslavsky, the son of Jewish immigrants and who taught Hebrew for a living in the heart of the Westside’s Jewish community. “I was brought up on stories from my parents on how they had to survive in the old country . . . my dad telling me stories of having to hide in the basement in a little town in the Ukraine because the Cossacks came in to wipe out the Jewish town there.

Goes Back to Childhood

“When you grow up on stories like that, stories of . . . personal tragedies from the Holocaust; when you grow up in an era like Vietnam, and you watch people getting killed for nothing, and you see millions of people dying of starvation in Africa today, or in Biafra in the civil war of 15 years ago--and if you care about those things, you’re intense. I’m an intense SOB.”

It was the influence of his parents, ardent Zionists, that built Yaroslavsky’s political drive and, he said, his disregard for material wealth. Despite his dapper public appearance, he lives in a simply furnished home unadorned by plush carpets, elegant wallpaper or great artwork.

A longtime friend, Si Frumkin, said Yaroslavsky simply refuses to spend money on frivolities.

Both his parents are dead. His mother died of cancer when he was 10. His father died shortly before Yaroslavsky became a councilman.

His father left Yaroslavsky, in his own words, with “integrity . . . and a 200-year-old prayer book. Material things have never mattered to me,” he said. “The only material things that have ever mattered in my house are books.”

Yaroslavsky’s parents’ names live on with his two children--Mina, 7, and David, 3.

Led Reform Efforts

In recent years, Zev Yaroslavsky, whose first name means wolf in Hebrew, has led unsuccessful attempts to reform the city’s Civil Service system, under which highly paid department heads are protected from being fired. He also launched a crusade against Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates for Police Department spying practices that became an issue seven years ago. His efforts in that case led to a freedom-of-information ordinance giving people the right to see police files that may be kept on them.

At the same time, Yaroslavsky has fought for more city police officers. He has been an outspoken advocate of the city’s divestiture of business interests in South Africa because of that country’s apartheid policies, and he has helped enact tough laws protecting renters from condominium conversions and unjustified evictions.

Like a Crusader

Critics say that he has a crusading attitude that often borders on arrogance and self-righteousness. On his desk in the marble-columned City Council chambers is a cartoon, given to him by a frustrated lobbyist, that shows Yaroslavsky in biblical robes, carrying his own version of the Ten Commandments. The first of them reads, “Thou Shalt Not Create Housing"--a reference to the effects of a condominium-conversion law he helped enact.

“Here I am,” Yaroslavsky said, interpreting the cartoon’s message. “I think I’m God, playing with people’s lives.” But he chuckles over it. “You’ve got to have a sense of humor,” he said. “I consider (the drawing) a sign of respect . . . not anything else.”

During his radical days, Yaroslavsky demonstrated how far he would go for a cause. He was once arrested while protesting a Los Angeles performance of the Russian ballet. He spent several hours in jail before charges were dropped.

Prank on Soviets

Yaroslavsky particularly enjoys telling the story of one protest prank in which he and his cohorts spray-painted “Let My People Go” on the hull of a Soviet freighter. The nautical problem was how to stabilize their small motor boat while carrying out the mission.

The answer was toilet plungers.

Yaroslavsky’s successful election campaign in 1975 was testimony to a change in image but not in his hard-driving approach.

Frumkin said Yaroslavsky had been known until then for his “baggy shorts, ratty sandals and T-shirts.” His supporters helped him buy two suits and then sent him out against nine other candidates, including two favorites backed by well-funded Westside Democrats. Yaroslavsky spent months campaigning 14 to 16 hours a day, former campaign workers said, walking precincts in the rain, hitting all-night bowling alleys and supermarkets.

“He out-campaigned me,” said Fran Savitch, now an aide to Bradley, who was favored to win that race. “He spent all his waking hours on the campaign.”

Now Yaroslavsky has his eye on bigger things.

Keeps Watch on Bradley

Yaroslavsky made it clear years ago that he would like to succeed Tom Bradley as mayor of Los Angeles.

In 1982, when Bradley was locked in a tight gubernatorial race against Republican George Deukmejian, Yaroslavsky was one of four City Council members preparing campaigns to try to succeed him.

If Bradley were to run again for governor and win in 1986 or step down from office four years from now, Yaroslavsky might again face the same council members--Ferraro, Pat Russell and Joel Wachs.

But Yaroslavsky is not pinning all his hopes on the mayoralty. He says he does not rule out Congress, or a job that would let him work in foreign affairs--a lifelong passion.

The only thing he does rule out is standing still.

“I’ve spent almost a third of my life on the Los Angeles City Council,” he said. “By the end of this term I’ll be 40. So if I’m going to do something else with the rest of my life, I’d better damn well get on with it.”