Wachs Makes Transition From Chic to Down-Home

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after reapportionment stripped him of a district with expensive homes, fancy restaurants and sleek offices and threw him into a new, semi-rural northeast San Fernando Valley area of numerous horse stables, Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs bought a pair of cowboy boots.

They were the wrong kind. He discovered that they were better suited for brunch than horseback riding. It was one of the first lessons that his new constituency was to teach him. But urbane, Harvard-educated Wachs seems to have learned it well enough.

With hard work, a huge campaign fund, some luck--and a different pair of cowboy boots--Wachs is heavily favored to win reelection April 14 to a fifth term on the council. Facing three little-known and poorly financed opponents, Wachs' foothold seems assured in the 2nd District, which was almost entirely relocated in last September's bitterly contested redrawing of City Council districts.

Wachs, 48, is an articulate lawyer who spends one-fourth of his $53,266-a-year council salary adding to his art collection. Politically, he is an advocate of gay rights and rent control. That combination of politics and personal tastes suited the old district, anchored in Studio City, that included an increasingly trendy stretch of Ventura Boulevard, with art shops, French bistros, sushi bars, BMWs and Volvos.

Sunland-Tujunga, in his new area, is a working-class district with a down-home flavor that has more undeveloped land and unpaved sidewalks than any other part of the city. Its main stem is Foothill Boulevard, a street of many Broncos, Jeeps and other made-in-America vehicles cruising past auto parts shops, feed stores and fast-food restaurants.

"In my old district, when you got off the freeway, you saw a Mercedes dealership," Wachs said during a recent council discussion. "In my new district, when you get off the freeway, you see a Mercedes auto dismantler."

Politically, the differences between Wachs' old district and his new one are equally striking.

For example, in the close 1982 gubernatorial election, voters in Sunland-Tujunga favored Republican George Deukmejian over Democrat Tom Bradley by as much as 73% of the vote. Wachs' former constituents in Studio City gave the mayor 62% of the vote. That year's ballot had another significant test of political differences--a gun-control measure. Sunland-Tujunga voters opposed it by a huge majority in 1982, while the measure carried Studio City with 64% of the vote. Wachs supported gun control.

Last November provided another example of how Wachs' new constituents differ from the old. Proposition 64, the AIDS initiative, was defeated in Sunland-Tujunga, 66% to 34%. But in Studio City, the defeat was more convincing, 86% to 14%. Wachs strongly opposed the measure.

He Fought Redistricting

Wachs vehemently opposed the redistricting plan that made him the council representative for the conservative northeast San Fernando Valley, asserting at the time that his enemies on the council were deliberately giving him an area that would weaken his political base.

But, in the six months since he inherited the new territory, Wachs has not been clearly damaged politically. He contends that his ideological differences with the district have been overcome, an assessment shared by several homeowner leaders.

For one thing, a major concern of Sunland-Tujunga residents is preserving their rural setting. Proposition U, the slow-growth initiative approved by city voters in November, received strong support in Sunland-Tujunga. Wachs, elected in 1971 by mobilizing homeowners who resented the pro-development bias of the council at the time, was an early Proposition U supporter.

For another, Wachs and his staff have been working hard to respond promptly to constituents' requests for services.

Gene Hardy, a member of the Van Nuys Homeowners Assn. Board of Directors, said Wachs responded quicker than the former councilman to his complaints about big trucks parking for long periods on his residential street. Wachs' new district also includes much of Van Nuys.

"I called (Councilman Ernani) Bernardi for months. He did nothing," Hardy said in an interview. "I called Wachs, and the problem was gone right away."

In parts of Wachs' present district that were represented by the late Councilman Howard Finn, Wachs is also seen to be making the right moves by responding to neighborhood concerns.

A former Finn aide observed: "When you fill people's potholes and keep their streets clean, nothing else really matters."

Present at Demonstrations

Even before the redistricting plan was approved, Wachs was working hard to make himself known--and popular--in what would become his new district. He was ever-present at demonstrations attended by hundreds of northeast Valley residents to protest the reapportionment plan.

"The way I've approached everyone is to say, 'We have one of two choices. You either let the council get away with what it did. Or we roll up our sleeves and work twice as hard and in essence beat them at their own game,"' Wachs said in a recent interview. Since redistricting, Wachs has appeared before more than 100 community groups in the new district. He has received the endorsement of Finn's popular widow, Anne. He flooded the district with mailings.

Wachs' courtship of the new district has not been entirely smooth, however.

He escaped a potentially tough challenge from Bob Ronka, a popular former councilman who represented the northeast Valley before Finn but chose not to run in the face of Wachs' formidable campaign fund.

Ronka, though not a candidate, has publicly criticized Wachs for a record of neglect in his old district. Ronka asserted that Wachs would return to his "old ways" once the election is over.

Indeed, homeowner leaders in Wachs' old district criticized the councilman last year for appearing bored with the job and failing to return their calls.

Points to Vote

Wachs responded that 75% of the vote in the last election showed he was popular in the old district. Some homeowner groups in the new area say they are not swayed at present by such criticism.

"So far, Mr. Wachs has done nothing over here that would support what they say," said Sylvia Gross, vice president and land-use chairman for the Sunland-Tujunga Assn. of Residents.

Wachs got off to a bumpy start in the new district when he failed to carry on a popular program instituted by Bernardi for fighting prostitution on Sepulveda Boulevard, contending that the Police Department has progressed against the problem by diverting personnel from other tasks.

Wachs' three opponents are Jerry Hays, 49, a past president of the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley; Jack E. Davis, 63, a retired railroad brakeman, and Georgetta Wilmeth, 64, a homemaker. A candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote to win the election outright. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will meet in a June 2 runoff.

Hays, who has emerged as the leading challenger, ran against Wachs in 1983 in the old 2nd District and finished second in a field of six candidates with 10% of the vote. Wachs won with 75%. A rent control foe, Hays is looking for help from the Apartment Owners Assn., which recently appealed to 40,000 landlords throughout Los Angeles County to "give till it hurts" to defeat Wachs, the council's leading rent control proponent. Hays had raised about $25,000 before the appeal went out last week.

Meanwhile, Wachs, who has raised more than $625,000, plans to raise still more. He will hold a $5,000-a-table fund-raiser tonight at the Beverly Hills Hotel outside the district.

So confident is Wachs that he has turned around his political fortunes, he is talking about running for mayor, as he has in the past.

"I think that come mid-April, I will be in a better position politically than before this whole thing started," he said, contending that redistricting has enabled him to reach new voters. Wachs said, however, he will not challenge Bradley if, as Bradley has said, he runs for reelection in 1989.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°