Los Angeles City Councilwoman Pat Russell was disappointed. She had spent the better part of the morning trudging down the rain-soaked streets of Mar Vista under ominous black clouds in a bid to build support for her reelection campaign, and no one had taken her up on her offer to speak out on the issues.
The people who nodded politely from their doorways were not interested. Neither was the woman who screamed, crumpled Russell's campaign literature into a ball and demanded that Russell "remove this garbage" from her front porch.
'Hasn't Been Programmed Yet'
When a man in a tidy blue and white tract home on Colonial Avenue finally obliged, asking the veteran councilwoman to respond to opponents' accusations that she had opened the district up to massive commercial development, Russell was rhapsodic. "He hasn't been programmed or poisoned yet," she said.
Despite the presumed advantages that come from 18 years of incumbency, her position as council president and her solid City Hall alliances, Russell looks like a candidate on the defensive these days. Her five opponents in the April 14 primary have rattled Russell by aggressively attacking her record on growth and the environment and labeling her as pro-development and anti-neighborhood.
Russell vehemently denies the accusations and contends that she has actually helped curtail commercial growth. She says that 6th District residents understand her efforts. But it is clear that she is taking nothing for granted in her campaign for the diverse district that includes mostly white Westchester, racially mixed Venice and predominantly black Crenshaw.
Effort Moves Into High Gear
In recent weeks, Russell has moved her reelection effort into high gear, walking precincts, pouring out targeted mailers and appearing at community meetings with her lesser-known opponents. She is campaigning much harder than the other five council incumbents facing reelection, thus risking the appearance of a candidate running scared. Yet she says that the effort is necessary.
"It's very important for me to walk and counteract some of the really junky things that have been said," said Russell, who will have to capture more than 50% of the vote to avoid a runoff in June. "I don't see the threat of a (runoff), but I have a healthy paranoia that it is always a possibility."
Russell's major opponent is Ruth Galanter, 45, a Yale-educated urban planning consultant from Venice who once chaired the California Regional Coastal Commission. Galanter has collected only about $45,000, compared to Russell's $300,000, but her campaign has won significant community support.
The California League of Conservation Voters last week announced that its 1,500 members in the 6th District would actively campaign for Galanter. And the Los Angeles County Democratic Committee has also recommended her in the race.
"Challenging a four-term incumbent, there's no way I can match (Russell) in fund-raising," Galanter said. "But her own failures as a councilwoman have created the conditions that make it possible to run a serious campaign."
Russell's other opponents are Rimmon C. Fay, a marine biologist who pioneered efforts to clean up Santa Monica Bay; Salvatore Grammatico, a Mar Vista real estate agent; Virginia Taylor Hughes, a Crenshaw activist, and Patrick McCartney, a Venice resident who has headed several community organizations.
The 6th District challengers say that Russell is her own worst enemy in the race. They have accused her of neglecting serious problems such as the parking shortage in Venice and economic decay in Crenshaw. At the same time, they contend that she has allowed commercial developers to run rampant in Westchester, where residents have been shaken by the approval of about 19 million square feet of impending development--the Howard Hughes Center, Playa Vista, Continental City and the northside area of Los Angeles International Airport.
Russell's opposition to Proposition U, a slow-growth initiative overwhelmingly approved by the city's voters last year, has been cited as evidence of her "insensitivity" to the need for development controls. Opponents have also criticized Russell's connection to Curtis Rossiter, a political adviser and one-time aide who has worked as a lobbyist for three of the four developers who are building commercial projects in Westchester.
Russell charges her opponents with running a vicious propaganda campaign. The 63-year-old grandmother, a vigorous woman who has climbed Mt. Whitney, competed in the Los Angeles Marathon and twice been elected president of the City Council, says that her opponents are ignoring her accomplishments.
Russell notes that she appointed a task force to find solutions to Venice's chronic parking problems. She has supported plans for restoring the Venice canals, refurbishing Venice Boulevard and ridding the crowded community of an RTD bus yard. Russell says she has encouraged business growth in economically depressed Crenshaw and claims that she has limited growth in Westchester by requiring developers to reduce the scale of their projects and by sponsoring an ordinance that forces developers to pay for traffic improvements.
"People have reason to be concerned about" development, Russell said. "But the supposed facts that are being put out are so off the wall that they play on people's fears."
Council colleagues and others close to Russell say that her public image is one of her biggest liabilities. The councilwoman has a distant demeanor and an awkward public speaking style. She has stepped up her schedule of public appearances for the campaign, but confesses to being far more comfortable in the confines of City Hall as a behind-the-scenes organizer and peacemaker.
Russell is a close ally of Mayor Tom Bradley and has considered running for mayor should Bradley retire. She was first elected to the 6th District council seat in 1969, after rising to prominence as a Westchester housewife opposed to expansion of Los Angeles International Airport land. Westchester voters have been loyal to her in past elections. She received more than 55% of their vote in 1983. But some longtime Westchester residents say she may not be able to count on such strong support this time.
Ray Liccini, a former Russell supporter who founded an anti-growth group called the Coalition of Concerned Communities, said residents in the sleepy bedroom community that is bounded by the ocean, the San Diego Freeway and the airport feel betrayed by Russell's development stance. The race is the chief topic of conversation at Westchester restaurants, dry cleaners and supermarkets, he said.
Rowena Ake, a Russell ally and former president of the Westchester Chamber of Commerce, said Liccini is mistaken. Ake said the majority of Westchester residents know Russell has done everything possible to protect the community.
"How do you blame one person for all this development?" Ake asked. "I know that (Russell) is always out there working for us. . . . If people take a good hard look at her opponents, she will win hands down."
Russell's opponents say that Westchester may be the key to the election. If they can topple her in her hometown, where about one third of the 6th District voters reside, they say they have the votes to force her into a runoff.
McCartney said residents have "crossed the psychological barrier" that prevented them from opposing Russell in the past. Galanter agreed. With the help of groups such as the California League of Conservation Voters, Galanter said Russell could easily be defeated in Westchester and forced into a runoff.
Russell says she is confident that her Westchester winning streak will continue. But it is also one of the areas where she is not taking chances. Her campaign staff has produced a steady flow of direct mailers touting Russell's accomplishments there and the councilwoman has spent considerable amounts of time meeting with Westchester community leaders, attending fund-raisers and walking precincts.