Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky’s three opponents usually place an empty chair at his spot on the dais when he skips joint campaign events.
The chair is supposed to symbolize Yaroslavsky’s absence from the 5th District race, but it also says a lot about the frustrations of running against a powerful incumbent who appears to be in no real danger of losing his seat.
Despite resentment over intense commercial development in such areas as Westwood and his well-known desire to be mayor instead of a councilman, Yaroslavsky’s opponents have so far been unable to rally much support in their bids to unseat him.
“This is Zev’s turf,” said one political operative who asked to remain anonymous, referring to the fact that Yaroslavsky grew up in the Fairfax District and has never moved away. “There is no serious constituency against him out there.”
Yaroslavsky, 40, certainly looks confident as he travels about the district in his unwashed Buick, meeting constituents, listening to people’s problems and enjoying the measure of celebrity that comes from 14 years of public life.
There was early speculation that he might be vulnerable to a grass-roots challenge from Laura M. Lake, 42, an environmental activist who inspired comparison with Ruth Galanter, who two years ago upset City Hall veteran Pat Russell in the neighboring 6th District. But most observers now say it is doubtful that Lake can muster the kind of support needed to force Yaroslavsky into a runoff.
Even Lake’s strongest supporters are privately expressing their doubts. “We don’t really expect Zev to lose,” one of them said. “We just hope that the race is close enough to scare him into being more responsive.”
The other challengers are Ryan Snyder, 34, a transportation consultant, and Jack McGrath, 43, a former Yaroslavsky aide running as a write-in candidate.
The key to Yaroslavsky’s strength lies in the makeup of the district. The predominantly white, heavily Jewish area that takes in Westwood, Century City, Bel-Air, the Beverly-Fairfax area and parts of Sherman Oaks, Studio City and North Hollywood is said to be tailor-made for the councilman, who started his career as an advocate for Soviet Jews.
Yaroslavsky also enjoys the benefits of incumbency, the recognition that comes from leading the fight for such high-profile issues as Proposition U, the city’s landmark slow-growth measure, and a seemingly inexhaustible fund-raising base, as he proved when he collected more than $1.5 million for a mayoral race that he backed away from at the last minute.
In an effort to demonstrate the breadth of his support, Yaroslavsky kicked off his campaign by publishing a list of endorsements from more than 25 of the district’s past and present neighborhood leaders, representing a majority of the district’s influential homeowner groups. He dismisses his foes as lightweights, but at the same time insists that he is running a serious race.
Yaroslavsky is expected to send out at least three mailings before the April 11 election. He also has a yard sign program and a telephone bank, and has even spent time canvassing in the bucolic communities of the southern San Fernando Valley, which he inherited during redistricting two years ago.
At one house he promised to secure a new stop sign for a couple worried about speeding traffic, then entertained their son with his impression of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie. At another he talked basketball with the unbridled enthusiasm of a Chick Hearn. At a third he smiled stiffly as a man observed that he has gained weight since his campaign pictures were taken.
“All my advisers say I’m nuts,” Yaroslavsky said. “They say there’s no need to do this. But the public wants you to be accessible, and I enjoy it.”
But accessible to his opponents he is not. He follows the conventional path of most well-entrenched incumbents in refusing to appear at most events featuring lesser-known challengers.
Snyder has been canvassing since August and has published an impressive 20-page booklet offering detailed solutions to such district problems as smog, traffic and congestion but has been unable to raise more than a few thousand dollars, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
McGrath, meanwhile, has become best known for providing comic relief. He named a homeless priest as his North Hollywood coordinator, took to calling himself “Happy Jack” on campaign literature and even challenged Yaroslavsky to a dance contest.
Lake, a UCLA environmental sciences professor who made her reputation by challenging development projects approved by Yaroslavsky, is the favored candidate of activists from neighborhoods where development is especially troublesome, including the Westside Pavilion in Westwood and the Ma Maison Sofitel Hotel in West Los Angeles. She is also the leader of Not Yet New York and Friends of Westwood, which won a landmark case that requires the city to get environmental impact reports on most large development projects.
Lake contends that 5th District voters are fed up with Yaroslavsky’s leadership. “People want a change and I’m there for them,” she said. “Zev is not the person they used to know. There’s no consistent history of caring.”
Lake supports stricter development controls. She has also called for a trash collection fee to pay for more police. She opposes the Metro Rail subway as too expensive but supports such other forms of transportation as light rail and shuttle buses. Lake frequently reminds voters that she, too, is Jewish.
Campaign finance reports show she has raised less than $100,000. But she has several other fund-raisers scheduled, as does Yaroslavsky, who had to return mayoral contributions and now hopes to get $200,000 for the council campaign.
As she canvassed for votes in West Los Angeles recently, a number of homeowners expressed disappointment in Yaroslavsky. But just as many were undecided. “We’re neck and neck now,” she said to one homeowner. “Every vote is critical.”
At another house, as a woman peered at her through a crack in the door, Lake said: “I really need your vote. Please? Pretty please?”
Gloria Lash, a Beverlywood resident and Democratic Party activist who supports Lake, said life in her neighborhood, located near Robertson Boulevard and the Santa Monica Freeway, has drastically deteriorated under Yaroslavsky.
Lash said her once-peaceful community is now overrun with traffic as motorists seek alternatives to the freeway. “We have trouble just backing out of our driveway to go to the grocery store,” Lash said. “Our community has been so heavily impacted that it’s like it’s not a community anymore.”
Call for More Protection
Diana Plotkin, who lives in the area near La Cienega and Beverly boulevards--site of the Ma Maison Hotel and the Beverly Center developments--said Yaroslavsky has deserted her neighborhood. “He has not afforded us the protections we’re entitled to,” Plotkin said. “He should be doing more.”
At the same time, however, there are many who say Yaroslavsky has done the best job possible of protecting the community against unrelenting development pressures. Richard Agay, president of the Westside Community Planning Council and the Westwood Design Review Board, said some people have unrealistic expectations.
“While Zev has not been universally successful in his efforts to hold down development, he has had a far greater percentage of success than any other candidate is likely to,” Agay said.
“To condemn him for not doing enough for the community is laughable.”
FIFTH CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT
Los Angeles’ Fifth Council District has 128,328 voters, the most of all the city’s 15 districts. More than 30% of its residents are 55 or older, and it is believed to have the city’s largest Jewish voter population, estimated by the two leading candidates to be as high as 40%. The district takes in a big part of the Westside and a small portion of the San Fernando Valley. Its communities include Westwood, Bel-Air, Century City, the Fairfax District, parts of West Los Angeles and parts of Sherman Oaks, Studio City and North Hollywood. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky has represented the area since 1975.
Population: 216,701 Median Household Income: $35,321 White Residents: 90.9% Black Residents: 2.5% Latino Residents: 4.9% Residents with four of more years of college: 34.7% White-collar workers: 81.5% Owner-occupied Housing: 43% Rental Housing: 57% Home Values: $100,000-$149,999: 12.9% $150,000-$199,999: 17.1% $200,000 plus: 63.8% Source: Times Marketing Research Department