Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo sat face to face with one of his opponents last week--a rarity during his campaign for reelection.
But the event was not a candidates forum. Woo has refused to debate his four opponents. Instead, he encountered challenger Berndt Lohr-Schmidt at a City Hall hearing on the councilman’s proposal to restrict hillside building.
To Lohr-Schmidt, the hearing was a chance to confront the incumbent on the issue that first vaulted the Hollywood Hills attorney into the 13th District race against Woo. But perhaps more important, it was also a quick and easy opportunity to draw some attention to his candidacy on Woo’s home turf.
At the close of the hearing, while Woo returned to the privacy of his office, Lohr-Schmidt headed directly to the City Hall press quarters, where he energetically cast his spin on the meeting and inquired about the coverage it would receive.
Lohr-Schmidt’s City Hall appearance is just one example of how Woo’s opponents have had to scramble for ways to spotlight their candidacies because of his unwillingness to debate them. With little money, poor name recognition and an incumbent who barely acknowledges their existence, the four are finding it difficult to distinguish themselves as the campaign approaches its final week.
“It has been tough to get news coverage,” said Lohr-Schmidt, who recently hired a former journalist to help him get the word out. “I feel I am making serious inroads, but I need some media attention.”
Candidate Bennett Kayser, looking for publicity, last week traveled to Porter Ranch in the northwest San Fernando Valley--about a dozen miles from the western tip of Woo’s district--to criticize a $2-billion development proposed by campaign contributors to various city officials, including Woo.
In an interview, Kayser said he was disappointed that the press conference aroused little media curiosity. He blamed Woo’s refusal to engage his opponents--or the issues, he said--for dampening public interest in the race.
“There have been so few community forums,” said Kayser, former president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns. “Part of it, I am sure, has been because the councilman has said he won’t come to any of them.”
Woo, a 37-year-old freshman councilman staging his first reelection effort, offers no apologies for his campaign strategy. Although he says he is taking nothing for granted, he predicted that he will win the April 11 primary. “So far, I don’t see any indication that any of the candidates are putting together a serious campaign,” Woo said in an interview last week.
Woo said he will debate any opponent who qualifies for a runoff election, but he argued that a forum before then “would be a zoo” because of the number of candidates. Woo’s refusal is in keeping with a tradition among City Hall incumbents, who are reluctant to lend credibility to challengers by sharing a podium with them.
“My presence would dignify the presence of the other candidates, which I don’t think I need to do,” said Woo.
Kayser has been particularly critical of Woo’s decision, accusing the councilman of hypocrisy. In 1985, when both Woo and Kayser were among the challengers opposing then-Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson, Woo led the calls for Stevenson to join the other candidates in a debate. Stevenson eventually agreed. This time, Woo has not.
“I was a challenger then,” Woo said in explaining his change in positions.
Despite sharp criticism from some residents in Sherman Oaks, Hollywood and parts of the Hollywood Hills, Woo’s campaign officials appear confident that the councilman remains popular in most of the district, which stretches from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks and takes in most of Los Feliz, Hollywood and Studio City.
Big Lead in Funding
Woo is expected to spend $200,000 on the campaign, with a flurry of mailings during the final week before the election. Lohr-Schmidt leads the challengers in fund raising with about $10,000.
Woo has concentrated his precinct walking in Sherman Oaks, Studio City and some hillside neighborhoods--areas that were added to his district in 1986 when the City Council redrew district boundaries. Woo said he is making an extra effort to meet residents in those areas because they have never seen his name on the ballot.
Steven Afriat, Woo’s campaign manager, said more than 70% of the voters contacted by the campaign in a phone survey of the district have said they intend to vote for Woo. “I think he will carry every precinct in the district,” Afriat said.
But Lohr-Schmidt, who has emerged in recent weeks as Woo’s No. 1 challenger, said he has detected a high level of dissatisfaction with the councilman, particularly in some hillside neighborhoods affected by the proposed building restrictions and among people who live near the Hollywood Redevelopment Project. He predicted that he will garner enough votes to force Woo into a runoff, although he has done no formal polling.
If no candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, the top two finishers will meet in a June showdown.
Core of Support
Lohr-Schmidt, 45, recently picked up the endorsement of the Laurel Hills Homeowners Assn., and he has a core of support among hillside property owners opposed to Woo’s proposed building restrictions. Woo says it is necessary to limit new residential construction in much of the Hollywood Hills because of safety concerns with narrow streets and other problems.
Lohr-Schmidt, who lives in the hills and owns property there, has argued that the restrictions unfairly punish property owners who have not yet built on their lots. He has also complained that Woo has tried to rush the restrictions into law without properly notifying affected property owners.
During a recent afternoon of precinct walking, Lohr-Schmidt also got some favorable responses from residents in the flatlands of western Hollywood who said they were undecided about the race. Others said they would vote for anybody but Woo.
Jean Robinson, who hosted a coffee for Lohr-Schmidt at her home, said Hollywood residents blame Woo for their traffic problems.
“He said he was going to watch our traffic situation, but he hasn’t,” said Robinson, a 50-year resident of Hollywood. “I am seeing all of the changes in Hollywood, and I don’t like what I am seeing.”
Competing for Votes
In Hollywood, however, Lohr-Schmidt is competing for votes with Kayser and Woo’s two other opponents: Venus De Milo and Zahrina Machadah, both of whom live in Hollywood.
De Milo, 49, who has also run for mayor and county supervisor, may have the greatest name recognition among the challengers, perhaps because of the unusual name she adopted during her career as a stripper. She now lists her occupation as computer consultant.
Machadah, 58, a renter in Beachwood Canyon, also ran for the seat in the 1970s. About the same time, she ran a shoeshine stand on Sunset Boulevard, where she was known as the Sunset Shoeshine Girl.
Lohr-Schmidt recently picked up the endorsement of the Greater Hollywood Civic Assn.--a group that has been critical of Woo’s support of Hollywood redevelopment--but the other candidates say they also are winning their share of votes in the anti-redevelopment community.
Unlike his opponents, Lohr-Schmidt also has the difficult task of overcoming a pro-development label that Woo and others have attached to his candidacy because of his opposition to the hillside building restrictions. In a council district plagued by traffic congestion and other problems associated with development, slow growth--or no growth--has been a popular theme.
Interest in Firm
Lohr-Schmidt’s law practice involves real estate cases, and his statement of economic interest lists a “partnership interest” in Erbs & Co., identified as a real estate investment firm. The statement also indicates that Lohr-Schmidt owns about two dozen parcels of land, which he said in an interview are in the Laurel Canyon area of the Hollywood Hills.
Lohr-Schmidt said in the interview that he has never built on his lots, although he did try unsuccessfully to move several condemned bungalows onto a few of them. He said voters should be more concerned about Woo’s support for massive new building in the 1,100-acre Hollywood Redevelopment Project than about his property in the hills.
“If I wanted to build, if I wanted to maximize my profit, I certainly wouldn’t step into the public limelight,” Lohr-Schmidt said. “I would be as quiet as a mouse and ingratiate myself to Mr. Woo. . . . The problems of congestion and overbuilding come from the large apartment building complexes and other projects. When you are talking about single-family homes in the canyons, even if there are 50 of them spread throughout the hills, the impact is zilch.”
Some of the other candidates, sensing that Lohr-Schmidt has moved ahead of them, have taken swipes at the Harvard-educated attorney. Machadah, for example, said he “owns more property than Century 21.” But in general, the challengers have tried to focus their attacks on Woo, whom they regard as their common enemy.
All four candidates have made an issue of Woo’s style of governing, which they say is divisive, vindictive and arrogant.
Kayser, 42, said he has had difficulty placing his campaign posters at businesses in Hollywood because merchants are afraid to get on Woo’s bad side. “No part of the district has been untouched by Mike Woo’s arrogance,” he said.
Kayser and De Milo said Woo has refused to consult with certain factions within Hollywood about the redevelopment project there, and several candidates have picked up on criticism in Sherman Oaks about Woo’s handling of a dispute between the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. and the Studio City Residents Assn.
Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks group, has blasted Woo for siding with Studio City residents in a disagreement over where the boundary between the two communities should lie. Close, who supports Kayser, has also accused Woo of going too easy on the developer of the site of the former Tail O’ the Cock restaurant on Ventura Boulevard.
Woo said in the interview last week that he enjoys good relations with residents in both Sherman Oaks and Studio City but that “it is difficult to have a relationship with Mr. Close when he is calling for me to be thrown out of office.”
Woo attributed complaints about his leadership style to his willingness to make difficult decisions and stand by them. In Hollywood, where a group of redevelopment critics have used a citizens advisory committee to criticize Woo’s support of the redevelopment project, Woo said he has simply been forced to limit his dialogue with some of his detractors.
“At some point you have to draw the line,” Woo said. “When people start to act irrational . . . then we don’t deal with them as much as we deal with people who are more rational.”
Woo, who has a graduate degree in urban planning, ran in 1985 as a slow-growth candidate, and he points to successful efforts to downzone much of his district as evidence of his commitment to control development. He said that since some growth is inevitable and there is a need to provide housing for the city’s growing population, he has tried to funnel new building into certain areas--including central Hollywood.
“There is a responsibility in each portion of the city . . . to bear a certain amount of the burden for affordable housing,” he recently told a Studio City homeowners group. “I am willing to accept a fair share of the burden of providing housing close to the place where people work.”
His opponents, however, accuse Woo of having sold out to developers.
Kayser, who lives in the Silver Lake/Echo Park area and has been active in a Hollywood anti-redevelopment group, is campaigning as the “true slow-growth candidate.” He said Woo has embraced slow-growth policies only when forced to do so by his constituents.
Lohr-Schmidt charges that Woo has pushed for restrictions on hillside building to distract attention from his support for unchecked development in Hollywood. Both De Milo and Machadah have pledged to stand up to developers, particularly in the Hollywood Redevelopment Project.
“The important thing is to get Woo out,” Machadah said at a candidates forum in the Hollywood Hills. “I really don’t care who is sitting up there protecting your mountains, my sewers or his streets. . . . We have to get together and get that twit out of there. He has caused too much trouble.”
But even some of Woo’s harshest critics are not optimistic that any of the challengers will be able to force him into a runoff. Brian Moore, a Whitley Heights homeowner leader who has been active in anti-redevelopment causes in Hollywood, said dissatisfaction with Woo has led to apathy among voters rather than rebellion.
“I think there will be a very low turnout because people are disillusioned,” he said.