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Bernson Faces His Toughest Race Yet : The Incumbent: Critics say he has betrayed his suburban roots. He calls it unfair to judge him on one issue and points to his many land-use victories.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hal Bernson, as a local homeowner and businessman, earned his stripes as a civic booster and activist in conservative causes in quiet, middle-class Granada Hills before first being elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1979.

Now, facing his toughest reelection fight, Bernson has set up campaign headquarters among the 1950s vintage mom-and-pop shops that line Chatsworth Boulevard at Granada Hills’ commercial and historic core. In a simple office between a sportswear store and a pizzeria, middle-aged and elderly Bernson partisans gather to walk precincts and man the phones for their champion.

Despite such signs, critics say the 60-year-old Bernson has betrayed his suburban roots by supporting the huge Porter Ranch development, which promises to urbanize one of the city’s last undeveloped areas.

And the critics predict that the city’s April 9 election, in which five candidates seek Bernson’s ouster, will be marked by a Porter Ranch-inspired backlash that will end Bernson’s reign over the 12th Council District.

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Interest in the outcome of the race is not purely parochial.

As chairman of the council’s powerful and demanding Planning and Land Use Management Committee since 1987, Bernson has played a steady role in citywide development issues and has won the respect of real estate industry sources without seriously antagonizing homeowner leaders--except in his own district.

The 12th District uprising pivots mostly around Bernson’s support of the Porter Ranch development. The project--to include 3,395 new housing units and 6 million square feet of commercial construction--will bring traffic congestion, air pollution and noise to the north Valley, the critics charge.

Reports that Porter Ranch developer Nathan Shapell, one of the city’s most politically influential real estate figures, spent tens of thousands of dollars on a lavish campaign to woo City Hall have deepened the controversy, putting an ethical edge on it.

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Public records show that Bernson received more than $55,000 in campaign contributions from Porter Ranch interests, and that his close associate and predecessor on the council, Robert Wilkinson, has earned a half-million dollars in lobbying fees promoting Shapell’s plan at City Hall.

Los Angeles municipal history is rife with examples of lawmakers whose careers floundered due to their support of unpopular real estate projects. In 1987, Council President Pat Russell was defeated by a homeowner revolt prompted by her support of two huge development projects planned for the Playa Vista area. In 1985, Hollywood Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson was given the heave-ho by voters in an election in which she was portrayed as being too cozy with developers. And in 1971, Studio City lawmaker James Potter lost his council post to Joel Wachs amid grand jury probes and homeowner anger about his involvement with a Hollywood Hills housing project.

But while other lawmakers lost their offices after failing to recognize or respond to voter unhappiness over development issues, Bernson does not see a similar fate awaiting him.

“We’re taking this race very seriously,” Bernson said. Moreover, he insists it is unfair to say that Porter Ranch defines his record on land-use issues.

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The incumbent recites how he blocked Browning-Ferris Industries’ plans last summer to expand its Sunshine Canyon Landfill into property within Los Angeles city limits. Bernson has followed up this victory with a legal attack aimed at undoing the County Board of Supervisors’ recent approval of a Browning-Ferris plan to build a dump in the unincorporated portions of Sunshine Canyon. His durable opposition to Browning-Ferris has earned his reelection campaign the support of leaders in an anti-landfill group, the North Valley Coalition.

Bernson notes that he had the sprawling, city-owned Chatsworth Reservoir, a wildlife haven, designated as a nature preserve in city planning documents. He joined local nature-lovers in raising a howl when it was revealed a year ago that the mayor’s office was tentatively exploring the idea of developing housing at the reservoir.

Late last year, in a demonstration of how his planning clout and expertise could be deployed to benefit homeowners, Bernson launched a whirlwind of initiatives that quickly stymied a controversial Southern Pacific Railroad plan to build a lumber transfer station in Chatsworth.

He later managed to get a bevy of Chatsworth-area homeowners to join him in supporting a plan to develop the site as a mass-transit station.

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Bernson also has played key roles in crafting citywide laws to restrict mini-mall development and to implement a far-reaching court decision that requires environmental reviews of major commercial projects.

On the other hand, Bernson several years ago sided with Occidental Petroleum on what was one of the city’s most volatile environmental issues--Occidental’s plan to drill for oil in the Pacific Palisades.

In a move aimed at confounding his reelection foes, Bernson has hit back with a message intended to tap into the conservatism of his 12th District electorate, which unswervingly votes for state and national GOP standard-bearers and has proven to be the city’s most unfriendly political turf for five-term Mayor Tom Bradley.

A month ago, Bernson partisans scoured the 12th District--at a time of swelling patriotism due to the Persian Gulf War--to identify homes displaying yellow ribbons or American flags. Residents of 8,000 homes so identified got a letter from Bernson thanking them for their patriotism. It included a complimentary American-flag lapel pin.

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A “huge success” is how Grieg Smith, Bernson’s chief deputy, characterized the effort. “These are our people,” Smith said. Other City Hall watchers also have called it smart.

Bernson’s courtship of the 12th District’s conservative electorate has taken on other dimensions as well.

Two of the incumbent’s three absentee-ballot mailers--all titled “Your Invitation to Participate in America” and emblazoned with flag motifs--have gone to senior citizens, reminding them of Bernson’s support for their recreation programs and for protecting several large mobile-home parks, where many seniors reside, from redevelopment.

And Bernson has solicited reelection support from the extensive network of Neighborhood Watch anti-crime clubs in his district. The clubs, with 6,000 members, have been officially nurtured and organized by Bernson’s office for years.

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After Porter Ranch, perhaps the greatest challenge to face Bernson was his drive to cure the unsettling blight that surrounded the so-called Bryant-Vanalden apartment neighborhood in Northridge. The effort to renovate buildings and relieve tenant crowding began with angry charges by liberals and Latino activists--echoed by Bradley’s office--that Bernson’s motive in aggressively tackling this issue was to purge middle-class Northridge of the several thousand Latino immigrants who lived in the 450 apartment units.

Bernson, who denied racial bias was involved, won council support for a plan to loan $20.6 million to a private developer he had selected to buy up and rehabilitate the dilapidated apartment buildings. Hundreds of tenants were relocated with federal housing subsidies to other apartments in the Valley. Many claimed they had been forced out.

However, the ambitious cleanup project, now completed, is generally regarded as a success. The units have been upgraded to meet building and health codes, and the neighborhood is safer.

During the four-year term he is now finishing, Bernson’s campaign finances were often the target of controversy. One flap concerned the Bernson for Lieutenant Governor 1994 Committee, an entity that raised $180,000 to finance a possible Bernson race for the state’s second-highest executive office.

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But California Common Cause, a political-reform group, alleged that the candidacy was a sham. Bernson was improperly using the money from this fund-raising committee to supplement his council reelection budget in violation of the city’s campaign-finance laws, the group alleged. But local prosecuting authorities never chose to pursue the matter.

Campaign-finance law enforcers also found no wrongdoing after investigating newspaper reports that Bernson had used his campaign funds to travel widely abroad. Public records showed that the lawmaker spent nearly $120,000 in campaign funds on travel during one three-year period--a level much higher than any of his colleagues. State law bars politicians from using their campaign funds for personal purposes.

Bernson cut his political teeth working for the passage of Proposition 13, the legendary property-tax revolt measure of 1978, and being a lieutenant in San Fernando Valley-based crusades to stop mandatory busing in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

This track record stood Bernson in good stead as he joined a field of 16 candidates who sought to fill the shoes of Wilkinson, the 12th District incumbent who did not seek reelection in 1979.

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Bernson finished second in the primary that year. In the runoff, he faced Barbara Klein, who lost to Wilkinson in 1975 by less than 1% of the vote and was determined to capture the seat in 1979. Bernson characterized Klein as a liberal busing proponent and handily defeated her in the final contest.


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