Richard Katz, a six-term assemblyman and a formidable fund-raiser, blipped onto the national radar screen in 1989 when he suggested that the concrete-lined Los Angeles River be turned into what it most resembles--a freeway.
Ridicule of the "Katz Korridor" resonated across the country. Membership in a fledgling Friends of the River environmental movement shot up a hundredfold in reaction to the threat, causing its founder to laughingly label Katz "one of the best friends the Los Angeles River ever had."
Far from lamenting what many politicians would view as a serious blunder, Katz, 42, says his only regret is that people did not see the proposal for what it was--a suggestion intended to spark debate.
"I always said, 'If someone's got a better idea, let's do it,' " he said. Then he adds what is becoming the mantra of his campaign: "If you're only going to do the safe stuff, you can't be mayor of Los Angeles."
Supporters say the river caper illustrates one of Katz's greatest strengths, that of looking beyond the obvious toward more complex--and often controversial--solutions. Detractors say it demonstrates his penchant for charging bull-like into complicated issues with inadequate study.
The strong reaction to the river proposal also points up the Los Angeles native's largest obstacle in the mayor's race--it was one of the few times he has received citywide media coverage during his 12 years in the state capital.
In a crowded field of candidates where name recognition is a significant factor, the San Fernando Valley Democrat is simply not well known outside his Assembly district. In a recent Times poll, more than two-thirds of Valley residents said they had heard of him but his name was unfamiliar to 41% of those surveyed on the Westside, 55% in Central Los Angeles and 70% in South Los Angeles.
But aided by a surge of contributions from labor, the entertainment industry and private donors, he has recently become one of the race's three million-dollar men and has retained the services of James Carville, the Democratic consultant who is credited with helping President Clinton make his message palatable to the public.
It's not that Katz has no record to build upon. Although the California Journal, a monthly magazine of state government and politics, greeted his freshman year in Sacramento with the description, "on the back burner . . . with the fire off," Katz quickly rose to join Assembly Speaker Willie Brown's inner circle.
Over the years, he has carried some major legislation--most notably one of the nation's toughest ground water protection bills--and in 1985 was selected by Brown to lead the powerful Assembly Transportation Committee.
But being part of the Legislature's power structure does not necessarily make headlines. Nor, Katz complains, does representing the Valley, which many residents and their representatives believe is treated as metropolitan Los Angeles' stepchild.
To extend his political base, Katz has been campaigning hard outside the Valley in his trademark double-breasted suit and cowboy boots--at a Latino business breakfast on Olvera Street, at a dessert gathering of young Clinton supporters in Brentwood, during the 8 a.m. service at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in the West Adams district.
The message he delivers is simple and compelling, and usually draws laughter: If you like the way this city is run, if you think it's a great place to live and raise kids, vote for one of the four City Council members on the ballot or two-time city Commissioner Richard Riordan. If you don't, vote for someone who is not part of the downtown crowd.
"Someone who's more interested in doing the job than keeping the job," Katz repeats at each campaign stop.
Such clever, stripped-down phraseology is vintage Carville. Although Carville has conceded that he probably will not spend much time in Los Angeles because of continued work for the President and other candidates, his frequent telephone conversations with Katz's campaign central in Sherman Oaks clearly have influenced the candidate's speeches. They are littered with such Carvillesque catch phrases as: "This race is about new ideas vs. brain-dead."
That kind of talk seems tailored to persuade inner-city voters that Katz would take on their urban battles even though his life hardly resembles theirs. He lives on a one-acre ranch in Sylmar with his wife, public affairs executive Gini Barrett, a couple of horses, a goat named Matilda and a family room filled with expensive exercise equipment.
Still, Katz maintains that representing the poorest and most ethnically diverse areas of the Valley while in the Assembly has left him uniquely qualified to comprehend central Los Angeles' trials.
"I understand what it's like to be from a part of the city that's been left out," he said.
Many of those who have heard Katz speak respond favorably to his optimism that Los Angeles can be united as "one city . . . not 15 separate fiefdoms," which he says can be accomplished by cracking down on crime first, then creating jobs by making the city a hub for new transportation technology.
But others remain skeptical. After the Olvera Street breakfast, insurance executive R.E. Flores of Highland Park said he did not believe the assemblyman would know how to close the city service gaps between "the haves and the have-nots."
Political consultants contend that Katz could attract a large enough block of votes to achieve one of two spots in the anticipated June runoff if he can gain support from Jewish voters and contributors. They represent large portions of the Westside and Valley populations and are among those considered most likely to turn out for local elections.
But to do so, Katz must show he is the best alternative to two councilmen who might otherwise draw their votes: Michael Woo, who reflects the community's generally liberal views, and Joel Wachs, who is more conservative but, like Katz, is Jewish.
So far, Jewish leaders say support is largely divided among the three candidates. "I personally don't have a sense that the Jewish community is really standing behind any one candidate," said Tzivia Schwartz, western states counsel for the Anti-Defamation League.
One recurring question about Katz's electability concerns his conservative streak, which has served him well in the Valley but, some say, may not reflect the rest of Los Angeles' more liberal slant.
Katz is pro-death penalty and was among the minority of Democrats who worked to defeat former state Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
He also has long opposed gun control and was endorsed by the National Rifle Assn. in 1986, during his toughest Assembly reelection campaign. More recently, he has supported what he calls "reasonable controls," such as a 15-day waiting period for gun purchases and a ban on assault weapons.
Although Katz has said in interviews that he is proud of his stand on the two issues, neither is contained in a position paper on crime he hands out at public events. So far, he has rarely mentioned capital punishment outside the Valley and then usually in response to direct questions or during news conferences specifically about crime. Yet at a candidate forum in the more conservative Valley community of Sherman Oaks, his opening remarks included his death-penalty views, which he characterized as a litmus test for a true crime fighter.
Most of all, Katz's portrayal of himself as a City Hall outsider is perceived by many as disingenuous because he is a career politician--and a political groupie before then.
Looked at Other Races
Since Katz's unexpected election to the Assembly in 1980, when he defied the Reagan landslide by besting a Republican incumbent, he has eyed offices ranging from state senator to lieutenant governor. Each time, he opted to retain his relatively secure Assembly seat, until voters passed a term-limit law--which he opposed--that will force him to give up that job in 1996.
Even before he was officially a politician, Katz dabbled in campus politics at Santa Monica College and San Diego State--where he majored in political science and lost a race for student body president. He attended a now-defunct Valley law school part time, dropping out halfway through his second year. He worked for the late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in 1973, during Moscone's aborted campaign for governor, then started a graphics business that specialized in campaign literature design.
A Westside therapist who worked with Katz on George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign said she was not surprised to learn 21 years later that Katz was running for mayor.
"He was aggressive," family therapist Leslie Burkes said. "He always had what it takes to succeed in politics."
Over the years, Katz's hefty campaign finance statements have read like a "Who's Who" of political action committees and have strongly reflected support from the development and business communities.
In 1992, for instance, more than 80% of contributions to his Assembly treasury came from PACS, development interests and big business. At last report earlier this month, however, only about a third of his $1 million in mayoral contributions were from such sources. An additional $300,000 came from city matching funds.
Opponents say the close relationship between Katz and developers--a natural outgrowth of his Transportation Commission post--would make him a pawn of big business as mayor. But Katz says his interaction with business people has taught him how to balance environmental and economic concerns, how to strive for cleaner air and more jobs.
He also maintains that such high-powered liaisons have not caused him to lose sight of his constituents' needs.
For instance, Katz drafted a bill to force Los Angeles transportation agencies to give preference to bidders who hire locally, although the legislation was vetoed by Gov. Pete Wilson.
He succeeded in restoring funding to the enforcement wing of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, a great concern in his district where problem liquor stores are plentiful. He currently is carrying a bill to open up the water marketing process, which could improve Los Angeles' access to water earmarked for farms.
A key to Katz's success, say those who know him, is his tenaciousness. In Sacramento, he is described as a whip-cracking boss and a dreaded opponent. Tales of his fiery temper abound, particularly among state department heads and former Katz staff members.
Mark Watts, the lead Republican staff member in the effort to soften the Katz-authored Proposition 111, said opposing Katz was like being "up against the devil himself."
Republicans and builders opposed components of the transportation initiative, ultimately approved by voters in 1990, that required large developers to reduce the traffic impact of their projects. In the end, Katz compromised slightly, agreeing to postpone the requirements for a year in Los Angeles.
Skeptics question whether Katz's battering ram technique and temper tantrums would prove effective at Los Angeles City Hall, where the mayor's power depends on building a consensus among a fractious, 15-member council.
Katz maintains that he has mellowed, learning "when to use carrots and . . . when to use a 2-by-4." He cites his successes in negotiating compromises within the often-divided 80-member Assembly, such as ending a 1984 stalemate over community college funding by persuading all factions to agree on a tuition hike.
With the City Council, Katz said, he would begin his relationship by saying, "Let's do it together." But, he adds, if that didn't work, he would not be afraid to "go to the public . . . to force the council to make the right decision."
Toxic Pits Act
Katz employed that form of pressure in 1984 with his Toxic Pits Cleanup Act, which drastically limited use of surface ponds for toxic waste storage and disposal. The bill was roundly opposed by major campaign contributors ranging from oil companies to chemical manufacturers.
Katz toured the state, preaching the legislation's wisdom to reporters and editorial boards. Then, when the bill languished in the Senate Finance Committee for three days, Katz refused to water it down.
"I told members, 'You want to vote against it, you vote against it and I'll spend the entire next year campaigning up and down this state in your districts, telling people how you voted,' " he said.
The scheme worked, dislodging the bill from the state Senate and dispatching it to then-Gov. George Deukmejian, who signed it.
Whether the unpredictable Los Angeles City Council would respond to such threats remains unclear, but Katz reasons that his bold approach could hardly be less effective than the passiveness he attributes to the 20-year mayor, Tom Bradley.
Relaxing at home after a morning horseback ride one recent Saturday, Katz fingered the brim of his Garth Brooks baseball cap as he pondered the uncertain future of Los Angeles.
"We don't have a lot of time," he said, leaning forward to perch on the edge of the couch. "We have polarized more and more and if that trend continues we will become an unlivable city. . . . I'm willing to shake things up, be impatient, push things hard. . . . As hokey as it sounds, I think I can make a difference."
Profiles of the 11 major candidates for mayor of Los Angeles will run in order of appearance on the ballot. They will be published on weekdays through the end of March. Tomorrow: Tom Houston.
POLICY REVERSAL: Richard Riordan attacks use of public matching funds. B1
Profile: Richard D. Katz
Born: Aug. 16, 1950, in Los Angeles. Raised in Baldwin Hills and West Los Angeles.
Residence: One-acre ranch in Sylmar.
Education: San Diego State University, B.A. in political science. Also attended Santa Monica City College and, briefly, San Fernando Valley School of Law.
Career highlights: State assemblyman since 1980 in a district that had experienced high turnover. He previously ran a graphics business that specialized in campaign literature and worked on several campaigns.
Interests: Playing basketball, riding horses, hiking, tending roses, listening to country and Western and rock 'n' roll music.
Family: Married Gini Barrett, vice president of public affairs for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, in 1987.