City Councilman Joel Wachs is trying to parlay his 22-year record at City Hall, his ties to the art world and ideas for change--including breaking up the Los Angeles school district--into a winning run for the mayor’s office.
The strategy relies heavily on the personal mettle of the tireless Wachs, a regular fixture at mayoral candidate forums who also has proved to be one of the field’s most combative members.
“Meeting people is what I like best about running,” said Wachs, who has been counting votes since he was elected vice president of his junior class at George Washington High School in 1956 and UCLA student body president in 1961.
Wachs is seeking support from several constituencies: San Fernando Valley residents who are familiar with his record; parents who are unhappy with the schools, and artists, tenants, gays and senior citizens whose causes he has backed.
Related to Wachs’ support for the breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District is his proposal for elected neighborhood councils to advise City Hall.
The common thread is bringing government to the people, he says.
“There’s so much to be gained by involving people in everything we do,” he said.
Critics see Wachs’ twin proposals as inviting development gridlock and neighborhood isolationism, if not abetting racial separation.
Wachs’ history at City Hall began in 1971, when the 32-year-old, Harvard-educated tax lawyer defeated an incumbent and was elected councilman by an alliance of hillside homeowners and youthful political activists from UCLA.
Reapportionment has redrawn his district over the years. Wachs has represented most of the East Valley from Sherman Oaks to Tujunga, as well as Los Feliz, Glassell Park, Atwater Village and Mt. Washington on the south side of the Hollywood Hills.
“Joel reminds me of the cat with nine lives, and he’s a guy most political pundits have underestimated,” said Bill Rosendahl, host of a widely watched cable TV show on politics.
Besides co-authoring rent-control measures, Wachs fathered the city’s Endowment for the Arts to finance cultural activities, laws to protect gays and AIDS patients from discrimination, and rules to cushion the impact of utility rates on senior citizens living on fixed incomes.
For years Wachs has sought ways to widen his political horizon.
In 1973, as a freshman lawmaker, he ran for mayor to get his name better known citywide.
In 1981, he welcomed the chance to be elected City Council president because the post would give him visibility when other council members planned to run for mayor on the belief--mistaken, as it turned out--that Mayor Tom Bradley was soon to be elected governor.
Critics accuse Wachs of being less attentive to legislative business in recent years. His 30 absences from council meetings in 1992 was second highest, and he is frequently late to the meetings he attends. But his vigor in pursuing the mayor’s job is unquestioned. “I’ve never seen him pumped up as much as he is now,” one observer said.
The 54-year-old bachelor is a nationally known art collector, a habitue of galleries from New York City to La Cienega Drive and a Museum of Contemporary Art trustee.
In his mayoralty bid, Wachs has tapped the arts world for financial support and embarked on a controversial program of giving limited-edition prints by famous artists such as David Hockney to contributors, a practice questioned by city ethics authorities.
Joel Wachs Born: March 1, 1939. Residence: Studio City. Education: Bachelor’s degree, UCLA; law degree, Harvard University, advanced degree in tax law, New York University. Career Highlights: Practiced law in Los Angeles for six years. Elected to City Council in 1971 and served as council president 1981-83. Interets: Collecting modern art. Family: Unmarried.