L.A. ELECTIONS / 5TH DISTRICT : The Evolution of Roberta Weintraub : Campaign: The school board veteran hopes to parlay a new image as a conciliator into a City Council seat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is Roberta Weintraub too nice for City Hall?

Listen to her on fellow City Council candidate Barbara Yaroslavsky: "Barbara has acquired her name from her husband--and that's understandable. The money she's able to raise is phenomenal."

On the others in the 5th District race: "I think both Mike (Feuer) and Jeff (Brain) are very good candidates. I think they've done a very good job of campaigning."

And on an election foul-up in which her flyers, which were supposed to go to Democratic voters, were instead mailed to Republicans: "Nobody died. If I got upset about everything that happens in a campaign, I wouldn't be able to run."

Weintraub is positioning herself as the consensus builder, a force that could bring together the divisive elements of the City Council. Drawing on 14 years of experience on the Los Angeles Board of Education, Weintraub says she is a natural conciliator who can avoid personal attacks and win over even her harshest critics.

Weintraub wasn't always so mellow.

She called Rita Walters--then the only African American school board member--a "bitch" during a live radio broadcast at the height of the busing battles in the late 1970s. She aggressively sought expulsion of students--regardless of age--caught carrying weapons to school, saying, "I really don't give a damn whether the kid is 10, 12 or 15, guns kill and so do knives."

And she angered teachers during their 1989 strike when word leaked out that Weintraub kept falling asleep during round-the-clock negotiations.

But now, her approach is nothing if not tempered. During an interview at her spacious Bel-Air home, Weintraub, 59, laughed off the constantly ringing telephone and the earsplitting squawking from her menagerie of birds.

Despite the appearances, however, Weintraub is not taking the campaign lightly. With a staff of at least 25 people, Weintraub is working.

"Let's see," she says, perusing her black leather-bound date book. "I have an editorial board meeting, a luncheon fund-raiser, a candidates forum, phone banks, and I'm walking around part of the district. That's just today."

Weintraub believes "without a doubt" that she will be in a runoff with Yaroslavsky after the April 11 primary election. Despite school board campaigns beginning in 1977 (she lost to Bobbi Fiedler but won in a recall two years later), she says this election could be the toughest and the costliest.

"There are so many issues (and) diverse and interesting groups," she said.

Weintraub, who decided not to seek reelection to the school board when her term ended in June, 1993, has nearly $106,000 in her campaign war chest--cash she has secured without tapping City Hall lobbyists or developers with pending city projects, recent financial disclosure forms show.

Her money will be spent targeting voters via mail in the mostly white district that stretches from Sherman Oaks over the hill to the Fairfax area. Of the 147,000 or so registered voters, political consultants say only about 40,000 are expected to cast ballots.

"I didn't quite believe how intense and important the mailbox is in these races," Weintraub said. "In the school board races, there were other ways of reaching people."

While Weintraub promotes herself as a facilitator who could handle the rough-and-tumble politics at City Hall, challenger Yaroslavsky makes that same claim.

Weintraub's supporters, who include Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, numerous education officials and former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Robert Philobosian, say she has the experience and the energy for the job.

"I'm always prone to working with activists and passionate people--she's both of those things," said Goldberg, who served with Weintraub on the school board.

Walters, who also jumped from the school board to the council, said she has mended fences with Weintraub.

"I can certainly attest to the fact that Roberta and I have become friends--subsequent to our early problems," Walters said, adding that she has decided against endorsing anyone in the race because of her close ties to Weintraub and to Barbara Yaroslavsky and her husband, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Not everyone, however, has overcome past difficulties with Weintraub. United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein, who said Weintraub asked--albeit unsuccessfully--for a union endorsement, said she blames Weintraub at least partly for the school district's troubles.

"I don't think she did a good job as a board member so I don't see how she could do a good job at the City Council," Bernstein said. "I think most people felt better about L.A. Unified 14 years ago than they do today. She was part and parcel of all the problems there."

Bob Scott, a spokesman for the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley and another Weintraub critic, said her support for a school board redistricting plan three years ago angered many Valley residents. The Valley was divided among four board seats.

"It was something of a slap in the face to the Valley," Scott said. "That made a lot of people turn on Roberta."

Weintraub evolved during her years on the school board. She won the East Valley seat in 1979, riding the antibusing crusade to victory. She quickly became board president and was known for being somewhat insensitive and less than conciliatory.

But her life changed during that time. In 1985, her 17-year-old son, Michael, died in a car accident--coincidentally just a few miles from Weintraub's current home. She became a fitness fanatic, rising before dawn to exercise; she changed her curly-top hairstyle and instead became known for her flashy suits and even flashier dangling earrings. She was divorced from her husband, Lewis, an Encino proctologist with whom she also had another son, Richard.

After the Northridge earthquake, Weintraub left the severely damaged Sherman Oaks home where she had lived for nearly 30 years. She now rents a home on a winding street off Sepulveda Boulevard.

While she served on the school board, Weintraub championed such hard-line issues as expulsions for carrying weapons and the creation of three controversial high school health clinics. She also took on softer issues, with motions to cut prom costs and ban sales of junk food in school cafeterias. And she began a nonprofit group, called Students Run L.A., to encourage teen-agers from poor communities to train for and run in the Los Angeles Marathon.

She raised money to open three child-care centers in the northeast Valley, and she helped open magnet schools, including one linked to a Van Nuys hospital.

Weintraub proudly defends her work on the school board and rejects suggestions that she is in any way responsible for general public dissatisfaction with the school system. Rather, she says, she supported schools' autonomy, even pushing for a breakup of the district.

Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., gives Weintraub a mixed score card. "Barbara will get the pluses and minuses of Zev (a former councilman) and likewise, Roberta will get the pluses and minuses of the school board."

But even her staunchest critics acknowledge that Weintraub remains a straight shooter who will forge alliances because she believes in an issue--not only for political expediency.

"I never thought she was a mean person," Bernstein said. "I think she's actually well-meaning in a benevolent despot sort of way."

If elected, Weintraub says she wants to help the entire city--not just the 5th District. She believes the Police Department needs particular attention, saying the O.J. Simpson trial has damaged morale. She also wants to create a city youth policy and form magnet schools linked to police and fire stations.

Additionally, she says she would like to hold a "bankers summit" to encourage low-cost loans for small businesses.

And if she loses the election? "I haven't given serious thought to not being elected," she says. But in that event, she said, "I'll continue in community service in one form or another. I'd love to get back into the media--maybe have my own talk show, but more like (radio personality) Michael Jackson than Oprah."

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Profile

CANDIDATE: Roberta Weintraub

BORN: Nov. 5, 1935

HOMETOWN: Los Angeles

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of California, Los Angeles

MARITAL STATUS: Divorced; son, Richard

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Named to the city's Library Commission from 1993-1995; served on the board of governors of the State Bar of California from 1993-1995; co-director of Students Run L.A., a nonprofit foundation aimed at encouraging teen-agers to run the Marathon; elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education in 1979 where she served until June, 1993; was elected board president in 1979-1981 and 1988-1989; named California state Senate "Woman of the Year" in 1989; hosted, wrote and produced "School Beat," a KHJ-TV talk show from 1985-1987; hosted a radio talk show on KMPC radio from 1982-1984.

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