Moments after the Los Angeles City Council voted earlier this month to kill Mayor James K. Hahn’s budget plan, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter popped out of her chair and began passing out a flier from her first council election in 1987 that read: “Ruth Galanter -- She Can’t Be Bought ... She Won’t Back Down.”
With a sly smile, the councilwoman said she wanted to send a message that, after 16 years on the council, she was not about to trade her vote, despite what she described as unusually heavy lobbying by the mayor’s office.
“I am not prepared to sell out,” Galanter said.
The contrarian councilwoman, an irascible poet who pens verse during public meetings and is known for speaking her mind, said this most recent piece of political theater underscored that she was leaving office as she came in -- with her integrity and independence intact.
Hailed as an environmental crusader who would take on developers and usher in a new era of grass-roots activism at City Hall, Galanter, 62, who is leaving office today, won her first election from a hospital bed after a near-fatal stabbing in her Venice home. Ever since, she has not flinched from some of the city’s toughest political battles.
Her positions sometimes defied expectations, and her blunt style could be alienating. But even some of her critics credit her with sharp intelligence and significant accomplishments during her tenure.
Along with El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon, Galanter led the fight against former Mayor Richard Riordan’s quest to expand Los Angeles International Airport. Early in his second term, Riordan predicted he would finish planning and start construction on an expanded LAX before he left office in 2001. He was stymied by Galanter and others.
“She was one of the most intelligent people in public office I’ve ever dealt with,” Riordan said.
Galanter was also in the middle of the divisive, years-long battle over the development of Playa Vista. She surprised many of the project’s backers, who expected a rabid foe and instead found a policy wonk who, in the words of one developer, was “tough but fair.” That, in turn, shocked Playa Vista opponents who watched with furious feelings of betrayal as Galanter negotiated deals allowing development to go forward on some land while preserving and restoring the Ballona Wetlands.
Through it all, the councilwoman methodically plugged away at improvements in her 6th Council District, from the construction of libraries to the restoration of the Venice canals and pier.
“She was very responsive,” said a Westchester resident, Judith Ciancimino, a constituent who became a friend. “She gave me more faith in politicians.”
Her former colleague Jackie Goldberg, now in the state Assembly, describes Galanter as “a very bright, talented, able legislator. The conscience of the council on issues having to do with the environment.”
Despite these accolades, the last few years in office have not turned out as Galanter once hoped. As one of the longest-serving members on a body being infused with new faces because of term limits, Galanter said, she had imagined herself as “a professor emeritus, teaching everyone who was interested everything I know.”
Instead, many of her colleagues seemed to view her as irrelevant. Two years ago, fellow council members rejected her bid to become council president. Then last fall, they redistricted her right out of her beloved Venice community, moving her district to the San Fernando Valley, an area she barely knew.
“It’s not the way I would have chosen to finish my tenure,” Galanter said. “But you can’t rewind the tape.”
The only child of a teacher and an advertising salesman, Galanter grew up in the Bronx section of New York, dreaming of becoming an artist, or maybe an investigative reporter. The shy young woman, who lost her father when she was 6, never imagined a career in politics.
By the time she got to the University of Michigan in 1960, however, social revolutions were rumbling and Galanter was swept along, attending sit-ins and agitating for change.
After graduating from college six months early, Galanter studied urban planning at Yale, then took a series of jobs in New York, advocating for welfare rights and access to medical care.
In 1970, Galanter packed up and moved to Los Angeles. “I decided I needed a change in my life,” she said. She settled on the Westside and became active on affordable housing issues. In 1973, she became the first California resident to file an appeal under the state Coastal Act. Four years later, she was appointed to the California Coastal Commission.
Galanter was a member of Friends of the Ballona Wetlands in the late 1980s when then-Councilwoman Pat Russell came out in support of a plan to develop a business center in Westchester and a 1,087-acre property at the base of the Westchester Bluffs. Situated near LAX on land where billionaire Howard Hughes built a World War II-era wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose, Playa Vista was one of the largest real estate developments ever contemplated for Los Angeles.
“We had all pretty well decided there was no way” to save the wetlands “unless someone successfully challenged the councilwoman,” Galanter said.
The 46-year-old urban planner and consultant was drafted to run against Russell, and she forced the council veteran into a runoff.
Three and a half weeks before the election, an intruder cut through the screen in her kitchen window, crept into Galanter’s bedroom and stabbed her twice in the throat. Police said they found her in a pool of blood amid signs of struggle. One of the knife wounds severed a carotid artery that supplied blood to the brain.
Her supporters waited, wondering whether Galanter would die, or whether she had suffered brain damage. She had not, although her vocal cords were permanently damaged, leaving her New York-accented voice with a slight croak. She was in the hospital for 56 days, but she stayed in the election.
“I was absolutely convinced when the guy was in my house knifing me in the head that it was political ... an attempt to intimidate me out of the campaign,” she said. “I was not about to get off the ballot.” She added that she never believed her opponent was personally responsible for the attack. A drug user with a long history of previous arrests was convicted of the attack.
The day before she was sworn in, Galanter was released from UCLA Medical Center. She was pushed in a wheelchair into City Hall for the inauguration festivities. Many of her supporters cried for joy.
They viewed her as their Cinderella, a funky Venice everywoman who would champion the causes of average people, and stop “Big Developers” in their tracks.
Instead, Galanter -- long an advocate for more affordable housing near the coast -- hammered out a deal on Playa Vista that would preserve 270 acres of the Ballona Wetlands, create a riparian corridor, pour millions into easing traffic problems and put recycling facilities in place. She also won commitments for affordable housing units.
In exchange, the development went forward. Though both sides are still fighting, the first residents moved in last year. Galanter said those who thought she was against all development on the site were mistaken. She was passionate about saving the wetlands, but “I actually believe in doing something about the housing crisis,” she said.
Foes of the project were outraged. “Everything she claimed she stood for was not true,” said Patricia McPherson, who works for the watchdog group Grassroots Coalition. “She got into office originally presenting herself as a protector of the environment and slow growth, but she quickly betrayed the public’s trust by becoming a pawn of the developers and the power elite.”
Wendy Rains, executive director of the Ballona Wetlands Foundation, said she believes “extremists” have given Galanter a bad rap. “She’s been a real champion of environmental causes,” Rains said.
In City Hall, Galanter has pushed for a number of laws that, though they rarely made big headlines, turned Los Angeles into a more environmentally conscious place. Among them are recycling initiatives that won her a national award last year. She believes her most lasting legacy may be a law requiring low-flush toilets in homes.
Galanter never seemed entirely comfortable with the public face of the job, and consistently refused to go after sound bites.
“You see an opportunity for Ruth to grab the limelight, and as any political staffer would, you sort of encourage her to ... play up her role in an issue,” said Mike Bonin, her chief field deputy. “But Ruth consistently refused to grandstand.”
Her manner is blunt. Her sentences are often long and clause-filled, and she does not suffer fools. At one point during the budget debate this spring, Galanter publicly chastised her colleagues for walking away from their chairs when she rose to speak.
“Sometimes, her tone made people stop listening,” Councilman Eric Garcetti said. But he added that Galanter was “probably the most fearless council member I know, and one of the most eloquent and productive.”
A New District
Galanter herself likes to say that the real work of government is done far from the City Council chambers. And though she was not happy about being sent to the Valley, she threw herself into her new district, busying herself and her staff with cleaning up 400,000 pounds of illegally dumped refuse, commissioning public art at Van Nuys Airport and getting to know the community.
“There was a perception that she was not going to be involved,” said Michael Fiore, a resident and business owner in Van Nuys. “I was impressed with how involved she was ... and I was also impressed by her approach.”
In the next phase of her life, Galanter is planning to start a consulting business on how to build sustainable development. She also talks of sleeping late, and having more time to devote to long walks and her insatiable consumption of detective novels.
One thing she won’t miss are the council meetings. To amuse herself while her colleagues pontificated, she often wrote rhymes.
“The world of politics is full/ of bombast, bullying and bull,” runs one penned in the 1990s. “It comes in carloads, by the ton/ It comes from nearly everyone.”