Outside groups shatter spending record in L.A. City Council race

As the Los Angeles City Council race between Assemblyman Paul Krekorian and former film executive Christine Essel drew to a close, outside groups shattered the record for independent spending in a non-citywide election since ethics officials began tracking those figures two decades ago.

By Sunday evening, independent groups, including some of the city’s most powerful unions, had poured nearly $1 million into the contest for the San Fernando Valley seat formerly held by Wendy Greuel. More than 90% of that money has been devoted to boosting Essel’s bid. Heading into Tuesday’s runoff, Essel’s campaign outspent Krekorian by nearly two to one.

So-called independent expenditure committees are not subject to the same city contribution limits as individual candidates, but they cannot coordinate with the candidates they support.

Faced with a constant stream of mailings and commercials on Essel’s behalf by the political committees of the Police Protective League ($403,733) and unions representing the construction trade and electric workers, Krekorian has tried to turn Essel’s financial advantage into a vulnerability in the final weeks.

In one of his mailings, Krekorian portrayed Essel as a puppet of the union representing employees of the Department of Water and Power, which spent more than $244,000 supporting her.

Though Essel has described herself as “the jobs candidate in the race,” Krekorian has cited union spending on Essel’s behalf and her contributions from construction firms and developers to argue “there’s one candidate who is going to listen to the money and the power, and one candidate who listens to the community and the neighbors.”

The assemblyman has enlisted neighborhood leaders to send letters tailored to individual communities like Sherman Oaks, Studio City and Sunland-Tujunga, where many voters are especially concerned about development and the strains on city water and sewer systems.

Essel has also said she wants to give neighborhood groups a greater voice. And her supporters say that her three decades at Paramount Pictures Corp., where she worked on the expansion of the studio’s lot, as well as her leadership of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency board in the 1990s, made her the obvious choice for business leaders and unions who hope to see an uptick in construction jobs as the economy recovers.

Krekorian’s “a professional politician,” said Bob Cherry, a consultant for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18. “We don’t have the confidence in him to deliver that we do in Chris Essel.”

As Krekorian has decried Essel’s contributions from what he calls “downtown interests,” he drew much of his campaign cash from outside the council district. Contributors listing Glendale addresses gave Krekorian $61,500; those in Burbank, where he lived until May, gave him $25,050, and $8,450 came from Sacramento, according to city Ethics Commission campaign reporting records.

Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn. where Essel was a former board chairwoman, said Krekorian “has been pandering to the NIMBYs.”

“If his actions match his rhetoric, then I think development will have a rough time in that district,” she said. “I think [Essel] will be very sensitive to neighborhood concerns, but will be more balanced in her evaluation of a particular project, making sure community needs are met.”

Tuesday’s winner is slated to take a seat on the City Council’s planning and land use committee, the powerful clearinghouse for major development projects. Both candidates have taken contributions from developers, including Rick Caruso, who built the Grove shopping center, and Christopher Alan, whose firm is working on two large projects on Victory Boulevard in Valley Glen.

But neighborhood activists backing Krekorian said they have been alarmed by the fundraising for Essel by several firms that are paid to lobby city planning officials. The firm of Loeb & Loeb, whose clients include Casden Properties and Mika Realty Group, reported raising $7,600 for Essel. A lobbyist for Manatt Phelps & Phillips, a firm that represents developer CIM Group and billboard company Regency Outdoor Advertising Inc., raised $4,950 for Essel in the last quarter, city records show.

In Studio City, neighborhood council members paid closest attention to contributions from Thomas Properties Group, whose employees gave $2,750 to Essel, records show.

Thomas Properties is developing the Metro Universal project just outside the district, which could bring two 24-story office buildings and an adjacent media production office facility to the Universal City Metro Red Line station. And the firm is working on the separate Universal Evolution Plan that would upgrade the studio’s facilities and office space while adding as many as 2,900 housing units over 25 years.

Both candidates say they favor scaling back the projects. But 10 members of the Studio City Neighborhood Council, which has voiced serious concerns about the projects, are backing Krekorian.

John Walker, president of the neighborhood council, said he was troubled by Essel’s contributions. “I’ve raised kids here. I don’t want to see it overdeveloped,” Walker said. “When you’re backed by pro-development agencies and organizations. . . . it means you might be inclined to close an eye.”

Essel’s campaign said, however, that Universal Studios and NBC Universal’s owner previously gave $7,700 to Krekorian’s state political committees, according to state records. And a senior vice president for Thomas Properties said the company had not discussed the projects with either candidate.

Farther north in the 2nd District, the two candidates have sparred over who would do more to protect the character and open space of Sunland-Tujunga.

Joe Barrett, a leader in the fight against Home Depot’s plan for a store on Foothill Boulevard, said Essel’s $1,750 in contributions from attorneys at Latham & Watkins, the firm that lobbied on behalf of Home Depot, were “a big red flag.” “Developers circle us like vultures,” Barrett said. “It’s a constant battle to try to preserve this area.”

But Sunland resident Dale Gibson, an Essel supporter and president of the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council, said that when Essel visited his ranch she stressed that the development in Hollywood and other parts of the city “doesn’t work up here in Sunland and Shadow Hills.”