Landlords and a candidate’s lobbying past stir up a Westside council race
Seventeen years ago, Katy Yaroslavsky was fresh out of law school, saddled with student loan debt and looking to work on issues related to urban planning. So she took a job with Latham & Watkins, a law firm that is also a political powerhouse at City Hall.
Yaroslavsky spent five years there, working as a junior lawyer but also as a registered lobbyist, representing nearly a dozen clients with business before the city, according to city ethics records.
Now, Yaroslavsky is running to represent a district where some homeowner groups view Latham — with its portfolio of more than 30 City Hall clients, many of them real estate developers — as something akin to the Death Star.
Attorney Sam Yebri, one of her opponents, thinks that work history is a problem, and called on Yaroslavsky to promise she would recuse herself from dealing with Latham clients if she wins.
“If former paid registered lobbyists are going to be elected to the City Council, there will be inherent conflicts of interest,” he said.
Yebri and Yaroslavsky, the daughter-in-law of former county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, are in a four-way race to replace Councilman Paul Koretz in a district that takes in such affluent areas as Bel-Air, Cheviot Hills, Hancock Park, Rancho Park and Westwood.
The contest, like so many others this year, deals heavily with homelessness and public safety. But the lobbying issue, and the special interests attached to it, are much more specific to the Yebri-Yaroslavsky duel.
Yaroslavsky, a resident of South Carthay, said she hasn’t received any income from Latham in 12 years and would comply with any ethics requirement that applies to her work history. She has fired back at Yebri by focusing on his biggest spending supporter — the California Apartment Assn., which has produced ads inaccurately portraying her as a “career lobbyist.”
The association, which represents landlords and developers, has put more than $700,000 into an independent campaign promoting Yebri and attacking her. That spending, Yaroslavsky said, is an attempt to gain more power over the council, whose members have repeatedly extended renter protections enacted in response to COVID-19.
Six candidates are seeking to replace City Controller Ron Galperin at City Hall, which has been buffeted by FBI probes into council members, political aides and others.
“They want him to vote their way on any number of big votes around tenants rights, and if they buy this election for him, they will at least have a sympathetic ear,” she said. “This isn’t mom-and-pop landlords. This is corporate [real estate investment trusts] that own thousands of units.”
Yaroslavsky, who left Latham in 2010, has been campaigning on her six years of work as an aide to county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, handling public health, environmental issues and the arts. She played a major role in creating Measure W, a voter-approved tax hike to pay for stormwater cleanup. She says she joined Latham, in part, because she had $100,000 in student loans.
“I knew when I got there that I didn’t want to spend a career as a private-sector attorney,” she said.
Yebri, in turn, said he has no control over the actions of the apartment association, or any other outside group that is required by law to operate separately from his campaign. The Westwood resident said he has repeatedly called for a “right to counsel” — having the city pay for the legal representation of every low-income residential tenant who is facing eviction. He said he also has a history of fighting for renters as a board member with Bet Tzedek, the tenant aid group.
An executive with the California Apartment Assn. issued a statement defending the group’s involvement in the race, saying “it’s important that voters have the facts” about the candidates.
Yaroslavsky, Yebri and two others — UCLA lecturer Jimmy Biblarz and UCLA data analyst Scott Epstein — are running for a seat that has been held by Koretz since 2009. If no candidate secures more than 50% on Tuesday, the top two vote-getters will head to a Nov. 8 runoff.
Of the four contenders, Biblarz and Epstein have staked out positions that are more to the left, signing a “no new cops” pledge and denouncing the city’s anti-camping law, which allows council members to designate certain schools, parks and libraries as off limits to homeless encampments.
Epstein, who has been working as a COVID-19 contact tracer, said he wants the city to have a “leaner, smarter” LAPD, with unarmed employees handling traffic enforcement and responding to residents’ mental health crises.
“We need to be doing a smart reallocation of resources away from policing, to professionals whose salaries are actually cheaper, and are prepared to do the job,” he said in February.
Yebri and Yaroslavsky have offered slightly more middle-of-the-road stances, supporting more mental health workers but also saying the LAPD needs more money and more officers. Both have spoken in favor of the anti-encampment law, although Yebri is far more vocal about using it.
All four candidates want to address homelessness by building more temporary and permanent housing options, including “bridge home” shelters — the kind that Mayor Eric Garcetti has opened in downtown, Venice and elsewhere.
“We should have bridge housing as a badge of honor for all of our neighborhoods,” said Biblarz, 29, who lives in Beverly Grove.
Yebri, 41, belongs to a family of Iranian refugees who arrived in the U.S. in 1983. He has put an emphasis on public safety, saying he, unlike his rivals, wants to restore LAPD staffing to 10,000 officers, an increase of more than 600. Unions representing police and firefighters have endorsed him.
Volunteering with Bet Tzedek, Yebri assisted with legal clinics and handled the cases of renters pro bono. “Others talk about fighting for tenants. I’ve actually done it,” he said.
Epstein, 42, has been talking up his seven years as chairman of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council, where he pushed for the opening of the district’s only bridge shelter. In that position, he also fought for new bicycle lanes and pedestrian improvements on La Brea and Rosewood avenues.
Epstein has been endorsed by Streets For All, a transportation advocacy group, and Sunrise Movement Los Angeles. The Carthay Square resident has been an outspoken critic of the city’s anti-encampment law, saying millions of dollars are being wasted installing signs around no-camping zones.
“Not only is the ordinance dehumanizing, but it’s also incredibly wasteful and ineffective,” he said.
Yaroslavsky has talked up her work on the environment, as well as her support from the Sierra Club, the L.A. League of Conservation Voters and the county Federation of Labor. She described herself as an experienced coalition builder, someone who can gather the eight votes needed to pass legislation.
The rank-and-file police officers’ union is financially involved in five of 11 contests in Tuesday’s city election — and committing more money than any other group.
“I know how to do the work because I’ve already been doing the work,” she said.
Biblarz, who is gay, has picked up endorsements from several gay and lesbian organizations, as well as the local Public Defenders Union. He supports the upzoning of single-family neighborhoods, saying such a step would increase the housing supply and make it more affordable. He says he is offering voters a positive message, even as Yebri and Yaroslavsky take shots at each other in mailers and emails.
“We’re squarely focused on ideas,” Biblarz said. “We haven’t said a bad word about any of our competitors.”
For Yebri and Yaroslavsky, the debate over Latham has been especially contentious. At one point, Yebri accused Yaroslavsky of lying about her lobbying history. Yaroslavsky, in turn, said Yebri had been dishonest in his portrayal of her.
Yebri first raised the issue of Yaroslavsky’s lobbying work during a candidate forum in April, pressing her on whether she would recuse herself on Latham business. She responded by saying that, during her time as a lawyer, she had only been a registered lobbyist for a year, representing a single client.
Yaroslavsky later acknowledged that information was far from complete, correcting the record the next day at another candidate forum. By then, Yebri’s campaign had pounced, publicizing the fact that Yaroslavsky had failed to mention nine other clients, including JMB Realty, which is seeking to build a 36-story tower in Century City, located within the district.
Yebri’s campaign accused Yaroslavky of lying about her background. Yaroslavsky called that a “cheap shot,” saying she got the information wrong because so much time had elapsed — and because, as a junior member of the firm, she had little interaction with city officials.
“I forgot because it was so long ago, and I misspoke,” she said.
Yebri said he will leave it to voters to assess whether Yaroslavsky’s misstatement was “intentional.” He said JMB, one of her former clients, could still seek the city’s help as it builds its office tower, making recusal a serious legal matter.
“I do think that her career working as a registered lobbyist for developers is a relevant issue,” he said.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.