In L.A.'s mayoral race, battleground areas have common concerns
With the Los Angeles mayoral primary just over two weeks away, candidates are fine-tuning their appeals to diverse groups across the city’s vast expanse of neighborhoods.
On the Westside, longtime city officials Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Jan Perry are vying for dominance among affluent liberals and moderates.
Along the northern and western rims of the San Fernando Valley, moderates and conservatives are key targets for Greuel, the city controller who represented parts of the area when she was on the City Council; Republican Kevin James, a former radio talk-show host; and Perry, a downtown councilwoman presenting herself as a business-friendly budget hawk.
Garcetti, who has Mexican roots, is trying to woo voters in heavily Latino communities including Wilmington. Perry also is looking to Latinos to expand her base of support, which is strong among African Americans, and Greuel hopes to capitalize on endorsements from prominent Latino elected officials. Former tech executive Emanuel Pleitez also is appealing to Latinos, particularly in what he calls underserved communities.
Visits to three mayoral battlegrounds found common complaints and big expectations. In shops and along sidewalks, dozens of interviews underscored the challenges facing the candidates. They also were a reminder that voters often measure progress by the simple metrics of daily life: how long it takes to drive to a friend’s house, whether their small business is making it and whether their neighborhoods feel clean and safe.
Nothing sparks the passion of residents here quite like the daily clog of traffic in the prosperous neighborhoods straddling the 405, one of America’s most congested freeways.
“If you don’t get out of your house and do your errands before 3 o’clock, it takes you about 40 minutes to go one mile,” said Karen Murphy, a Brentwood art dealer and 19-year resident of the area.
From the Pacific Palisades to the Los Angeles International Airport and Beverly Hills to Venice Beach, residents griped about crime, bumpy roads and unsatisfactory public schools.
But demands for traffic relief reverberated the loudest. Advertising art director Joanna Bennink of Brentwood hopes the next mayor will expand public transit with the vigor of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has made train line extensions to the Westside a hallmark of his tenure.
Increasingly dense Westside development has been exacerbating traffic congestion for decades. Nearly 123,000 vehicles crossed the Westwood intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran Avenue on a typical Wednesday in 2009, making it one of the busiest corners in Los Angeles, according to the city’s most recent data. In Venice, 75,000 cars and trucks passed the intersection of Lincoln and Washington boulevards. Outside a nearby Whole Foods, Lisa Ench, an executive assistant at a perfume company, described public transportation in L.A. as “horrible.”
On one Red Line subway trip “there was a crack pipe at my feet,” she said. Loading groceries and bouquets of flowers into her hatchback, Ench, 25, said using that vehicle was her better option: “I treat my car almost as a big purse. You can bring everything with you.”
In Westwood, Bob Halavi, 49, stopped outside a public library and shared his pet peeve: what he called the city’s “Mickey Mouse patching” of cracked pavement on his winding Bel-Air street. “It’s shameful that our streets are like a Third World country,” said Halavi, a developer. Complaints to the city yield nothing, he said.
“Our houses are in the higher end of the city’s values, and yet when it comes time to achieving some service in exchange for the property taxes that we pay, we kept getting this excuse that the city does not have the money,” he said.
Day after day, Paula Cracium dodges a large pothole on Rinaldi Street in Chatsworth on her way to work as a church development director. The city did a quick patch job after she reported it, but the pothole soon returned — and grew.
That reflects a larger, enduring problem to Cracium: City Hall is too downtown-centric, treating the Valley less seriously than it should.
The sentiment lingers, a decade after the Valley tried unsuccessfully to secede from the city.
Cracium, for one, wants less money spent on City Council members’ “pet projects,” and more devoted to core services such as roads, libraries and public safety.
“Bike lanes and pocket parks are important, but do we need to do them now?” she said.
Sherman Oaks contractor Louis Krokover, whose family has built homes for three generations, echoed the theme that downtown elected officials are too detached: “Will the new mayor take sessions in Van Nuys City Hall? Will the new mayor give the neighborhood councils a little more teeth and claws? That’s what we’re looking for.”
Several West Valley voters expressed skepticism about the city’s management of its finances and a March 5 ballot measure that would increase the city sales tax half a cent, to 9.5%, one of the highest in the state.
Jill Barad, a Sherman Oaks fundraising consultant, said she feared the money would go to rising labor costs rather than improving the quality of life in neighborhoods by fixing buckled sidewalks or trimming overgrown trees. “Can’t those things be fixed?” Barad said. “Why should we give them more money?”
At a Chatsworth strip mall, Mark Avila of West Hills, who co-owns a small print shop, voiced a common grievance as he stuffed a basket of freshly laundered clothing into the back seat of an old Toyota. He wants the city’s next elected chief executive to concentrate on boosting business and economic activity rather than “catering to interest groups” at City Hall.
“If we get our businesses going, everyone will prosper,” he said. “That will take work ethic and character. I’m looking for that candidate.”
At a recent community meeting in Wilmington, a blue-collar, heavily Latino neighborhood north of the Los Angeles harbor, a police officer was updating residents on recent shootings in the area. There had been three in the previous days, she said, including one homicide.
“And what about the shooting this morning at 8 o’clock?” a woman in the audience asked.
The officer paused, then acknowledged: “Yes, there were a couple.”
Gang violence remains a distressing part of life in Wilmington even though, as the LAPD officer reminded her audience, “violent crime is at its lowest rate in 10 years.”
Residents, who last year pressured police to assign more officers to the area after a slew of shootings, say they welcome the drop in crime and other recent city improvements to the community. Several said they hope the next mayor will continue to pursue Villaraigosa’s public safety and environmental policies.
Villaraigosa is popular with long-timers like Mona Martinez, 50, who was raised in a family of longshoremen. She credits the mayor with helping to end a December dock strike and his efforts to require lower-emission trucks at the port. “You can see it,” she said of the cleaner air. “You can definitely feel it.”
But on Avalon Boulevard in the heart of Wilmington, Ignacio Ortiz, 41, said the neighborhood needs a lot of work. He and his wife, Alma, opened Hojas Tea House and Cafe last year, but the prolonged permitting process was “a headache,” he said.
They hope to expand the business but might open their next shop beyond the city limits. Neighboring cities have made their commercial streets more alluring, he said: “You come into Wilmington and you’ve got junkyards and container yards.”
Lupe Lopez, 37, who until recently was Wilmington’s honorary mayor, wants a close examination of the social, health and economic causes of the area’s violence. “What are the gaps?” she said. Schools have improved under Villaraigosa, she said, but more must be done to increase graduation rates and involve parents.
At local campuses, she said, “I would like to see our next mayor come and do some real shaking and rattling.”
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