Wendy Greuel acquired a love of politics from working with Tom Bradley
Third in a series of articles focusing on key periods in the lives of the mayoral hopefuls.
In the early 1980s, Wendy Greuel was at a crossroads. In one direction was the family building supply company housed in a dusty North Hollywood warehouse. The other way, a career at Los Angeles City Hall in Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration beckoned.
Bright, young and ambitious, Greuel had balanced duties on the high school cheerleading squad and as student body president with part-time work at Frontier Building Supply — where she kept the books, drove a forklift and answered the phone that sometimes rang for her mother’s side business, the White Lace Inn.
The 17-year-old Greuel, raised a Republican, was star-struck when she first met the Democratic mayor during a youth leadership ceremony atop City Hall. “Here was this 6-foot-5 inspirational leader,” she said, “and as I’ve jokingly said, I fell in love that day.”
When Bradley handed her an award, her course was set. Over the next decade, she would join a group of young aides who drove the five-term mayor’s agenda, from the inspiring run-up to the 1984 Olympic Games to the difficult rebuilding after the city’s 1992 riots. Her portfolio at City Hall — homelessness, housing, child care and AIDS — took the young UCLA graduate from the conservative enclaves of the Valley into the most destitute corners of South and East L.A.
“I used to call her the mayor of hopeless causes,” former Bradley Deputy Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said. “She had all the really tough, intractable issues … and she dove in.”
Now a leading contender to follow her political hero to City Hall’s top office, Greuel says she learned from Bradley the skills the job demands: a tireless work ethic, an ability to glide between city factions and a relentless focus on basic city services.
“What I really learned from all of those years was that the details matter,” said Greuel, whose admiration for Bradley’s zeal in reporting potholes led her to style herself as the “pothole queen” when she later represented the San Fernando Valley on the City Council.
But critics contend that as Greuel, currently the city’s controller, raised her political profile she shied away from the imaginative and idealistic projects that were a hallmark of her years in the Bradley administration. Councilman Richard Alarcon, who worked with Greuel in Bradley’s office, said he endorsed Greuel’s chief rival, Eric Garcetti, after watching her gravitate toward politically safe initiatives.
“When Wendy was with Mayor Bradley, it was all about action — all about creating projects, ideas, L.A.’s Best,” Alarcon said, alluding to the acclaimed after-school program that has now expanded to more than 150 Los Angeles schools. “We were doing a lot more than filling potholes.”
Greuel says Bradley inspired her “passion to fight for social justice” and to stand up for the most vulnerable. But some saw her City Council focus as tending toward the more narrow — modernizing parking meters and synchronizing traffic signals.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, the former police chief who is supporting Greuel’s rival Jan Perry, said that Bradley created the downtown skyline, rebuilt the airport and brought the Olympics to L.A.
“He had a variety of legacies — most of them were big-picture ideas,” Parks said. “In Wendy’s era on the council…it was more of the mechanics of dealing with transportation and potholes.”
In the early years however, Greuel’s drive on those social issues was unquestioned.
Olivia Mitchell, Greuel’s first boss in Bradley’s youth development office, described Greuel as the ultimate “go-getter.” At night, Greuel volunteered to be Mitchell’s driver, ferrying her boss to community gatherings, prisoner probation meetings and continuation high schools in her brown Camaro.
“She wanted to know everything I knew and the people I knew,” Mitchell said. Later, colleagues would tease her about being willing to “go to the opening of an envelope,” Greuel said.
Former Bradley aide Donna Bojarsky said Greuel sought out “high-value, low-glamour” assignments. She also cultivated long-term political relationships that have helped her stack up endorsements in the current race.
Fellow Bradley aide Kerman Maddox noted that she was the one staffer who went to every group’s party.
“We’re talking 1980s Los Angeles, a tough, gritty, racially-balkanized city,” Maddox said. “We’d tease her: ‘How many white girls are hanging out in South L.A? It’s just you.’ But that’s her.... She could move from camp to camp, faction to faction, because she got along with everyone.”
Greuel was tasked with developing programs to deal with the city’s burgeoning homeless population, which was threatening Bradley’s drive to redevelop downtown’s Bunker Hill. Greuel was in the thick of the issue when tensions grew over a proliferation of urban encampments, including the much-publicized “Justiceville.”
Ted Hayes, Justiceville’s leader and an advocate for the homeless, recalled that he and Bradley were at sharp odds because “I ran like a buzz saw right smack dab into his plans.” Greuel began showing up at the camp, wandering among the plywood and cardboard structures in her prim navy suits.
When Greuel first sat down at the Justiceville campfire to talk policy, Hayes was taken aback. “She was this little pup — this blue-eyed, blond-haired chick walking into danger,” said Hayes, who is neutral in the mayor’s race. “She showed no fear, no intimidation. She gave me the time to explain what it was I was trying to do.”
In the competition for city dollars, Greuel also honed strategies to win the boss’ attention for her proposals. Bradley had a routine of arriving at his desk early Saturday morning to catch up on memos, so Greuel often left the office last on Friday night, so she could slip her memo on the top of the stack. “Wendy, you will never, ever get married,” a city janitor told her one of those evenings. “The only people you’re meeting are the janitors here, and we’re either married or old.”
On issues like the AIDS crisis, she and Bradley were on the same learning curve. Bradley once asked Greuel to explain why distribution of bleach and condoms was needed to combat the sexually transmitted disease. To her relief, the discussion ended with the bleach, which was used to sterilize needles.
“He tested her, they would have debates, but he gave her an incredible amount of responsibility,” said Bill Chandler, a Bradley press secretary.
A rare confrontation between Bradley and Greuel came when she and other aides were verbally reprimanded for assisting then-City Council candidate Rita Walters at City Hall. Greuel said she had merely briefed Walters, a school board member, at 7:15 a.m. in her office — a courtesy she said she would have extended to any city constituent.
Still, a rival, former talk show host Kevin James, has charged the Walters incident reflects a pattern. The city controller’s recent calendars, James alleges, “were full of campaign and fundraising activities instead of the people’s work.”
Some also have questioned whether her strong financial backing by the Department of Water and Power union could skew her priorities and compromise her ability to deliver the bold, independent leadership Los Angeles needs. Greuel says she has taken on the DWP and calls the criticism ridiculous.
Whether Greuel set her sights on higher office in those heady, early days at City Hall is in dispute. Several former Bradley staffers say no.
But others like Alarcon said Greuel’s ambition was undeniable. “We would laugh and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if both of us were elected to the City Council in the Valley one day.’” Less than two decades later, Greuel was sworn in as a Valley councilwoman.
Times staff writer Jack Dolan contributed to this report.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.