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Jan Perry hopes her plain talk will resonate with voters

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Jan Perry lost her downtown L.A. council district because of a feud with council President Herb Wesson.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For would-be Los Angeles Mayor Jan Perry, it was a bittersweet ground breaking last week for a residential high-rise a block from her apartment near Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Dignitaries hailed Perry as a leading force behind downtown’s revival. “She has unbelievable tenacity,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina told invited guests gathered at the vacant building site for a ceremonial shoveling of dirt.

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But there was a poignant, unspoken subtext to the praise. Perry no longer represents the area, or even her own building. Last year, fellow City Council members carved most of downtown out of her district, in the aftermath of a public feud with council President Herb Wesson. Her new district covers a larger expanse of the most impoverished stretches of South L.A.

For Perry, it was a humiliating break with years of linking her political identity to the downtown development boom. The new apartment tower site, like her Bunker Hill home, is now part of Councilman Jose Huizar’s domain.

“He’s got big shoes to fill, following Jan,” Molina told the groundbreaking audience, paying a compliment that highlighted Perry’s loss.

In a city with a powerful council that can easily thwart a mayor’s will, an important question for Perry is how effectively she could work with former colleagues on her governing agenda.

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For nearly all major issues, the mayor must win eight of the council’s 15 votes. Given her history of tension with other members, Perry could face a tougher challenge than some of her mayoral rivals in building council support when she needs it, said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A.

“You absolutely need to play nice,” he said.

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In the campaign, Perry plays up her willingness to speak her mind. She tries to maximize the contrast with her more cautious, top-tier rivals in the March 5 primary, Councilman Eric Garcetti of Silver Lake and City Controller Wendy Greuel of Studio City.

“I don’t calculate what I do in terms of what it will mean for me, long term,” she said in an interview at a coffee house across from the Music Center.

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But even she, in moments of reflection, will acknowledge her plain speaking carries risks. It was her conspicuous refusal to support Wesson’s election as council president, she said, that cost her the coveted Central City business district.

“I like to cut to the chase in my words and my deeds,” Perry said.

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With most of the Los Angeles political establishment split between Greuel and Garcetti, Perry hopes she can project an authenticity that will resonate with voters, and trump her opponents’ money and better-known names.

She starts with a base of black voters, mainly in South L.A. But African Americans normally make up only 15% of the city’s vote, so Perry must build broader support to secure a spot in the May 21 runoff.

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Closest to home, she is competing mostly with Garcetti for Latinos. Perry’s district, just south of downtown, is predominantly Latino. Like Garcetti, who is half Mexican, Perry often speaks Spanish, if less fluently, at public events. At a recent house party for women in Boyle Heights, she passed out cheese-and-jalapeno pastries and fielded questions in Spanish.

Perry is also vying for Jewish support. Raised as a Protestant in the suburbs of Cleveland, she converted to Judaism in the 1980s while earning a master’s degree in public administration at USC. She studied Judaism under Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, now executive director of Hillel at UCLA.

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“I was, like many people at that age, searching for my purpose and a way to make sense of who I was,” she recalled.

“She doesn’t fit in a box,” said Parke Skelton, a campaign consultant who worked on Perry’s council races. “African American, Jewish, pro-business Democrat who’s had her ups and downs with labor — it’s kind of an interesting one-person coalition.”

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A key target for Perry is conservative white voters, especially in the San Fernando Valley, where Greuel and Republican radio talk-show personality Kevin James are tussling for dominance.

At a Northridge breakfast for business owners last week, Perry took credit for thousands of jobs created by L.A. Live and other downtown projects she has promoted with city tax subsidies. Getting Los Angeles growing again and on a sound fiscal footing is her top priority, she tells such groups.

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“If the situation isn’t repaired, clearly we will be deemed insolvent,” she said, not mentioning that she, Garcetti and Greuel, a former council member, approved spending growth that worsened the city’s budget shortfalls.

Richard Leyden, a Northridge insurance broker, told Perry she was “a breath of fresh air” and asked how she managed to get elected in her urban district. “You seem to be opportunity thinking rather than entitlement thinking,” he told her.

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The appearance, and Leyden’s reaction, underscored the dissimilar political terrain Perry is trying to bridge. She looks back on the civil rights movement as a major influence on her politics. Her mother and father both served as the elected mayor of her hometown, Woodmere, Ohio.

“One of the few times in my life when I ever saw my father cry was when Martin Luther King was assassinated,” she said, recalling her fear as a young girl when her parents boarded a bus to join King’s 1963 March on Washington.

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Her father, Samuel S. Perry, was a law partner of Carl B. Stokes, Cleveland’s first black mayor, and his brother, Louis Stokes, a longtime congressman. Her mother, Bettie Perry, was a social worker who, for a time, played organ at an ice skating rink.

Racial discrimination was central to Perry’s upbringing and the era. Some whites in Cleveland’s suburbs were resisting black integration in their neighborhoods. She remembers screaming at the sight of a cross burning on the lawn of her family’s ranch house in Woodmere. Her mother still keeps remnants of the cross in her garage, she says.

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At school, racial epithets were a daily source of pain. On a road trip across upstate New York in the mid-1960s, Perry recalled, her mother, trying to avoid trouble, insisted she use a pot in the car to go to the bathroom. A few years later, when her father was mayor, Perry was riding in his robin’s egg blue Thunderbird when police stopped him and made him put his hands on the hood. When she got upset, he yelled at her to stay in the car.

“These things affected me very much,” Perry said. She described herself as “a natural fighter, especially if I feel people are being disrespected, or disenfranchised, or disregarded, or marginalized.”

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In her nearly 12 years on the council, Perry has championed new housing and social services for the homeless and mentally ill on skid row, another part of downtown removed from her district.

On occasion, Perry has also stood up to unions, as she did in 2008 when labor allies tried to force the Fresh & Easy market chain to guarantee 30 living-wage jobs in return for city approval of a housing and retail project in a Historic South-Central area that needed a grocery store.

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“This puts the project in serious jeopardy,” Perry wrote in a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Perry has also backed tying tax breaks for big downtown projects to developer funding for low-income housing in South L.A., such as the Dunbar Hotel restoration in the Central Avenue jazz district. “But for Jan Perry, none of this would be happening,” Dunbar developer Andrew Gross said last week as he toured the building with Perry.

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Perry laments the loss of the lion’s share of downtown — she kept only Staples Center and L.A. Live — from her district, saying that she became adept at “leveraging” the city center’s economic renaissance to help rebuild poor neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway.

She grows uncharacteristically circumspect in discussing details of her spat with Wesson, apart from complaining that the former state Assembly speaker has infected City Hall with the “transactional” customs of Sacramento. Wesson declined to comment.

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As the new council district borders were coming up for final approval last year, Perry in a public council session apologized to Wesson for not supporting him.

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so direct,” she said. “But if I had known then what I know now, I would have kept my mouth shut so that my district would not be sacrificed.”

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But as mayor, Perry said in the recent interview, she would be direct and independent, come what may.

“You only pass this way once,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you say what you think?”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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