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Laguna gallery owner Peter Blake takes on art of politics as new councilman

Laguna gallery owner Peter Blake takes on art of politics as new councilman
Peter Blake, owner of Peter Blake Gallery, is a new member of the Laguna Beach City Council. (Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

If Peter Blake hadn’t been getting sworn in to the Laguna Beach City Council on Dec. 4, he would have been exhibiting art. His Peter Blake Gallery was opening an exhibit that night at Design Miami/, a high-end design fair in Florida that showcases artists from around the world.

Showing off his re-created design of Walt Disney’s animation studio would have been more Blake’s forte. But he appeared smiling before a packed audience in the council chamber, sporting a tie, a black suit and his signature thick-rimmed glasses.

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Politics is a new art form for him.

“The first vote I ever cast was for myself,” he said.

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Blake, 54, received 4,881 votes in the Nov. 6 council election, more than the two other winners — six-term incumbent Toni Iseman and former planning commissioner Sue Kempf — surprising even himself.

“I didn’t think I would win,” he said. “My personality isn’t one that can be constricted or confined. A lot of people that knew me well and knew what the job entailed all said the same thing: ‘Your temperament is all wrong.’”

After he announced his candidacy, Blake received a torrent of both support and animosity from around the city in what he called the “ugliest campaign.” Residents took to social media to rail against him and other candidates.

For nearly every negative comment directed at him, Blake fired back. He eventually was kicked off Nextdoor, a social networking service for neighborhoods.

“When they go low, I go lower,” he said.

Blake pitted himself against Village Laguna, a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving the city’s historic buildings and downtown. The group endorsed Iseman and Ann Christoph for council.

“I think the biggest mistake the council is making … is allowing the small group called Village Laguna to put a stranglehold on our village for the last two decades,” Blake said at a Village Laguna-sponsored candidates forum in September.

Johanna Felder, president of Village Laguna’s board of directors, said Thursday that the organization has never controlled the City Council or city employees. She noted that of the group’s endorsed council candidates, only Iseman won.

“He’s ignorant about Village Laguna,” Felder said of Blake. “What he says, it’s not true.”

A new political action committee, Liberate Laguna, endorsed Blake and Kempf and poured more than $12,000 into each of their campaigns, according to disclosure statements.

In November, Village Laguna said that “in supporting Blake’s candidacy, [Liberate Laguna] has encouraged the incivility in politics that is now so common at the national level.”

At the Dec. 4 council meeting, the first for the reconfigured panel , Iseman said its priority should be to “heal this community.”

“I’ve never seen it so fragmented and I’ve never known so much anger,” she said.

Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake is sworn in with fellow November election winners Toni Iseman, left, and Sue Kempf on Dec. 4.
Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake is sworn in with fellow November election winners Toni Iseman, left, and Sue Kempf on Dec. 4. (Photo by Faith E. Pinho)

Issues

Blake made decreasing homelessness and reforming the city Design Review Board two of his major campaign issues.

He advocated repurposing the nearly $400,000 the city allocates annually to the Alternative Sleeping Location and Friendship Shelter to build housing for the homeless elsewhere.

“I’m a total NIMBY, unapologetically,” Blake said. “We’re not helping any of these people. We’re done facilitating their nightmare lives. … Don’t come to Laguna Beach.”

He called the Design Review Board “insufferable” and said he wanted to create new design standards for the board to follow so its members would have less discretionary power. He also said he wanted to implement term limits for board members.

To alleviate downtown Laguna’s parking issues, Blake suggested adding more shuttles and signage.

History

Blake calls Laguna — his home the past 31 years — his “beloved hometown.” But he actually grew up dreaming of California from Long Island, N.Y.

In 1987, he visited the West Coast for a short trip.

“But I got here and within a matter of hours knew that I would never leave again,” he said. “Laguna Beach could be the greatest place in the world.”

He began waiting tables at the Italian restaurant Romeo Cucina. In 1993, he opened his art gallery on Ocean Avenue but continued to serve at Romeo Cucina for five years until the gallery could break even.

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In 2001, he opened the clothing store Fetneh Blake on North Coast Highway with his then-wife.

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Blake — who pays $1,850 a month to rent a one-bedroom apartment, and leases a Toyota Prius — has spent much of his time the past few years buying and selling minimalist art at auctions around the world.

The idea to run for City Council ignited in the spring, when he saw mainly local political veterans eyeing the election.

“Nothing spoke more of the same old status quo than Toni Iseman and [then-Mayor Pro Tem] Rob Zur Schmiede,” Blake said. Zur Schmiede began a bid for a second council term but dropped out in September to care for his brother, who was injured in a car accident in June.

“It sounded to me like, oh wow, not only are we not going to have any changes, but we’re going to hunker down,” Blake added. “I just felt like we were moving into a direction that it just wasn’t fresh. It wasn’t fun anymore. We were losing the soul in Laguna.”

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