A Different Kind of Fighter for 5th District

L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz hustled into his fourth-floor office suite followed by two aides, just after he finished a long council session. I followed him into a back office to interview this City Hall newcomer, the latest person to represent the difficult 5th District.

He is a friendly man with a soft voice and a relaxed — for a politician — manner, a contrast to his predecessor, the edgy Jack Weiss, famous for taking no lip from constituents who objected to his actions. Koretz seems as though he’ll listen patiently like a sympathetic sales person.

It remains to be seen whether this satisfies the 5th District, home of the most aggressive developers, the most militant and sophisticated homeowners groups and some of the worst traffic in Los Angeles.

The district, in the heart of the Jewish community, extends from the Westside into the west San Fernando Valley. It includes development hot spots such as Ventura Boulevard and Century City, now suffering from Great Recession stagnation but expected to come back when the rest of the country does.

In a close race last May, Koretz defeated David Vahedi, a lawyer who emerged from the neighborhood councils. Koretz had climbed up the Westside establishment political ladder, serving on the staffs of former 5th District City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and 11th District City Councilman Marvin Braude. Koretz was a West Hollywood city councilman for six years and served the same amount of time in the state Assembly.

The 5th District includes Encino, Sherman Oaks, Valley Village, Palms, Westwood, Century City, Beverlywood, the Fairfax District, Cheviot Hills and Carthay Circle, as well as hillside communities between the 405 Freeway and Laurel Canyon.

I asked Koretz about issues he’s now confronting that are important to the Jewish community.

“I am someone who tries to do coalition-building,” he said. “This is an issue relevant to the Jewish community. Historically, we may have had closer relationships with the African American community and the Latino community, and I think we need to find issues where we have strong common ground and work together. That is something I have done, particularly in the labor movement.”

Koretz’s father, who worked as a waiter on the Sunset Strip in its restaurant heyday and at the Los Angeles Hilton for 10 years, was a waiters’ union activist. “I’ve been walking picket lines since I’ve been 2,” Koretz said.

Most recently, he was executive director of the liberal Jewish Labor Committee, which works with unions representing teachers and other public employees, supermarket workers, janitors and other elements of the labor movement in Los Angeles. Koretz was arrested in 2006 along with other demonstrators protesting the anti-labor tactics of LAX-area hotels.

That puts him in the mainstream of City Hall power, wielded by a coalition of developers and other businesses and organized labor, particularly the unions representing government and construction workers. Together, the coalition, backed by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a majority of the council, has followed a pro-development agenda that is contrary to the policies advocated by 5th District anti-development homeowner groups.

Koretz said he is on the homeowners’ side. “The council is somewhat sympathetic to the development side of things,” he said.

That’s a wise stand. Almost half of his constituents are homeowners.

“Most residents feel we have allowed development that has outstripped the infrastructure,” he said. “We have to step back and take a look at it.”

Koretz is fighting “tooth and nail” the proposal to tear down the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Century City and replace it with two high-rise buildings.

In the 5th District, controversies over development and traffic are intertwined and bring out the most furious reactions.

For example, take the episode when Mayor Villaraigosa, supported by then-Councilman Weiss, proposed making Olympic and Pico boulevards one-way streets to ease the rush-hour gridlock on the streets.

Merchants, particularly those on Pico Boulevard, protested. A strong objection came from those serving Orthodox Jews shopping on Thursdays to stock up for the Sabbath. The stores that serve them have little parking.

Koretz opposes the plan. With his opposition, and that of council members in neighboring districts, the one-way proposal is pretty well dead.

As we talked, I was struck by Koretz’s bland manner, so different than his recent predecessors. A conversation with Weiss could turn into an argument. The same was true of Yaroslavsky, who added another ingredient: an overwhelming command of detail.

So it was surprising that Koretz had taken on the popular Police Chief William Bratton, joining other council members in favoring freezing the hiring of new police officers for the rest of the year. “Totally naïve,” Bratton said. “What background does he have to make these types of decisions?”

Plenty, Koretz said, citing his service in West Hollywood and as chair of the Assembly’s committee dealing with safety. That didn’t appear to be much experience to me. But Koretz seemed satisfied with it.

What’s most striking about the Koretz-Bratton feud is that Koretz even got into the beef. In talking to him, he doesn’t seem the type. Moderate and even bland on the surface, Koretz may turn out to be a fighter.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed and the author of the just-published book “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).