Wanted: More women in Los Angeles City Hall

What Los Angeles City Hall needs is a strong Jewish woman.
May 27, 2015

What Los Angeles City Hall needs is a strong Jewish woman.

Nothing against the three Jewish men who occupy citywide offices — Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer and Controller Ron Galperin. But they’re so quiet, so devoted to working behind the scenes that it’s easy to forget they hold such prominent and influential offices. If a strong Jewish woman were in their place, everyone would know she was there.

It’s true that Garcetti deserves some of the credit for the city’s new $15-an-hour minimum wage law, although the figure approved by the City Council is higher than the $13.25 Garcetti originally sought. Feuer has buried himself in the nuts-and-bolts task of setting up neighborhood branch offices to deal with local problems, such as prostitution and graffiti, as well as trying to enforce the city’s marijuana law. Galperin has taken the lead in the fight to decipher and audit the mysterious education and safety fund maintained by the Department of Water and Power and its powerful employee union.

But in doing these worthwhile tasks, they tend to avoid the spotlight as if it were radioactive. Feuer and Galperin immerse themselves in every detail of public policy, especially Galperin, who personifies the word wonk. It’s hard to write a news story about that. Garcetti is incredibly cautious, a huge contrast to his flamboyant predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Critics thought Villaraigosa was an egomaniac, but he willingly took the heat when trying to reform public education or pushing through public transit projects that were unpopular in many areas. 

Mayor Richard Riordan loved the spotlight, beating up bureaucrats and the Los Angeles Times.  He didn’t mind when people were shocked at times by his off-the-wall comments.

Chutzpah, that’s what they had — and they weren’t even Jewish. Maybe there’s something about being a Jewish guy in the 21st century, some kind of a mindset that makes them more comfortable getting along than raising hell.

A Jewish friend who pays attention to civic matters recently asked me what happened to our Jewish trio of Garcetti, Feuer and Galperin. Why, he wondered, are they so invisible most of the time?

That’s when I started thinking about strong Jewish women in City Hall, particularly Laura Chick, who was a member of the City Council, representing District 3 in the San Fernando Valley from 1993 to 2001, and, more famously, city controller for eight years, beginning in 2001.

I called her in Berkeley, where she now lives, helping to care for a 3-year-old granddaughter, while engaging in various civic activities and enjoying the view of three bridges on the San Francisco Bay from her Kensington home.

“Kick some butt,” she said was her goal as controller, “shaking up the status quo.”

And she did, unconcerned about getting along with the City Hall establishment.  Her audits were important, frequent and hard hitting, and her blunt style made it impossible for the media to ignore them. She found out that the Los Angeles Police Department had a backlog of thousands of DNA rape kits. She exposed a planning department locked in the past, crippled by outdated practices. She blasted an ineffective housing department.

In 2003, Chick appointed me to a five-year term on the city ethics commission, which supervises enforcement of campaign contributions and conflict-of-interest law. “Raise hell,” she told me then. When I talked to her recently, she said, “I wanted you to go in there and shake things up. I knew you weren’t there for window dressing.

“If you are always trying to get along, nothing changes,” she said. “You settle down and settle in, and the problems persist. It’s like a big ‘kumbaya,’ but under the surface, it’s not so good.”

That’s not Chick’s idea of what a strong Jewish woman should be. “For me and all the strong Jewish women, life is full of problems and therefore life is all about solving problems,” she said. “The strong Jewish women I know solve problems. They confront them.”

I’m focusing more on citywide elected officials, but there is a tradition of such Jewish women on the City Council as well. The first was Rosalind Wyman, who was elected to the City Council as a young woman and became a power there. Among the others were Joy Picus, Chick’s predecessor on the council, from 1977 to 1993, an influential lawmaker, who even took on then-powerful police Chief Daryl Gates. Jackie Goldberg, also on the council, representing Hollywood from 1994 to 2000, was a strong fighter for liberal causes who didn’t take guff from anybody, even reporters such as me.

Now City Hall is almost without elected women; the one is Councilwoman Nury Martinez, who represents eastern portions of the San Fernando Valley. Women, with few exceptions, tend to avoid city campaigns, Chick said. “Women are very pragmatic,” she said, “They take a look at what happens at City Hall and don’t like the game.”

After we talked, I thought back to when I started covering the City Council, at a time when there were several powerful female members, Jewish and non-Jewish.  I thought of the strong women I know, African-American, Latino, Jewish, WASP, Asian-American — and one who could be classified as doubly strong, Jan Perry, an African-American-Jewish woman who served on the City Council and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the last election.

I could see that the premise of this column opens itself up to argument. I started writing about Jewish women because this is the Jewish Journal, and I was dealing with the shortcomings of Jewish men.

I should have said that City Hall needs more strong women, period.

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

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