March 30, 2020

Politics at Canter’s Deli

At 9:45 on a recent Sunday morning, Gil Garcetti stepped into an alcove in the secondary dining room at Canter’s Deli.

“I would’ve gotten here earlier,” the former Los Angeles County District Attorney told a gathering there, “if I hadn’t gone to Nate ’n Al’s first.”

His mistake was understandable. Garcetti, who ordered a pastrami omelet with fruit on the side, came on this day as a surrogate for his son, mayoral candidate and Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti. Had he gone to Nate ’n Al of Beverly Hills around lunchtime the day before, he likely would have found many of the same leading real estate moguls there — Stanley Black, Max Webb and Jona Goldrich, among them. 

But while the members of this longstanding, mostly male group like to break bread together on Saturdays, Canter’s on Sunday is the place to be for local pols looking to raise funds or find allies.

“This is the main one on Sunday,” said Black, the real estate businessman and philanthropist who serves as the group’s organizer. “Saturday we just talk. No business, nothing.”

It’s been going on for about four decades, although in recent years the crowd has changed; some long-standing members died, other new faces, including some women, have joined up. The venue used to be different, too: They met at another deli, Nibblers, until it closed, sometime in the 1990s. 

Over time, they’ve played host to every Los Angeles mayor, going back to Tom Bradley, numerous Southern California Congressmen and too many other elected officials to count. A few months ago, Black brought former Mexican President Vicente Fox to the deli, and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made an appearance at some point, he said. 

But even after all these years, the group’s members — including some of the city’s most prominent real estate businesspeople — downplay the significance of the gathering. 

“Everybody’s looking to get out of the house and to have some companionship, you know?” said Webb, a Holocaust survivor who helped found and grow the largest privately held home building company in Southern California. 

The old-timers around the table treat the weekly gatherings as a chance to kibitz in an old boys club. And for the people who come to pitch — businesspeople, heads of nonprofits and, of course, local politicians — maintaining that informal air is crucial, even when they’re fishing for donations of a thousand dollars or more. 

“I always bring an egg timer, three minutes for soft-boiled eggs,” said Jerry Wexler, a real estate businessman who turns 81 in May and has known Black since high school. “Because some of these people, they could talk for two hours.”

Asked why he comes every week, Wexler said, “I got nowhere else to go. You know what it is? It’s just habit.”

On this day, with the second round of Los Angeles’ citywide election just over three weeks away, “business” at Canter’s was mostly politics. 

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who is running for re-election, dropped by. He made his pitch, and because Wexler had forgotten to bring the egg timer, Trutanich took about 10 minutes to argue that his opponent, former California Assemblyman Mike Feuer — who has also made appearances at Canter’s — lacks the experience necessary to run the city attorney’s office. 

Although Trutanich didn’t ask for funds, the men know well why candidates show up, week in, week out. According to publicly available documents, Black already has given $6,900 to candidates running for citywide offices in this 2013 election cycle, not counting  his donations on Sunday — and even before Gil Garcetti asked for donations to his son’s campaign, Black was already pulling a silver American Express card out of his wallet. Webb, who also pledged on Sunday to give to Eric Garcetti’s campaign, had already given $1,500 to other candidates running this year.

But Garcetti pushed for something more, saying he wanted the men around the table to publicly support his son, too. 

“Everyone in this room — I know most of you — your friends, your family pay attention to who you say you’re going to vote for,” Garcetti said. “The important thing is to get them to vote.” 

From the looks of it, these men weren’t offering endorsements. 

Black said he’d also given to Garcetti’s opponent, City Controller Wendy Greuel, who has made multiple trips to meet the men at Canter’s over the years. 

Goldrich, a real estate developer who has donated $3,900 to candidates this cycle, including $1,300 to Greuel, seemed still to be gauging the state of the race. 

“Who’s ahead?” he asked, in Hebrew, to the man sitting next to him. 

“His [Garcetti’s] son is,” came the reply, also in Hebrew. “Ten percent.” 

The walls at Canter’s are mostly dotted with news articles about the deli, but above the banquettes where the men sit every Sunday hang two framed photographs of the group. One, which dates back at least five years, is labeled “The Problem Solvers,” with each one’s name printed above his face. Black stands at the center of both pictures. 

“This one used to be labeled ‘The Beverly Hills Bulls— Club,’ ” Canter’s manager Jacqueline Canter said on Monday afternoon, pointing to the more recent of the two photographs. She represents the third generation to be involved in the deli, and she’s known Black since she was 5. 

She pointed out that her uncle, real estate investor Stanley Diller, is also in each photograph; he was a member until he died in January 2012. 

“It’s very sad to see some of them are passing away, but they all still get together and shmooze,” Canter said. 

Occasionally, there’s a bit of showmanship to the gatherings, as in the case of the former Mexican president’s visit. On that day, Black hired an accordionist to play Jewish and Mexican songs.

“Vicente Fox is a perfect politician, because he was so friendly to everybody,” Canter said. 

The deli’s employees, about half of whom are Latino, were particularly excited by Fox’s appearance. 

“For them, it was like royalty, it was like the Kennedys were here,” Canter said. “They were all coming out of the kitchen, taking pictures with Vicente Fox.”

But as exciting as Fox’s visit was, Morry Waksberg, who has only been part of the gatherings for three or four years, said for him it’s the uneventful Sundays that make the group so special. At 66, Waksberg is one of the younger members. At 8:30 every Sunday, he picks up Webb, 96, to take him to the deli. 

“We really care about one another on a personal level,” Waksberg, an ophthalmologist, said. “And it comes out of consistency.”