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L.A. City Council President : Pat Russell--Her Image Shifts From Odd to Sleek

January 06, 1985|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Staff Writer

Pat Russell was looking for her eel, the most reclusive and the most prized inhabitant of the large saltwater aquarium in her living room.

"He is not one to show off in public," said Russell, "but he's worth seeing if you can find him."

There was a time, before she was elected president of the Los Angeles City Council, when Russell showed off more in public, when she wore muumuus to work along with earrings shaped like watermelons, when she quoted Chinese philosophers, made no secret of the personal flotation tank she owned, and once missed a council meeting in order to attend a wilderness retreat sponsored by est. (Standing for Erhard Seminars Training, est was a prototype for the 1970s human potential movement.)

These days, the highest-ranking member of the Los Angeles City Council bears little resemblance to the woman in the funny earrings. She has replaced her flotation tank with a home computer. She said she is no longer associated with est. Her redecorated office, with its neoclassical stone end tables, is easily the sleekest in City Hall.

Usually dressed in a suit, Russell presents a tailored, stylish appearance and a politely distant manner that has been described as both presidential and imperious. Her demeanor, her ties to Mayor Tom Bradley, her desire to succeed him someday and her recent voting record, favoring commercial over consumer interests, have led people to look at Russell more closely than ever before.

"You get the feeling that Pat Russell has had a long talk with herself about what it is to look and act like a leader," said a colleague on the council who considers himself a friend.

"I think she's a lot tougher, a lot more pragmatic and a lot more ambitious," said another colleague, Councilman Marvin Braude, who supported Russell for the council presidency but who has disagreed with her recently on a number of issues.

Russell, who is 61, said she has made no effort to change her style, and she said she is not worried about how she is perceived as long as she is seen and heard amid the clamor of her more raucous male colleagues.

Russell, who has been a member of the council since 1970 and president since July, 1983, says that she is at her best behind the scenes. It is a view shared by others on the council.

Reputation for Leadership

In meetings, rarely attended by reporters, on subjects such as mass transit, building densities and water quality, Russell, colleagues say, has developed a reputation for knowledgeable, if less than charismatic, leadership.

It is a reputation that she brought to the council as a former president of the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Women Voters and that she hopes will propel her someday into the mayor's office.

"My view is that I'm something of a pioneer in being a woman who does not have a male aggressive style, but a style which is more female, a style of building a team," she said during a recent interview.

"All my life I have been low tension, low key. I don't go out stomping around and having tantrums and making excuses for what I do. I get the job done, and I think that has been a hallmark of mine."

Russell is especially inclined to stress her role behind the scenes these days, after a power play involving rent control, one of the city's more volatile issues, backfired in public. The incident drew rebukes from her friends, raised questions about her independence from local real estate lobbyists, and, for the first time in her term as council president, aroused speculation about her vulnerability.

Term to End in July

Russell's first term as president expires in July.

Russell got in trouble by trying to cripple a rent-control study the council had authorized and which she previously had supported. To many of her colleagues, the move, which failed, smacked of collusion by a group of influential landlords who had Russell's ear. The harshest criticism came from Russell's staunchest political ally, Councilwoman Joy Picus.

"It was an attempted manipulation of the council which backfired and made us look stupid," Picus said.

The rent-control incident, combined with several other controversial stands by Russell, put her on stage in the kind of "aggressive" role she so pointedly eschews.

It caused people to wonder about what she was up to. Was she shedding her image as the quiet guardian of good government for something flashier?

"I think Pat has gotten a little more political," said a veteran City Hall lobbyist in assessing actions by Russell that aroused, at least temporarily, the ire of homeowner and environmental groups.

Russell was elected council president with the help of a group of council members who are generally liberal and generally sympathetic to the mayor.

But some of those members have been hard pressed to explain Russell's recent stands favoring oil drilling in Pacific Palisades, opposing limits on high-rise buildings in Westwood, weakening a smoking ordinance and tampering with rent control.

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