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Army of Young Leftist Activists, Loyal Elderly Tenants Make Up W. Hollywood's Coalition for Economic Survival : Fringe Group Takes Over Center Stage

March 30, 1986|STEPHEN BRAUN | Times Staff Writer

In the trunk of his battered 10-year-old Ford sedan, Larry Gross stores half a dozen scarred yellow folding chairs. The chairs, strewn among volleyballs, softball equipment and long-discarded papers, are essential equipment for a man who spends much of his life arranging and attending meetings.

Gross is a professional organizer, a man whose career is measured in meetings. He sets up his chairs everywhere in the tiny city of West Hollywood, in the dingy church office where he works, in the clean, well-lighted offices of City Hall, in cramped apartment common rooms and in sparsely furnished election headquarters.

What he accomplishes at those meetings often has immediate impact on the fortunes of the 16-month-old city. With the aid of a small band of young leftist activists and a loyal army of elderly Jewish tenants, Gross has built a potent grass-roots version of a political machine and become the city's most commanding power broker.

Formidable Power Bloc

In the process, his Coalition for Economic Survival has transformed itself from a Los Angeles-based fringe pressure group with limited successes in rent control and street demonstrations into West Hollywood's most formidable power bloc. No other organized group in the city wields as much influence or inflames as much controversy.

The coalition and its supporters have elected two of the city's five council members--both of whom face reelection on April 8--and are priming for a third. Some of its volunteer members have wangled key appointments to the city's commissions. Others have been hired in policy-making posts in the city's fledgling bureaucracy.

"West Hollywood is (the coalition's) oil gusher," said Ron Stone, who led the city's incorporation movement. "They've dug holes all over Los Angeles, but they never struck deep until they came to West Hollywood. They worked hard here and they deserve the rewards."

The coalition's primacy has alienated many of those who are accustomed to holding power. Landlords are roused to fury by the mere mention of Larry Gross' name. Businessmen worry that the coalition's continuing dominance will cost them profits. Rival politicians are jealous of the group's clout. Even some council members seethe privately at the coalition's refusal to compromise on minor political issues.

"CES is run by a very small group of people," said Tony Melia, an insurance man who chairs a faction of moderate businessmen challenging the coalition for political supremacy in the April election. "They are a mystery to us all."

Grist for Criticism

Nearly every move that the 34-year-old Gross makes as director of his coalition becomes instant grist for criticism: Passing folded notes to Mayor John Heilman and Councilwoman Helen Albert (both coalition members), Gross is accused of controlling their votes. Taping a flag over his office desk, he is branded a Communist (Gross described the flag, which has been taken down, as a United Farm Workers banner; his enemies say it was a hammer and sickle). Shaving his wispy beard and wearing suits instead of flannel shirts, he is said to be cleaning up his act for public consumption.

"People set me up as the enemy all the time," Gross said. "They do it out of fear and envy. They really don't have the foggiest notion of what CES is all about."

Gross' Hold on Coalition

Their obsession with Gross is hardly unwarranted. About 13 years after he founded the coalition with a group of peace activists and leftist leaders, Gross is the only original member left. Organizers and volunteers have come and gone, leaving because of "activist burnout," because they needed a better-paying job or because of personal or philosophical conflicts. But Gross remains.

Although ostensibly a democratic organization, the coalition has remained securely in Gross' control. His partisans say he is central to CES because of his natural leadership abilities; former members and enemies attribute his endurance to Machiavellian political cunning. But in the end, many who have watched Gross say he remains in control of the coalition because he simply is the coalition.

"Our success all trickles down from Larry," said Jacqueline Balogh, the coalition's membership director. "Without him, CES wouldn't exist."

Gross is a lean, fox-faced man who has a closet athlete's fascination with competitive sports and a weakness for interrupting his organizing activities to attend Dodger and Laker home games.

He tries to keep his private life shielded from public scrutiny. "I don't like the focus on me," he said in a recent interview. "It's the organization and what it has accomplished that's important."

Friends and former acquaintances say Gross lives in a sparsely furnished rented duplex in Echo Park. Five years ago, he made barely $500 a month at his job. These days, he makes more, but declines to reveal a figure. He still drives his decade-old Ford despite its growing list of automotive maladies.

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