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Fight to Remap City Districts Leaves Losers, Winners on Council

September 28, 1986|VICTOR MERINA and RICHARD SIMON | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles City Council's redistricting fight left a legacy of hard feelings in the council chamber, severely damaged the political hopes of Councilman Joel Wachs and cast doubt on the leadership ability of Council President Pat Russell.

For newcomer Richard Alatorre, a tough veteran of the state Legislature who guided the redistricting plan through the council, it was a triumph of his political skills. And for Councilmen John Ferraro and Michael Woo, the final redistricting plan was a reprieve for two men on the road to a political collision.

Those were the apparent winners and losers in the bruising, chaotic redistricting battle which split the council and produced not only new boundaries for most of its 15 districts, but a display of bitterness that still lingers.

"This is the most fractious that I've ever seen the council behave in terms of . . . disunity and bitterness, and I think there is still some bitterness there," said Woo, who has been a councilman for just a year but spent several earlier years dealing with the council as an aide to Senate President Pro Tem David Roberti (D-Los Angeles).

Other council members worry that their fragile public image has been further tarnished. As a body, all were criticized by newspapers and by ethnic and neighborhood groups for putting their own interests first in drawing the lines, rather than giving community concerns top priority.

"I think that as far as public perception is concerned, none of us came out well," said one council member who asked not to be identified. "Everybody got stuck with the smell of the skunk on this."

The bitter struggle over redistricting may not be over yet. Councilman Ernani Bernardi is preparing an initiative drive to repeal the redistricting plan. Bernardi and Wachs also are exploring legal challenges to the plan, which is already in effect.

Coupled with the pending resignation of Councilman Dave Cunningham and the recent death of Councilman Howard Finn, the remapping furor could reshape council alliances and topple its leadership.

"To me, there is one and only one motivation in the whole (redistricting) thing," Wachs said in a recent interview, "and that was to help out a few people's political fortunes around here."

Wachs' political fortunes suffered the most. He is considered by colleagues, other city officials, lobbyists and others who watch the council to be the biggest loser.

Wachs lost more than 90% of his old district, which included the affluent Sherman Oaks-Studio City area where he enjoyed strong financial and political support. The liberal councilman who has championed gay rights and rent control must run for reelection next April in a largely new, unfamiliar district, which includes conservative Sunland-Tujunga.

According to City Hall sources, the remapping was as much an effort to punish Wachs, strongly disliked by his colleagues, as it was to get the council out of a political predicament brought on by the Justice Department lawsuit seeking increased Latino representation on the council.

Wachs is resented for what critics say is his history of breaking one of the cardinal rules of politics: "When you give your word, you keep it." It also was an opportunity for several council members with mayoral aspirations to hurt a potential rival.

"Joel is getting his comeuppance," said a council member who, like most of Wachs' colleagues, spoke on the condition that he not be named.

Wachs conceded that he is disliked by other council members but said it is because he is "not part of the old-boy network."

Council members who privately are critical of Wachs say two incidents stand out in their minds.

The first was Wachs' vote in 1981 for the council presidency. After pledging his vote to Russell and, in fact, putting it in writing, he voted for himself at the last minute. He won the presidency and left Russell, who would win the job two years later, vowing to never forget what he did.

More recently, Wachs angered a number of his colleagues when suddenly and inexplicably, he withdrew his support for an earlier redistricting plan. That plan, which would have placed Woo in a predominantly Latino council district, was vetoed by Mayor Tom Bradley.

Alatorre, who drafted the plan, was furious at Wachs, who Alatorre said had promised to support it.

'Really Angry'

"Alatorre told me that day he was really angry, that I let him down," Wachs said. "He told me that he wasn't going to forget it." Alatorre and Wachs have not exchanged words outside of the council chamber since the July incident, say sources close to both councilmen.

Wachs has never explained why he changed his vote. Sources close to Wachs say he feared that Woo would run against him in his new district, which under the earlier plan gave Wachs much of Woo's Hollywood political base.

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