Rent control activists scored their most decisive victory yet in West Hollywood as Planning Commissioner Abbe Land won a City Council seat by a landslide Tuesday over millionaire discotheque owner Gene La Pietra.
Land's impressive vote margin of more than 2 to 1 over La Pietra ended a gay majority on the five-member council and confirmed the enduring political clout of the Coalition for Economic Survival, the tenant activist group that has now elected three of its members to the council.
With all the city's 33 precincts reporting, final unofficial tallies showed Land with 7,807 (62.1%) votes to La Pietra's 3,095 (24.6%). A third candidate, furniture dealer Stephen Michael, finished with 1,669 votes (13.3%) and may have cut slightly into La Pietra's narrow base of support.
One Vacant Seat
The three were the only candidates in the special election to fill the council seat left vacant by Valerie Terrigno, who resigned in May after her conviction on federal embezzlement charges.
Land and her ecstatic campaign supporters pointed to her victory as evidence that their tenant coalition has achieved broad-based support, making significant inroads into West Hollywood's large homosexual community and its smaller, conservative homeowner base.
"This shows that people in this community realize that there may be certain differences between us, but we can all band together," Land said, hoisting a glass brimming with champagne. "There is not such a sharp division between CES (the coalition) and the rest of the community."
Campaign managers Parke Skelton and Barbara Grover said the sheer size of Land's victory was a strong indication that she was well-received in every sector of the city, even in the gay community, which La Pietra had counted on as a core of voting strength.
"My guess is that we pulled more than half of the gay votes," Skelton said. "The results mirror our own voter preferencing (polling), and our preferencing told us that we were picking up at least half the votes among single men in West Hollywood."
La Pietra and his partisans insisted that the scale of Land's victory could only be attributed to her continued emphasis on disclosures about his past state and federal pornography convictions. Land disclosed midway through the race that La Pietra was convicted on a 1971 state misdemeanor charge. The Times subsequently reported that he also had been convicted on a federal felony charge. In both cases, La Pietra was convicted for selling obscene materials.
'A Positive Campaign'
"Her dominant theme all along was to run a negative campaign against me," La Pietra said angrily as the vote totals began trickling in. "I ran a positive campaign based on real issues."
"If CES thinks this is some kind of mandate, they're dead wrong," said Rick Taylor, La Pietra's campaign manager. "The prime issue was Gene's past. CES is still vulnerable to the right campaign and the right issues."
La Pietra, a gay leader and fund-raiser who had hoped to trade on that reputation during the campaign, acknowledged Wednesday that Land had "obviously made some kind of a showing" in the gay community. He surmised that she had sliced into his support among homosexual voters because gay leaders failed to unite behind him.
"I learned who was there when I needed them, and who wasn't," La Pietra said. "There was not total unity for me, that's for sure."
Supported by Mayor
La Pietra was supported by one of the council's two gay members, Mayor Stephen Schulte. Land was backed by gay Councilman John Heilman, also a coalition member, Helen Albert, another coalition member, and Alan Viterbi, an independent councilman who has maintained close ties with the coalition.
Since Terrigno resigned, the council had seemed in danger of losing its largely symbolic gay majority, which brought West Hollywood international attention when it incorporated two years ago. Land said gay issues and social service projects would not suffer because there were no longer three homosexual council members.
"The council is already aligned on rent control and on gay issues," she said. "I don't see any major changes in direction."
Larry Gross, controversial director of the tenant coalition, said he could foresee some "fine-tuning" of the city's rent control law, but expects no other major changes. "This is a mandate for the council to continue toward creating a progressive government that's strong on rent control, sensitive to development issues and committed to giving people a say."
Third Coalition Victory
Gross noted that this was the third election won handily by coalition candidates, adding that the latest victory validates "the power of grass-roots politics over big-money interests."
La Pietra spent nearly $300,000 on the race, in contrast to Land's expected $50,000 in expenses. In the last week of the campaign, La Pietra and Land both distributed thousands of political mailers and postcards.