Jack McGrath, write-in candidate for the City Council, is a restless man.
He is forever pacing, puffing cigarettes and fidgeting with the frames on his wire-rimmed glasses as he plots political strategy for his campaign against his former boss and pal, Los Angeles City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky.
Write-in candidates rarely garner more than a fraction of the vote, but McGrath has some big ideas. First he dropped his last name and recast himself as "Jack." Why burden people with two names when one will do?
Then he took to the streets with the message that people power is back. "I love people in the streets," he proclaimed.
He found one such street person, a wayward Catholic priest living in a park who hit him up for a few bucks, and anointed him as his North Hollywood coordinator. McGrath may not have a prayer, but at least he has a priest.
Grocery Store Bag
And he set out in search of a campaign theme and found it on the side of a grocery store bag. "The Ralphs bags say change is for the better," McGrath said. "I bought 200 of them. The power of that message is very strong."
What happens next is anyone's guess. But the "Jack for City Council" campaign is sure to be anything but dull since the candidate is McGrath, a veteran campaign consultant who possesses an Irish ward heeler's flair for political showmanship.
The paunchy but boyishly handsome McGrath has already delivered a case of Russian vodka and some pine saplings to the Bel-Air home of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, two of the 5th District's newest arrivals. McGrath also invited the former First Couple to call if they have any problems, such as potholes.
More recently he stood outside Yaroslavsky's City Hall office and brazenly accused the councilman of financial shenanigans. McGrath holds Yaroslavsky responsible for traffic congestion, intense commercial growth, the parking shortage and just about everything else that's wrong with Los Angeles.
Yaroslavsky has deftly deflected the charges leveled by his former council chief deputy so far, but professes to be genuinely mystified by McGrath's sudden emergence as a political foe. "I don't have much to say about it because I have no idea why he's running," Yaroslavsky said recently.
Others who are close to both men also question what's motivating McGrath.
"It's a disastrous move," said one confidant who asked to remain anonymous. "There's no rational basis for what Jack is doing here."
"People are worried about him," said another who also spoke anonymously. "A lot of his friends don't want to have anything to do with him anymore."
McGrath, 43, who decided to run as a write-in candidate after he failed to collect the 500 signatures needed to formally qualify for the ballot, says he's aware of his friends' concerns. But in dismissing them he is fond of invoking the name of one of his heroes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I'm reaching for the promised land," McGrath said recently. "And I'm not afraid to die politically. If I die politically, my life still goes on. But if I don't die, that means that I get to serve my constituency."
People who have worked with him over the years say such hyperbole is typical of McGrath, who was once described as the merry prankster of municipal politics. The North Hollywood resident is credited with adding spark to the campaigns of clients such as Yaroslavsky and state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) in the 1970s. And last November he helped mount a highly successful reelection bid on behalf of Santa Monica City Councilman Herb Katz.
Right From Wrong
But he also has a reputation for recklessness.
In 1981, while serving as campaign manager for city attorney candidate Bob Ronka, McGrath was involved in the making of a television commercial linking Ronka's opponent, Ira Reiner, to convicted murderer Charles Manson. McGrath resigned under pressure after the spot was roundly denounced.
McGrath also got into hot water with Yaroslavsky around that time for using the councilman's name to promote a real estate venture. People who have worked with McGrath say he often has a hard time distinguishing right from wrong.
"If you don't help Jack, he will get into trouble," said one political consultant who asked not to be named. "He has a tendency to step into it."
"He has always been one of the most creative people around," said another. "He just pops with ideas. But he often loses his judgment."
Many see McGrath's decision to run as a perfect illustration of that point. At the outset of the campaign season, when Yaroslavsky was expecting to run for mayor and others started lining up to succeed him, McGrath signed on as an aide to Steve Saltzman, a veteran political activist from Century City.