When Larry Blackaller went out gathering signatures to protest a plan by Loyola Marymount University to develop a pristine section of the Westchester bluffs, he heard a common refrain from his neighbors: "I thought Ruth Galanter was supposed to slow down growth."
Blackaller's conservative, middle-class Westchester neighborhood was one that four years ago deserted longtime incumbent Pat Russell for Galanter, helping her ride into office as the city councilwoman from Los Angeles' 6th District on a wave of anti-development sentiment.
Now as Galanter seeks reelection against six challengers, her own development record is on display. A part of that record is a numbers game, a square-footage derby, with debates on the esoterica of traffic mitigation and trip generations on projects yet to break ground.
At least as important, however, are voters' perceptions of what Galanter has done. Shadowing the incumbent through the campaign are the unfulfilled expectations of constituents, like Blackaller's neighbors, who, reasonably or not, expected her to turn back the onslaught of development in Westchester, Venice and other parts of the district.
They are looking for a representative who will stand up with them to fight against a project close to their homes, looking for someone to do something about the steadily worsening traffic they are obliged to fight every day.
In terms of name recognition and fund-raising, Galanter's chief opponents in the April 9 primary are Mary Lee Gray, on leave from her job as deputy to county Supervisor Deane Dana, and Tavis Smiley, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley. While quick to assail Galanter, neither has staked out a more restrictive development policy than the incumbent's. The other challengers are: Salvatore Grammatico, J. Wilson Bowman, Charles A. Mattison and Mervin Evans.
What the candidates and others have criticized is not what Galanter espouses but what she has actually done. At times, in the opinion of critics, Galanter has appeared to be more of a deal-maker than a crusader, willing to trade her approval on large projects for community amenities paid for by the developer.
"As far as I can tell she's a great friend to great big developers," said Diana Hobson, a former member of Galanter's Venice community planning committee.
While Galanter's critics contend she has evolved in four years from a grass-roots developer-bashing activist into a business-as-usual downtown politician, the councilwoman and her supporters insist that she has not changed--that she has always stood for working within the system for managed growth, not none at all.
"The people who think she's deceived them don't, and never, understood who she was and what she was saying and what she intended to do in office," said longtime Venice activist Moe Stavnezer.
Los Angeles Planning Commissioner William Christopher noted that Galanter is in the unenviable position of trying to prove a negative. "What she has accomplished you don't see out there. It just doesn't get built," he said.
Christopher and two fellow commissioners, Ted Stein and William Luddy, praise Galanter, a professional planner before entering pol itics, for her planning acumen and reasonable approach. The three commissioners, part of a five-member panel that sets city planning policy and votes on projects, have contributed to Galanter's campaign.
And, finally, Galanter herself: "It's hard work cutting back development. You can't just say no. There is this impediment called the U.S. Constitution," she said, referring to the rights of property owners to build on their land.
Thus, the candidate who four years ago repeatedly noted that people were fed up with suddenly finding tall buildings in their neighborhood now says, "Development is inevitable." Galanter said she has sought to contain it with interim control ordinances covering about 45% of the district. These temporary measures serve to bridle growth until permanent zoning plans can be enacted.
The new plans will supplant now-outdated guidelines from the days when all development was considered positive. But given the understaffing of the Planning Department and the glacial pace of the process, Galanter said her vision has not been realized.
Because her long-range efforts, such as the Venice Local Coastal Plan, are incomplete, Galanter has adopted what might be called an "it could have been worse" strategy to show what she has accomplished.
Ask Galanter, for example, about the big Channel Gateway project that she supported--more than 500 condominiums in two 16-story towers, 544 apartments, and an office and retail complex at an already clogged section of Lincoln Boulevard near Marina del Rey--and she will say that it was zoned by her predecessor for a regional shopping center that "could have been worse."