Culver City Councilman Albert Vera felt out of his element the first time he sat on the unfamiliar council dais and faced a room full of people.
He wasn't up to speed on the issues. He bit back a yelp when he rose for a presentation and jammed his knee into a partition. He whirled around awkwardly searching for the Stars and Stripes during a flag salute. When it was time to cast a vote, he didn't know how to work the buttons.
"I thought, 'Albert, you have to learn fast so you don't make a monkey out of yourself up there,' " he said recently.
Three months after his council debut, Vera, who has replaced his campaign slogan "I'm not a politician" with "I'm still not a politician," feels right at home. Political observers say he is proving to be one of the strongest, most innovative voices coming from the council dais.
Not all of his ideas have been warmly received. His suggestion that city employees take a 5% pay cut to help balance the budget was met with open hostility. People who spoke regularly during council meetings lambasted Vera's suggestion to hold speakers to a three-minute time limit.
But others laud his budding efforts to stimulate business in the cash-strapped city. At his urging, staff is rewriting city purchasing laws to encourage local companies to compete in the bidding process. Vera argued that because 1% of sales tax revenue from local business comes back to the city, bids from local companies should be allowed a 1% edge over outside bids. Public agencies must choose the lowest bidder for a job.
Vera is working on a morale-boosting letter to be sent on official city stationery telling business owners that they are appreciated and that Culver City will "do anything in the world to help them be successful." Buttons that read "Shop in Culver City" will soon be handed out by local merchants, compliments of Vera.
"He's a very original thinker," Culver City Mayor James Boulgarides said.
Many people weren't sure what to expect from their newest council member.
Even Councilman Steven Gourley, a Vera supporter, said Vera won more on "nice guy" popularity than perceived policy-making ability.
As owner of Sorrento Italian Market since 1962, Vera has donated many an assorted-meats luncheon plate to community gatherings. The walls of his office at Sorrento are plastered with service awards from youth sports leagues, religious groups, service clubs and the City of Culver City.
"That was the first question always during campaigning," Vera recalled, "that I would be too generous, that I would give the city away."
Vera, 57, was the top vote-getter in a five-way race for three council seats last April. Incumbents Gourley and Boulgarides came in second and third.
But Vera is dispelling the too-nice-guy image by doing his homework and championing ideas, no matter how unpopular, because he thinks they are best for the city.
"He's surprised me in asking what he's asked," community activist Alfred Friebert said. "I didn't like his suggestions, but I think he'll work out to be a good council member." Friebert disagreed with Vera's idea for a speaker time limit and with his suggestion for an across-the-board staff pay cut.
The big test of Vera's council acumen will be how he handles the Sony Pictures Studios' expansion plan. An environmental impact report on the proposal is scheduled to go before the City Council on Aug. 31. Some of his critics have said they think he will be too soft on Sony.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, parent company of TriStar and Columbia Pictures, wants to consolidate its widespread operating companies at the 44.7-acre studio site at Overland Avenue and Washington Boulevard.
The plan would add nine buildings that exceed the 56-foot height limit passed by voters in 1990. Also proposed are a helipad and a small shopping arcade.
Vera said he would not apply the height limit to the project, in keeping with a city attorney's interpretation of the law. The councilman said he would judge the project on its overall impacts and benefits to the city.
"Height is not the issue," he said. "It's what good or bad the project will bring to the area."
Sitting in an office next to his grocery and wearing a polyester, zip-up work shirt and sturdy black shoes, Vera does not fit the image of a politician.
The citizen-councilman barely spoke English when he came to the United States at 15. He held a variety of jobs: selling ladies' hosiery and cooking utensils and, later, catering. He earned enough to bring his mother over from Italy. In 1963, he married Ursula Vera. They have two sons, Ralph and Albert Jr.
He has a farm in the Central Valley, where he grows five varieties of olives and most of the ingredients that go into his line of Italian food products. Every Tuesday he travels to the farm to check on things. "I'm a farmer at heart," he said.
But he can be found in Culver City in his chock-filled store every other day. Residents seek him out there to engage him in lively discussions on city issues.
Punctuating his speech with hand movements, Vera talks of future projects, such as a reserve firefighters corps and a new senior citizens' center, looking six years down the line.
Then the politician who is not a politician, realizing the length of his term, said: "I may have to run again (in 1996) so I can accomplish my goals and see them through."