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COLUMN ONE : Yaroslavsky Turns a New Page : The savvy L.A. councilman has evolved with the city over the course of 19 years. Today he joins the county Board of Supervisors much as he joined the council--as a reformer.

December 05, 1994|JOHN SCHWADA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Zev Yaroslavsky stands amid the packing boxes and the political trophies, preparing to leave behind Los Angeles City Hall--the setting over the past 19 years for his transformation from shaggy-haired political upstart to consummate political insider.

Yaroslavsky, 45, is embarking on a short but important journey--for himself and for the world of local politics. The councilman's trip up the hill to take a seat today on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors--a powerful but often insulated and sluggish body that Yaroslavsky aims to shake up--means saying goodby to the institution where he earned fame, influence and access.

Crammed into the packing boxes are photos of Yaroslavsky with President Clinton, Yaroslavsky with ex-LAPD chief Daryl F. Gates, Yaroslavsky with two prime ministers of Israel, Yaroslavsky with the Queen of England, Yaroslavsky with Pope John Paul II.

"Who would have ever thought that a 26-year-old kid, three years out of college, would have had the opportunity to play as large a role as I have in running the second largest city in the United States?" Yaroslavsky muses.

Armed with savvy, ambition and the solid support of the Jewish community that elected him, Yaroslavsky was more often than not a dominant player in virtually every municipal initiative of note since he joined the City Council in 1975.

His evolution in many ways has mirrored the city's own.

In his early days at City Hall, a black liberal mayor backed by a powerful black-Jewish political alliance was itching to take on the Police Department--a deeply conservative institution with a powerful political machine of its own. Yaroslavsky, fresh from his days as a student activist at UCLA, joined the forces pushing for change in the LAPD and made a name for himself as someone not afraid to tangle with then-chief Gates.

Later, as rampant development emerged during the high-flying 1980s, Yaroslavsky made that his issue, ultimately co-sponsoring a successful ballot initiative to curb development citywide. His reputation grew--although some pointedly noted that big developers were among his largest contributors.

Despite Yaroslavsky's considerable ambition, the mayor's office eluded him. He seriously considered running against Tom Bradley in 1989 but decided against it. Four years later, after the municipal landscape had been transfigured by the riots and by Gates' departure and Bradley's impending retirement, Yaroslavsky again declined a chance to try for the top job.

Instead, it went to Richard Riordan, a Republican venture capitalist who won on the slogan "Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around."

By then, the maturing Yaroslavsky, sensing the power of the purse, had reinvented himself as the council's budget czar--a key position as the economy went bad, and hard-nosed pragmatism became a prized municipal virtue. Now the insider, he inveighed against term limits and laid the groundwork for establishing a family political dynasty by backing another Yaroslavsky, his wife, Barbara, to take over his City Council seat.

As he moves to the Board of Supervisors today, Yaroslavsky enters a new incarnation--assuming again the mantle of a reformer, vowing to take on a massive and entrenched bureaucracy and open its secretive practices to greater public oversight.

*

Zev Yaroslavsky's political artistry--one part media mastery, one part fund-raising prowess, one part instinct for shifting realities--has been widely recognized.

At Yaroslavsky's going-away party, Mayor Riordan gave him a copy of that classic treatise on the dark art of politics, Machiavelli's "The Prince." Everyone laughed. "It was like carrying coals to Newcastle," quipped one City Hall aide.

Yaroslavsky could be found in the City Hall pressroom more often than any other public official, sometimes trying out comments on a topical municipal issue in a blatant attempt to get quoted in a news story.

And it worked. A computer review found that Yaroslavsky's name appeared in almost 3,500 separate articles published in The Times over the past ten years. By contrast, John Ferraro, the council's president during most of that same period, was mentioned in 2,200 articles.

"He is the master of the sound bite," Ferraro said. "If he went to your news conference, before long he'd make it his news conference."

Yaroslavsky's gift for raising campaign money was helped by the fact that his district was a hot spot of development during the 1980s and that his constituents are some of the city's most affluent residents.

He also brought a certain dedication to the task. He would attend a fund-raiser for another politician and quickly begin working the contributors' tables.

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