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SMALL BUSINESS | At Issue

It's Not What the Politician Said; It's What He Didn't Hear

July 28, 1999|VICKI TORRES

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa carried his exploratory mayoral stumping to Chinatown last week, "breaking bread" as he called it (but actually dim sum) with small-business owners from seven chambers of commerce in his 45th District.

It was a typical gathering for the courting season, when mayoral and state legislative wannabes begin making the rounds, assessing their chances to gain votes and money for the 2001 races.

If last week's event was any indication, though, would-be officeholders would do better to dump the stumping and start listening. The contrast between small-business owners and their concerns and Villaraigosa's presentation spoke volumes about how politicians can often miss the obvious.

Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) pitched his appearance as an update on the tools Sacramento is preparing to help business owners succeed. It also was an opportunity for him to find out their concerns, they were told.

What the business owners got instead was a stump speech on the budget, plus gun-control laws, school bills and park bond measures that the speaker had supported. He even threw in a pitch for Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg when she arrived. Goldberg is running for Villaraigosa's office, which he must vacate because of term limits.

Business owners found out that Villaraigosa was a local boy who learned how to swim at Lincoln Park Pool and was kicked out of Cathedral High School. Nice touches from the Assembly leader, who arrived with an entourage of clipboard-wielding staff and state security officers in dark pinstriped suits and earpieces.

It was a bit of a contrast from business owners such as Heinrich "Rick" Keifer, who underneath his jacket and tie wore a light gray work shirt with "Northwestern Plumbing Co." stitched over the left pocket.

"Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do," Keifer said. "I may get beeped for a plumbing emergency."

And small-business concerns were similarly prosaic, as each chamber president got a chance to speak to the group. Steam-cleaning of sidewalks, rehabilitation of storefronts, tree planting, holiday parades and growth in chamber membership were what these small businesses touted for their neighborhoods.

Bonnie Scanlan, president of Echo Park Chamber of Commerce, talked about Operation Facelift, begun in April, in which teams of volunteer designers, painters, artists and contractors have dedicated themselves to improving the neighborhood business district.

Backing up the effort is the local branch of Los Angeles National Bank, a community bank that is offering loans as small as $1,500 or $2,000 for business facade improvements. Some of these businesses may not otherwise have secured such a small bank loan.

It was a litany of self-help, mainly because--business owners said later--they've come to feel ignored by both Sacramento and local politicians. One owner recalled a meeting with Richard Riordan in which the mayor said the businesses couldn't count on government and had to start their own community improvement efforts. Douglas Brown of Highland Park Pawnbrokers praised Villaraigosa for calling the chambers together and added: "I think our [City Council] representative had a meeting like this 3 1/2 years ago."

Michael Cathey, executive director of the Atwater Chamber of Commerce, said many of the chambers in the city's northeast neighborhoods have fewer than 100 members and thus find it hard to exercise any clout with projects. Help from the city is mainly advisory, he said, citing a resource list that he secured from the Mayor's Economic Development Team nearly two years ago.

It's a list of alternative funding sources, augmented by sources he himself has uncovered and others from the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

"Alternative financing is what small businesses need," Cathey said. "It's the No. 1 question I get from my members."

But by that time, Villaraigosa missed the comment, having long since left the room for his next speaking engagement.

Although the speaker's appearance was appreciated by these hard-working business owners, and he earned a round of applause when he said he's considering a run for mayor, for many in the room, Villaraigosa is not now a name that comes readily to mind when they think of small-business problems and how to resolve them.

It remains to be seen how small business will fare with other would-be mayoral officeholders, such as City Atty. James K. Hahn, City Councilman Joel Wachs, mayoral advisor Steve Soboroff and, possibly, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), as they begin their vote-courting rituals.

*

Times staff writer Vicki Torres can be reached at (213) 237-6553 or at vicki.torres@latimes.com.

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