As home to many of Los Angeles' most affluent neighborhoods and vibrant cultural institutions, the 5th Council District has lived up to its reputation for political activism by producing the largest field of candidates running for any council seat in the April 10 election.
Voters in the district, which extends from Westwood through Bel-Air to Van Nuys, will pick from among 11 candidates--twice the average for other council seats--including former state Sen. Tom Hayden, whose colorful and controversial past has focused a bright spotlight on the contest.
"It's a race to see who gets into a runoff with Hayden, and then it will be a free-for-all," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represented the council district for years. If no one gets a majority, the two top vote-getters will run head to head in June to determine the winner.
About 62% of the district's voters live south of Mulholland Drive. No San Fernando Valley resident has ever been elected in the district.
With incumbent Mike Feuer giving up the seat to run for city attorney, the race has attracted candidates with strong resumes, including former federal prosecutor Jack Weiss of West Los Angeles, who has raised by far the most money, $186,000, and Sherman Oaks businessman Ken Gerston, who has amassed $116,742, the second-largest war chest.
Other contenders are Sherman Oaks political consultant Jill Barad, Westwood homeowner activist Laura Lake, entertainment executive Steve Saltzman of West Los Angeles and former television journalist Robyn Ritter Simon of Beverlywood.
Rounding out the field are consumer protection attorney Nate Bernstein, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area, teacher Constantina Milonopoulos of Studio City, accountant Victor N. Viereck of Valley Village, and wholesale carpet salesman Joe Connolly, who lives in the Mid-Wilshire area.
"It's a very competitive race," said Feuer, who has not endorsed anyone. "There are a number of people who bring energy, enthusiasm and new ideas to the race."
Hayden is the only candidate who has declined to accept public funding, which frees him from the city's $330,000 spending limit.
The winner will represent a council district that is home to many of Los Angeles' most recognizable institutions, including UCLA, popular shopping malls such as the Beverly Center and Sherman Oaks Galleria, and trendy stretches of Melrose Avenue and Ventura Boulevard. Mayor Richard Riordan lives in the 5th, where the median household income is $73,000 a year.
While many poorer council districts struggle to attract investment, the 5th has had too much of a good thing, many residents complain, with massive developments crammed into prime real estate in a way that has strained the capacity of city streets and services.
Half in Valley, Half in West L.A.
"The biggest issue is the horrendous overbuilding, which has created tremendous traffic problems," said Diana Plotkin, president of the Beverly Wilshire Homeowners Assn.
Adding to the challenge, the district was drawn to straddle the Santa Monica Mountains, putting half in the San Fernando Valley and half in West Los Angeles--two areas with often divergent interests.
Indeed, the opposing pulls of the district are reflected in the candidates and their competing visions for it. The four Valley candidates focus on Valley concerns such as the aircraft noise around Van Nuys Airport, while the seven contenders from West Los Angeles tend to concentrate on their part of the district, where expansion of the Fairfax Farmer's Market and development in Westwood Village are hot topics.
Turning to questions of citywide concern, the candidates are divided along different lines when it comes to matters such as the proposed breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is supported by Lake, Viereck and Gerston. Simon and Barad said they want to give reform a chance.
"If I don't see real reform, it will be time to have smaller districts," Barad said.
Hayden has supported legislation allowing the breakup to be put before the voters, but has said he prefers fundamental reform. Weiss and Saltzman said they could support the school breakup only if it helped solve the district's problems, including the need to hire more credentialed teachers and meet a backlog of school construction.
"It would be more manageable if we had smaller districts," Gerston said.
Added Lake: "I believe resources are being sucked up for administration that need to go into the classrooms."
Hayden also prefers reform over breaking up the city, but supports the ongoing study over secession's effects. Gerston, Weiss and Barad prefer to keep the city together. Saltzman, Milonopoulos and others are neutral.
Instead of breaking up the city, "the better, more efficient approach is meaningful neighborhood councils and boroughs in a single city," Hayden said.