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Hollywood Activist Says His $2.5 Million Was Well Spent

Gene La Pietra calls the secession defeat a success for bringing attention to the community's needs. He also admits future political aspirations.

November 10, 2002|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

It's the morning after Hollywood secession's undeniable, unspinnable trouncing at the polls, and Gene La Pietra, the driving force behind the movement, is back at his campaign headquarters, perfectly groomed and declaring victory.

The nightclub owner, a six-figure contributor to politicians and nonprofit groups, sank what he estimates as $2.5 million of his money into a quixotic campaign to wrest Hollywood away from the city of Los Angeles, and install himself as its mayor. But Hollywood secession went down by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, and La Pietra didn't even get the most votes among candidates who sought a spot on the proposed city council. He finished second to neighborhood activist Rosa Martinez, whose campaign cost a little more than $4,000.

Campaign contribution records filed thus far with the Los Angeles Ethics Commission show payments by La Pietra of just under $1.9 million, but he says that by the time the bills are all paid he will have spent $2.5 million in contributions to cityhood campaigns in both Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, as well as his own campaign for Hollywood city council.

La Pietra, 54, said his net worth was roughly $20 million before the secession campaign.

Now that it's over, he said the experience changed him and gave him the heady sense of power and responsibility that comes from being a political leader: the easy access to the media, the followers who depend upon you, the ability to make the mayor of a huge city respond to what you have to say.

"I'd do it again," he declared. "I'd spend it all again."

The victory, La Pietra said, came in the way the campaign drew international attention to the run-down streets of Hollywood, and forced the city's elected officials to take notice of the community's needs.

A lifelong Democrat, he said he will pursue those causes as an activist or candidate.

La Pietra's generous backing of elected officials, including Gov. Gray Davis and even Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, may force Democratic Party leaders to take him seriously.

La Pietra said he will not try to unseat Councilman Tom La Bonge, up for reelection next spring. He said he is considering seeking other offices but was not specific.

Secession's dismal showing could hurt him in another run, political consultant John Shallman said. Moreover, several activists said, La Pietra, who owns homes in Los Feliz and Hollywood, is something of an outsider in community politics.

"I would have a hard time backing him for City Council or Assembly or anything like that," said Dave Gajda, an activist and Hollywood businessman.

Many in the community, Gajda said, were offended by La Pietra's claims during the campaign that little had been done to improve the blighted areas of Hollywood.

"My partner and I spend 10 to 15 hours a week on causes to improve Hollywood," said Gajda, who also cited work by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood groups and the city of Los Angeles.

Another potential hurdle to a political career is that La Pietra does not have the personal history and lifestyle some believe is necessary to win at the polls. In the early 1970s he was convicted of state and federal obscenity charges for selling sexually explicit videos and books. He is openly gay and owns two nightclubs.

Arnold Steinberg, a Republican political strategist, said La Pietra could get elected to a state legislative office based in Hollywood, where voters would be more likely to tolerate an unconventional candidate.

"A rich candidate still brings a lot to bear for these legislative contests," Steinberg said.

Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents Hollywood, agreed that La Pietra might have a political future.

"When you spend $2.5 million, you definitely have good name identification and exposure," Garcetti said. "He should be taken seriously."

La Pietra is taking a break now that the campaign is over. He is shutting down the gaudily painted brick mini-mall he bought recently and used as his political headquarters.

From an office in the Crossroads of the World building on Sunset Boulevard, he plans to return to a pet project -- renovating a park in Hollywood and turning it into a free, 24-hour center for runaways and other disadvantaged youths.

Although this was his second time out as a candidate -- he spent $336,000 in a losing bid for a West Hollywood City Council seat -- La Pietra has wielded political influence over the years.

Since 1993, he has contributed $170,000 to Davis. This year, he gave $5,000 to Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), who endorsed his bid for Hollywood council.

Shallman, who has advised such Los Angeles politicians as La Bonge, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and the late Sheriff Sherman Block, said La Pietra might have more influence if he remains a fund-raiser and philanthropist.

But La Pietra said he is different now -- more confident in front of the cameras, more comfortable with the role of prospective leader.

"It's one thing being a contributor, and another thing being a player," La Pietra said. "They're totally different roles."

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