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Mud Fight in Northwest Valley

While embracing secessionists' concerns, Julie Korenstein and Greig Smith are busily attacking each other in 12th Council District.

May 17, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

City Council candidate Julie Korenstein wants to talk about "shaking up City Hall." Instead, she's being forced to explain how toilet paper winds up in a wet, goopy mess on the floor of school bathrooms.

Her opponent, Greig Smith, is trying to lay out his plan to send more police officers and provide other city services to the northwest San Fernando Valley. But he's been drawn into a defense of his boss' relationship with developers, and his personal tax returns.

The race to represent the semirural 12th District between Korenstein, a 16-year veteran of the Los Angeles Board of Education, and Smith, a top aide to retiring Councilman Hal Bernson, is shaping up as a negative referendum on each other's records.

The runoff is Tuesday.

A hopscotch of tract homes, horse ranches and teeth-grinding traffic jams spread beneath the rocky Santa Susana Mountains, the 12th District includes Chatsworth, Northridge, Granada Hills and Porter Ranch. It was a bastion of secession support, backing last year's failed bid to make the Valley a separate municipality by the biggest margin of any council district in the city.

Both candidates have embraced the concerns of secessionists, insisting that the Valley is not getting its fair share of services and pledging to change that if they win a council seat.

But in seeking to explain why voters should pick one over the other, Smith and Korenstein have spent a lot of time picking apart each other's failings -- all the while insisting that they did not start the mudslinging.

Korenstein, 59, has accused Smith and his boss, Bernson, of presiding over "a revolving door for developers" and mishandling growth in the area.

Smith, 54, has attacked Korenstein's record on the school board, contending she has failed to produce promised new schools and has not taken responsibility for dirty bathrooms.

Each has complained that the other is trying to mislead voters. Korenstein's campaign contends that Smith misrepresents himself and his positions, while Smith says Korenstein has "viciously" attacked his family by questioning late tax payments during a time decades ago when his business was struggling.

"I'm sick of the negativity," complained Bonnie Faherty, 59, a retired professor of nursing from Northridge, as she walked out of a debate at Granada Hills High School last month. In recent days, she added Thursday, the nastiness has only intensified, with new campaign fliers arriving in the mailbox almost daily.

"It's worse than a schoolyard brawl in a kindergarten class," she said. "It's very immature. It's so discouraging."

Both candidates are political insiders.

Smith is an old friend and longtime employee of Bernson, who has represented the 12th District for 24 years, presiding over its transformation from rural outpost to quintessential suburbia.

Smith got his start in politics while still a student at USC, when he began working to back Spiro Agnew in 1972 as President Nixon's running mate.

"I found out [Agnew] had feet of clay," Smith said. "I was very disillusioned."

He turned away from politics and with his wife Christine, his high school sweetheart, started a business selling tuxedos while raising two children.

Then, in 1978, Smith's old friend Bernson came to him and said he was going to run for City Council.

Smith said he tried to talk him out if it, and when that didn't work, threw himself into the campaign.

When Bernson was elected, Smith followed him to City Hall.

"I realized public service was what I wanted to do," he said.

Walking precincts in an older neighborhood in the district recently, Smith kept a close watch for cracks in the sidewalk, making notes every time he saw one.

Stumbling over a particularly big fissure, he said he plans to send staff members to pound the pavement each week to check for run-down infrastructure.

A bigger -- and more difficult -- goal is a plan to change city law to allocate money for police deployment and other services based on population, which Smith said would send more resources over the Santa Monica Mountains into the Valley.

His other priorities include bringing more power to the city's newly formed neighborhood councils, closing down the Sunshine Canyon Landfill and breaking up the Los Angeles Unified School District, a move that many Valley voters believe would give their children a better education.

As Smith strolled through the neighborhood -- by himself, with campaign fliers stuffed in his pockets and his clean but well-worn car parked on a side street -- neighbors and passersby greeted him by name and expressed their support.

Some said the appeal is as much personal as it is political.

"He seems like a real nice guy," said Chester Brooks, 81. "I thought he was very presentable."

Although City Council races are nonpartisan, observers say Smith, a Republican in the city's most Republican district, has an edge. Smith has raised about four times as much money as Korenstein, with nearly $220,000 in political contributions for the general election.

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