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It's the Best $1,000 Lunch in Town

All sorts of business people take lobbyists' advice and shell out the money to dine with Mayor Hahn. It's all about acccess, they say.

October 06, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Like most Los Angeles residents, bathhouse operator Peter Sykes had never held a meeting with Mayor James K. Hahn, let alone been invited to lunch with the chief executive. So when Sykes' City Hall lobbyist suggested he spend $1,000 to dine with the mayor, he took his advice.

Over a gourmet meal at a private club on Bunker Hill, Sykes chatted with the mayor and raised issues he feels are important. "I wanted to know his philosophy going forward about the gay community," Sykes said.

He came away from the political fund-raiser impressed with Hahn and confident his money was well spent. So did most of the 10 other business owners, union leaders and developers who attended the invitation-only fund-raiser.

In addition to their choice of herb chicken or sesame-crusted sea bass, contributors say they got to hear from the mayor on where the city is headed, and each had a chance to make an impression on Hahn during the hour-plus exchange of ideas. Several said they left the lunch with the hope that the next time they need help at City Hall, someone other than a low-level bureaucrat will take their call.

"All I expect is that you will get your phone call returned so you can air your issues," said Scott Schaffer, president of City Cab and one of those who attended the Sept. 9 lunch with Hahn.

The event in an elegant, wood-paneled room at the City Club provides a window into a political process that most Los Angeles residents will never experience, where political relationships are forged with campaign contributions and private conversation.

"It's no secret that making campaign contributions helps get access," said City Hall lobbyist Steven Afriat, who held the fund-raiser and included on the invitation list eight clients whose interests he represents at City Hall.

"My advice to anyone who does business with the city is it's smart business practice to be active in this process," Afriat said. "I think there is an advantage if you do business with the city to get to know the mayor."

That's often hard to do, even for contributors.

In the 2001 election, Hahn raised $5 million from 9,300 contributors. Campaigning on such a grand scale means many contributions must come from telephone solicitations or large events in banquet halls where donors have no more contact with the candidate than a handshake as the man of the hour heads for the door.

Since Hahn launched his reelection fund-raising effort in April, nearly two years before the March 2005 election, he has been spending more time on small events such as the Sept. 9 lunch, where 10 to 20 people write a check for the $1,000 maximum political contribution allowed by the city.

So far this year, Hahn has attended more than a dozen small fund-raisers. In one week in July, Hahn went to three small fund-raisers held by city airport contractors.

Hahn fund-raisers have been held in recent months by lobbyists such as Afriat, the construction and design firm HNTB, the public relations firm Fleishman Hillard, and city commissioners, including Planning Commissioner Mitchell Menzer, who held a separate event before Afriat's lunch.

Although some hosts call Hahn's campaign to volunteer to fund-raise, others are requested to do so by Hahn supporters. Hosts directly coordinate the events with campaign fund-raising consultant Annette Castro, who also did work for Richard Riordan when he was mayor. Castro reports to political strategist Bill Carrick, who also played a leading role in Hahn's 2001 election campaign.

"I think that's the trend now, because people know if they go to those big dinners at the Century Plaza they may not even see you and you may not even see them," Hahn said. "I like the smaller events because we can talk about different issues. It allows me to hear different viewpoints. Me giving a 20-minute speech in a big hotel really isn't a dialogue with people."

The people invited by Afriat to the Sept. 9 fund-raiser represent a cross-section of Los Angeles interests.

Sykes, who attended with his chief financial officer, Rosa Kline, runs two gay sexual encounter clubs in Hollywood and North Hollywood; Schaffer runs one of the biggest fleets of cabs in the city.

Joining them at a large rectangular table with Hahn were Ken Pressberg, whose firm operates the Beverly Plaza Hotel; Jeff Seymour, a consultant whose firm has helped telephone companies win city approval of cellular antenna sites; and lobbyist Tom McCarty.

Several men with real estate interests were on the guest list, including Jack Spound, a principal in a large real-estate investment firm; Joe Lumer, co-owner of L and R Investments, and developer Richard Weintraub.

Police Protective League Director Peter Repovich and LAPD Command Officer Assn. Director Jim Tatreau rounded out the list.

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