Earlier this year, Mayor James K. Hahn's $11-billion modernization plan for Los Angeles International Airport appeared to be dead.
Powerful critics, including City Council members, airlines, business groups and residents, were arrayed against it, saying it was too expensive and failed to make the airport more secure.
But Hahn refused to budge -- potentially throwing away 10 years' work and more than $120 million in studies and consultant fees.
Then one afternoon late last spring, the soft-spoken city councilwoman who represents airport-area communities clicked into the mayor's office on her high heels, one of her ever-present broaches flashing like a general's ribbons.
"You told me that if someone has a better idea, they should come up with a plan," Cindy Miscikowski told the mayor. "So I did."
The council overwhelmingly approved the plan last month, and will vote again today on environmental and technical issues.
Miscikowski's pronouncement in the mayor's office signaled her takeover of the LAX modernization process -- something she was uniquely equipped to do. The two-term councilwoman single-handedly rescued one of the most complicated and expensive public works projects in the city's history, but enraged many of her constituents in the process.
Lisa Gritzner, Miscikowski's former chief of staff, calls encounters like the one between Miscikowski and the mayor, the councilwoman's "Xena: Warrior Princess" moments, comparing her determination to that of the feminist cult superhero from the 1990s TV show who roamed ancient Greece doing good and fighting evil.
Miscikowski's weapon -- born of great passion and hours of obsessive study -- is her uncanny ability to wield arcane zoning and planning codes.
George Kieffer, chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that Winston Churchill once said his whole life had prepared him to be a wartime prime minister. Likewise, Kieffer said, "Cindy's whole career was in preparation for what she was able to do in respect to the LAX master plan."
A multimillionaire who need never work another day in her life, Miscikowski spent much of last spring secluded with thousands of pages of dry airport reports about soil, air quality and traffic.
Then she salvaged Hahn's proposal using a little-understood bureaucratic tool known as a specific plan that allowed her to slice the mayor's plan into two phases and consign the most controversial parts to a distant future.
Unpopular aspects, such as demolishing Terminals 1, 2 and 3 and building an off-site check-in center that some said would make passengers more vulnerable to a terrorist attack, were placed in a holding pattern that requires more rigorous study.
This unconventional approach could still collapse. Even as the council votes today, the county Board of Supervisors will consider filing a suit against the city. Other opponents may also go to court.
Still, Miscikowski's move was a politically bold solution from a politician best known as a policy wonk. The 56-year-old councilwoman, who will be forced out next year by term limits, sees the airport plan as a cornerstone of her legacy.
Some of her colleagues, however, assailed her specific plan as dishonest because it enshrines projects such as the check-in center that many city officials don't want to see built.
And she alienated many constituents who furiously charge that her plan is a backdoor to airport expansion.
"I feel we've been really undermined by Cindy," said Valeria Velasco, a 16-year Playa del Rey resident who heads the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion. Ruth Galanter, the former city councilwoman who represented the airport area for 15 years, was even harsher. "Why did she do it? It was a bad plan," Galanter said. "Why she picked screwing her constituents as a legacy is beyond me."
But Miscikowski's friends are not surprised that she risked the anger of her constituents to do what she felt was right for the whole city.
"She's not a politician. She wasn't trained as a politician. She isn't, frankly, a great politician," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a former councilman who worked closely with Miscikowski.
Unlike most of her colleagues, for example, the councilwoman does not employ a spokesman. She returns calls herself, and instead of sound bites offers streams of paragraphs that are difficult to quote.
Miscikowski says the city had to do something to save the plan. When it appeared no one else was going to do it, she stepped in. "We had to get our act together," she said.
Such decisive action is becoming rarer on the City Council. Eight-year term limits mean few officials absorb the institutional knowledge to rework a project as complicated as the airport plan.