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Lack of Tough Competition No Reason to Coast

October 30, 2005|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Herb Wesson Jr. is running like it's the political race of his life, as if the bulls of Pamplona are a whisker from gouging him into the history books.

The onetime speaker of the state Assembly is vying to fill the Los Angeles City Council seat vacated when Martin Ludlow left in June to head the County Federation of Labor.

And Wesson is leaving nothing to chance in the district, which includes Koreatown, the Mid-City area and parts of South Los Angeles.

Although his two opponents are political novices, Wesson has worked overtime to pull together a slew of endorsements, a small army of volunteers and $383,501 to spend.

In recent weeks, he has sent out thousands of mailers and Herb Wesson potholders to potential voters and plastered the 10th Council District with yard signs. And he has held a number of fund-raisers and other events, including a masquerade ball Oct. 21 in Southwest Los Angeles.

"I think the residents of the district deserve a race, and I think it's my responsibility to reach out to them," said Wesson, who was hired last year by Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke to be a liaison with the community on the patient care crisis at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Willowbrook.

Wesson's opponents are Barry Levine, a photographer, and Robert Serrano, the owner of a private security firm.

Neither has ever run for office. Levine isn't raising money -- he says he doesn't believe in it -- and Serrano has collected just $2,750.

With no well-funded competition, the Nov. 8 election has been less about the issues and more a referendum on Wesson.

Should voters choose a candidate to represent them who did not move into the district until after he decided to run?

And should they be worried that Wesson is running for City Council but hasn't ruled out a run for county supervisor in 2008 if Burke, 73, doesn't run again?

Wesson has said that if he wins he'll seek reelection in 2007, but he has not promised to finish that term. "There's no long-range planning in politics," he said.

Wesson, 53, was born in Cleveland, where his father worked on a Chevrolet assembly line. Wesson said he realized he had a gift for politics when he formed a group of teenagers to organize events to keep him and his friends out of trouble.

In 1998, after 11 years as chief of staff to Councilman Nate Holden and then chief of staff to Burke, Wesson was elected to the Assembly. In 2002, he was elected speaker.

He was widely credited with helping secure passage of a bill to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles, pushing a successful, $25-billion school bond issue and keeping the lawmakers in session for 29 hours in 2003 until a state budget was passed. But he was also dogged by controversy.

In 2002, two days after the Legislature convened, Wesson and a pair of colleagues raised eyebrows when they traveled to Hawaii for a conference organized by the union representing state prison guards, who had given $15,000 to Wesson.

In 2003, the media revealed that Wesson had spent about $350,000 in state funds to hire political allies as consultants.

Among them: Ludlow; Tony Cardenas, who is now on the City Council; and Chris Holden, a member of the Pasadena City Council and Nate Holden's son.

"If I had to do all it over again with the contracts, I would do it differently," Wesson said. "My intentions were good -- I was trying to put in place a team to help with the state budget."

Levine said he decided to run against Wesson because he considers Wesson the consummate political insider.

"I'm angry that Martin Ludlow left the 10th District without representation and took another job," Levine said, "and I'm also angry that Herb Wesson moved into the district and that the powers-that-be decided that he would be the next councilman."

Levine, 57, who lives in Reynier Village, runs a photography firm and specializes in shooting political events. He said he that would work with council members to make public financing of campaigns a reality and that he wants to expand city-run after-school programs.

"There are days I think I have a shot. I knock on a person's door and they say, 'I heard you on [the radio] and I'm voting for you,' " he said.

"And then the reality of 30 years of photographing politics sets in, and I realize that it's all about name recognition and Herb has it by a long shot."

Robert Serrano, 44, lives in Koreatown and is chief executive of API Security.

He said he decided to run, in part, after receiving a parking ticket while dropping off his daughter at school on a rainy day and having problems getting the ticket rescinded.

Serrano said that, if elected, he would work to find private funds for two monorails that would run from central Los Angeles to the ocean, one along Wilshire Boulevard and the other along Crenshaw.

He said that he built such a system on a computer game called SimCity that tests a player's urban planning skills -- and that it worked well.

As for Wesson, he says he expected his candidacy to raise questions about his political past and future.

And going door-to-door and moving into the district, Wesson says, have given him a new appreciation of local politics.

"Local government is the toughest job for any elected official because the things you do are what people need to survive," said Wesson. "This is always what I wanted to do. I was built for local government; I had to adjust for state government."

Wesson said that if elected he would emphasize constituent services and work to attract more development to some of the district's weary commercial corridors, such as Washington Boulevard and Western Avenue.

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