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A Minister-in-the-Making Chose to Serve the Mayor

May 21, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Last summer, Karen Sisson had an unusual decision to make: focus on her schooling to become a Lutheran minister or join the administration of workaholic Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

She chose the latter. And though last week's unanimous City Council budget approval was a conspicuous political victory for the mayor, it was also a satisfying triumph for Sisson and her budget team.

"My work in public administration and service is a way to practice my faith," she said in a recent interview. "I like to think of my faith more as informing my values ....

"I think that if you have a theology that is based primarily on a belief that God is a loving God and that we are capable of love, then you are going to have a political ideology that identifies more with those who don't have equal opportunities and those who are sort of the underdogs in society."

Sisson, 48, had worked nine years as the chief financial officer of Los Angeles World Airports, the city's airport agency.

Married with two children, ages 8 and 12, she is heavily involved in Pasadena's Hill Avenue Grace Lutheran Church. Her plan was to continue at the airport and study part time at Fuller Theological Seminary until she was ordained. Perhaps then she would serve a congregation or be a hospital chaplain.

The plans changed last summer when Villaraigosa's transition team identified Sisson as a candidate for the budget job, based largely on her work at the airports.

"I think that this was an extraordinary opportunity to work with the new mayor, and it was a chance for Karen that wasn't going to come around again," said Lydia Kennard, executive director of the airport agency and a longtime friend. "Like many of us, we want to make sure that he's successful, and she believes in him."

Sisson, a deputy mayor, said she took the job for several reasons. She liked Villaraigosa's message of inclusiveness, and she, like him, counts herself as a political progressive. The mayor also made clear to her that he intended to take a lot -- but not all -- of the advice she gave him.

"My job wasn't to tell him what he wanted to hear, but to tell him the financial information he needed and to give him options," Sisson said. "Moving an agenda forward is easy; doing it in a financially prudent manner is challenging."

She can tick off a list of virtues that guide her life -- inclusiveness, equity, forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation and grace.

It is coincidental, perhaps, that all these virtues come in handy for anyone charged with constructing a $6.7-billion budget that must juggle the needs of dozens of city agencies and then withstand a scrubbing by 15 City Council members with their own needs and egos.

Indeed, Sisson has earned a reputation around City Hall as pleasant, hard-working and decidedly not flashy. One staffer calls her "incredibly human."

That said, she is no pushover.

In front of the council Tuesday, Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller said: "My first thought when she was hired was that our job is going to be much more difficult in finding money."

It is Miller who must discover ways to tap the city budget whenever the council begins a new project.

Robin Kramer, Villaraigosa's chief of staff, believes that Sisson's religious leanings have helped her do her job better, because she is often required to deliver bad news to agency chiefs or work with bureaucrats to find ways to accomplish goals without spending more.

"A budget is a statement of values, and Karen has a highly ethical core. And it plays out in her professional, personal and spiritual life," Kramer said. "She is who she is. I would observe that one of the great skills that a pastor or rabbi has is to be a superior listener and fine teacher, and she has both those skills."

Sisson was born in Baldwin Park in the San Gabriel Valley. Her first job after graduating from Pomona College in Claremont came in 1979 with Chemical Bank. Among her duties were traveling the world, managing government and corporate portfolios in southeast Asia and monitoring debt restructuring for the Philippine government.

It was her time as a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the mid-1980s that saw profound change in her life. Two things happened: A research project introduced her to Chicago's city government -- something she found intrinsically interesting -- and she took several classes in the school's divinity program.

As a result, she changed her religious denomination. Having been raised in a Baptist household, Sisson decided that her theology was closest to Lutheran. She has been a Lutheran ever since.

With the mayor's first budget now behind her, she must immediately begin shaping his 2007-08 budget. There are already troubling signs on the horizon -- namely a slowing real estate market that might shrink city revenue.

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