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Lobbying crew builds Home Depot's case

Council members are getting an earful as the firm battles to build a Sunland-Tujunga store.

August 15, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Forget the talk about traffic, zoning and even day laborers. At Los Angeles City Hall, the fight over a new Home Depot may boil down to a single question: How many lobbyists will it take to open one hardware store in the San Fernando Valley?

Home Depot's push to expand into Sunland-Tujunga might seem like the most local of controversies, one pitting a retail chain against angry neighbors worried about blight and congested streets.

But over the course of two years, the issues surrounding the proposed Home Depot on Foothill Boulevard have expanded to include race, the nation's immigration reform bill and, not surprisingly, Home Depot's ambitious plans for Southern California.

With a final vote scheduled for today, the fight over the hardware giant has attracted not just vocal residents of the northeast Valley, but a contingent of highly paid lobbyists and lobbying consultants from across the city -- so many that the issue now has one lobbying professional for each member of the 15-seat City Council.

Since the controversy reached the council two weeks ago, Councilman Dennis Zine has heard from Rick Taylor, a lobbyist and political consultant who worked on his campaign. Councilman Herb Wesson received a call from his friend, the lobbyist and political consultant Kerman Maddox, who is a partner in Taylor's firm, Dakota Communications.

Councilwoman Jan Perry spoke with lobbying consultant Richard Alatorre, a former city councilman who represented neighborhoods near downtown Los Angeles. And Councilman Richard Alarcon received a call from lobbyist Fernando Guerra, who has two clients in Alarcon's San Fernando Valley district.

"In my five years as a council member, I have never seen or experienced the kind of lobbying that's occurred," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who hopes to persuade her colleagues that Home Depot performed such extensive repair work to an old Kmart that it must undergo a more thorough environmental review.

Home Depot has changed tactics as the project has moved closer to a final vote, shifting its emphasis from supporters in orange T-shirts to well-connected surrogates in business suits, each with ties to specific council members. Greuel, who made business and transit issues the cornerstone of her tenure, has already received calls from such civic leaders such as David Fleming, board chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce -- and a lawyer with Latham & Watkins, which represents Home Depot.

Home Depot hired Alatorre and former Assemblyman Mike Roos in recent days, said company spokesman Damian Jones. With the company planning to open 11 more stores in Los Angeles alone, it needs such firepower to prevent the council from creating a new precedent that could affect other potential sites, Jones said.

"This is a big issue for us," he added. "We've been battling on this for two years."

Even as the council met Tuesday, Home Depot lobbyists occupied a room behind the chamber normally devoted to closed-session meetings, asking council members to come in and hear their arguments. Perry kicked them out, but only after they had made their case to Councilman Bill Rosendahl.

That kind of access has been eye-opening for Home Depot opponents like Abby Diamond, an organizer with the Sunland Tujunga Coalition. "We definitely feel like there's a big machine at work that we can't possibly compete with in influence and dollars," she said.

While Home Depot representatives made their case, council members also heard from a key foe of Home Depot: the Do-It Center on Foothill Boulevard. That company has its own cluster of lobbyists tracking the issue, including Arnie Berghoff, who spoke to council members as Home Depot lobbyists roamed the halls elsewhere.

The involvement of Do-It Center instantly provided fodder for Home Depot, which distributed a 114-page booklet to council members accusing its opponents of being anti-competitive. The booklet also included dozens of survey forms -- some solicited by Home Depot, others collected by the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council -- in which residents described Home Depot as a magnet for day laborers.

Many of the cards complained about day laborers, while others directly attacked Mexicans and undocumented workers. "Don't want illegal aliens hanging around," said one unsigned form turned into the neighborhood council.

Diamond said her group was equally offended by the remarks. "Unfortunately, there are ignorant and intolerant people in every town," she said. "Race, day laborers or immigration has never been an issue in our campaign."

The intensity of the Home Depot lobbying effort may backfire with some council members, who accused the company of being a bad neighbor. Councilman Bernard C. Parks said Home Depot resisted requests that it provide better maintenance of a store in his district.

Parks voiced particular dismay that Home Depot inserted language in a recent federal immigration bill -- legislation that ultimately didn't pass -- that would have barred cities from requiring large hardware stores to construct day labor centers on their parking lots.

Jones, the Home Depot representative, said the issue has no connection with the debate in Sunland-Tujunga. "Different topic, different day," he said.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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