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Valley's strong front-runner draws heat in council race

Mitch Englander, chief of staff to the outgoing councilman, has huge leads in funding, endorsements and name recognition. His opponents decry what they say would be another District 12 'coronation.'

March 02, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

The heir apparent, the Los Angeles City Council candidate with the big bucks and the who's-who litany of endorsements, dismisses all the "coronation" talk — the pervasive sense that the District 12 race is his to lose.

Mitchell Englander insists he is not "the king of the mountain," although he is widely regarded as the heavy favorite to become the next representative of a sprawling chunk of the northwest San Fernando Valley.

Among seven council seats to be contested March 8, this is the only one with no incumbent on the ballot. Councilman Greig Smith is stepping down after two terms, leaving the seat up for grabs — at least in theory.

But while no incumbent hovers, there is Englander. He is Smith's longtime chief of staff, a savvy, smooth-talking insider whose uncle, Harvey Englander, is a veteran City Hall lobbyist who helped give his nephew his start in politics.

"Mitch," the candidate's casual campaign handle, is seeking to follow in the footsteps of Smith, who was chief of staff for his predecessor, Hal Bernson.

Englander, 40, a father of two, handles himself with the self-assuredness of a man who has been training for the job much of his life. Some call it arrogance. Englander insists the swagger reflects years of dedication to the Valley agenda.

Whatever it is, Englander has plenty of money to back it up.

He has amassed a hefty campaign fund — almost $500,000, more than 10 times as much any of his opponents. In fact, city ethics filings show that Englander has raised more cash than any of the 25 other council candidates citywide.

He has also secured an exhaustive catalogue of endorsements, including those of the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News and virtually every sitting council member. His website video features him vowing to "make city government more business-friendly by cutting bureaucracy and red tape" — themes that resonate widely in the conservative Valley stronghold.

Despite the odds, an eclectic mix of five other candidates is arrayed to compete with Englander, his well-financed campaign and his polished persona. Each confronts feeble funding and anemic name recognition.

Major differences on the issues are hard to find. But several of Englander's rivals have championed a pointed theme, roughly summarized as: Stop the Succession Express. The aura of inevitability surrounding him has become an issue.

Other candidates denounce as undemocratic and opportunistic the spectacle of a big-pockets City Hall insider assuming his boss' job like some royal rite of passage.

At a recent debate, challenger Brad Smith, a former journalist who had briefly dropped out of the race, called on people to vote for "a real choice, not a coronation."

Another candidate, Navraj "Singh" Singh, a former Indian army captain and restaurant entrepreneur now building a boutique hotel in Beverly Hills, urged Valley residents to reject City Hall's preferred candidate — a swipe at Englander.

The race features two other immigrant candidates — Dinesh "Danny" Lakhanpal, an Indian-born engineer and businessman; and Armineh Chelebian, an Iranian-born, ethnic Armenian accountant who has run unsuccessfully for council and state Assembly seats and is the only woman contender.

Completing the field is Kelly M. Lord, a real estate agent who, at a recent debate, warned against "letting someone from L.A. dictate what our lifestyles will be." He voiced fears that Englander would be too cozy with developers — a charge Englander dismissed.

Englander and his handlers have chafed at the legacy tag and the portrait of him oozing political privilege. He stresses his status as a reserve police officer — mandating at least 16 hours of patrol duty a month — and his website notes other nonpolitical attributes, including a national Father of the Year award that his official biography calls "one of his proudest achievements."

And, keen to counter the image of an entitled bureaucratic staffer, Englander says he overcame personal adversity: He was reared in a struggling, single-parent family, had a disabled veteran father, cared for a sister who ended up with brain damage after an emergency room shut its doors on her, and lost a beloved uncle who was shot in a robbery in Canoga Park.

"Taking shots at me isn't going to fix the problems of Los Angeles and our community," Englander said. "My record, what I've done locally, speaks for itself."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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