Los Angeles city and county governments are full of officials who profess to be candid but who are, in fact, evasive or even deceptive. City Councilwoman Jan Perry is not one of them. She is refreshingly open, even blunt. She's affable, but she takes her politics seriously.
Areas that some candidates scramble to avoid don't faze her. In an interview last week, for instance, she coolly sized up the racial and gender politics of the mayor's race, in which she's one of the leading candidates. Perry's campaign so far has been overshadowed by those of City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, each of whom can lay claim to having represented the whole city (although Garcetti serves Hollywood as a councilman, he served for years as council president, giving him broader reach and profile than most council members enjoy). But Perry sees a path to victory, and she is typically forthcoming in describing it.
Her base, Perry explained, begins with African Americans. From there, she imagines polling well with Latinos; she speaks Spanish well enough to campaign in that language, and there are no prominent Latino candidates in the race (although Garcetti's paternal grandparents were immigrants from Mexico). Perry expects to attract substantial support from women and hopes her sometimes combative relationship with the city's ruling establishment will win her support in the San Fernando Valley, the locus of city government skeptics.
Finally, though it's not widely known, Perry also is Jewish, having converted to the faith in the 1980s. As voters learn more about her, Perry hopes for some Jewish support as well.
Moreover, the potential turns in the race ahead may favor her. Many eyes are on County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who hasn't announced whether he will run. If he does, he'd hurt Perry. He'd draw away business support and certainly Jewish backing. But, as one Perry supporter pointed out to me, for every vote Yaroslavsky would take from Perry, he'd take two from Garcetti and Greuel. In a four-way race, it's possible to imagine any two of those candidates making the runoff.
Reflecting on her challenge, Perry noted that the politics are complicated. "I don't take any of that for granted," she said of her coalition. "I happen to be African American. I happen to be Jewish. But I have to take my case directly to voters."
The essence of that case, Perry says, is that Los Angeles is still hurting economically, and she has a proven record of encouraging economic development; L.A. Live is the centerpiece of that effort, as is the growth of downtown generally. Moreover, Perry notes that even as she has brought in development, she has been sensitive to environmental issues — she's most proud of two wetlands she helped create in her district, which includes parts of downtown and South Los Angeles. And she has maintained independence in a city often in the sway of interest groups such as labor and its Sacramento allies.
Perry can be fierce in defense of her positions, as she demonstrated this year when she engaged in a sharp battle with Council President Herb Wesson over the redrawing of the lines of her district. She lost, but she stood out from the go-along, get-along norm that stifles much genuine debate at City Hall.
She's also sparred with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which she shrugs off. "To me, fighting is an acceptable form of communication," she explained. With Wesson, it's different. She regards him as duplicitous, and she's happy to say so publicly.
All of this suggests that Perry has the moxie to be mayor. The question will be whether her record of achievement is strong enough to impress voters. It's not that Perry hasn't done anything; she has. But the wetlands she's so proud of are hardly a comprehensive environmental agenda, and the success of L.A. Live, while undeniable, owes far more to the work of AEG than it does to any stewardship by Perry. Beyond that, she can point to community achievements — securing a farmers market, helping encourage sit-down restaurants over fast-food places, adding units to help provide for the homeless — but there's not much that suggests a grand vision for the city or its future.
And yet, there's something refreshing and genuine about Perry that could play well with voters. Near the end of our conversation, she relayed a story about a man she met through the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, which Perry helped to found in South Los Angeles. He was in tough times, out of work, struggling to make ends meet. Recently, she ran into him again, working at the Marriott Hotel adjacent to L.A. Live. He recognized her and thanked her for helping him get work. He's married now, looking forward to having a family.
As Perry told the story, her voice cracked. She waved it off, a little embarrassed, and explained: "For me, it's personal."
Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.