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San Pedro voters wary of L.A. mayoral candidates' promise

As the runoff election nears, Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel say they won't forget San Pedro's needs. Many residents aren't convinced. 'We feel like we're a lost relative down here,' one says.

April 06, 2013|By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
  • Wendy Greuel and rival Eric Garcetti are eagerly courting voters in San Pedro, home of the Port of Los Angeles. Aside from being geographically distant from other parts of L.A., San Pedro is culturally distant as well, and many residents say they feel overlooked by city government.
Wendy Greuel and rival Eric Garcetti are eagerly courting voters in San… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

The residents of the close-knit coastal enclave of San Pedro have long felt like the city's redheaded stepchild, geographically and culturally removed from the downtown power structure, the bright lights of Hollywood and the sprawling San Fernando Valley.

But in the Los Angeles mayoral race, they are seeing fresh attention from Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti as the rivals try to stitch together coalitions to win the May 21 runoff. Within the span of a week, the candidates appeared at port workers' union halls a block apart in the area's historic downtown, pledging they would not forget this corner of L.A.

"This is the economic engine of our entire city," Greuel said Saturday as she rallied supporters at the headquarters of ILWU Local 63, the Marine Clerks Assn. She noted that her 9-year-old son was studying a map of Los Angeles and asked about San Pedro, which is connected to the rest of the city by a thin spit of land.

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"I said to him, 'It's kind of like your leg, that long line down there, and guess what?'" Greuel said. "'If you don't pay attention to it, you lose it, if you don't take care of it.'"

Garcetti, speaking March 30 outside ILWU Local 13 headquarters, used a different analogy.

"A lot of people call this area the tail," he said. "I say a different image that I shared a while back: If the city of L.A. is like a kite, this is the anchor.... The growth of this town began because this harbor was dug."

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The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the lifeblood of the community of nearly 80,000 residents, including many Italians, Croatians and Latinos. The shoreline is dominated by cargo ships, a seemingly never-ending span of massive cranes, docked cruise ships and the soaring green Vincent Thomas Bridge.

"I always describe the relationship San Pedro has with downtown as being like a colony. It actually feels like that," said Doug Epperhart, the former president of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council who now represents the Harbor Area on the Board of Neighborhoods Commissioners. "I live closer to City Hall on Catalina Island than I do L.A. City Hall — four miles closer. It's very different than anywhere I ever lived before."

Aside from being geographically distant from other parts of Los Angeles, San Pedro is culturally distant as well. Families go back generations, with children attending the same school their parents did and their grandparents living around the corner. If an outsider mispronounces the area's name, locals are quick to correct it: "San Peeeedro," with a hard E. The community is celebrating its 125th anniversary, with storefronts in the downtown displaying historic pictures and memorabilia.

At Williams' Book Store, which is 104 years old, the window contains pictures of the city's libraries over the years, old books and vintage pictures of the store's proprietors.

"We feel like we're a lost relative down here," said owner Jerry Gusha, 60, who has not decided which candidate to support. "It almost feels like we're not getting represented the way we should."

The exception was former Mayor James Hahn, a local who residents would run into at the grocery store and restaurants around town. The Hahn name is legendary around here. Hahn's father was the revered Kenneth Hahn, a longtime county supervisor. His sister Janice represented the area on the City Council before being elected to Congress.

Rep. Janice Hahn has backed Greuel, which some believe is one of the reasons Greuel won the primary in San Pedro by six points. She won 3,584 votes to Garcetti's 2,950, according to a Times analysis. One-fifth of voters there backed Kevin James, and 9% supported Jan Perry.

But after the election, Garcetti won the backing of City Council colleague Joe Buscaino, a popular politician who grew up in San Pedro after his parents immigrated there from Italy to work in the fishing industry. Buscaino was a police officer before he was elected to the council in 2012 to fill Janice Hahn's spot when she was elected to Congress. The mayoral election is viewed as a test of his organizational power.

"Right now, it's a little competitive because Kevin James did a decent job over there, so there are enough non-Garcetti, non-Greuel voters from the primary available and up for grabs," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "That makes it a battleground."

To court these voters, Guerra said, the candidates ought to offer a dual message reinforcing San Pedro's independence by talking about issues such as neighborhood self-determination, while also recognizing that the area is a vital part of Los Angeles that would receive its rightful share of city services.

The economic health of the port, mitigating the environmental risks from the cargo operations and revitalizing Ports O' Call Village are also key issues.

Some residents remain skeptical that, once elected, either candidate would do much for the area.

"The only time politicians ever come down here is to raise money and get votes," said Fred Crawford, 58, who was manning the counter at Sacred Grounds coffee shop. "Otherwise we're pretty much ignored."

Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.

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