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TELLING CHAPTERS: The candidates for L.A. mayor

Wendy Greuel acquired a love of politics from working with Tom Bradley

But critics say the controller, who styled herself a 'pothole queen' on the council, plays it safe compared with her days on the former mayor's staff, when she was known for idealism and action.

February 27, 2013|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Wendy Greuel and former Mayor Tom Bradley are shown in 1980, when Bradley presented Greuel, a high school senior, with a Youth Leadership Award.
Wendy Greuel and former Mayor Tom Bradley are shown in 1980, when Bradley… (Wendy Greuel for Mayor 2013 )

Third in a series of articles focusing on key periods in the lives of the mayoral hopefuls.

In the early 1980s, Wendy Greuel was at a crossroads. In one direction was the family building supply company housed in a dusty North Hollywood warehouse. The other way, a career at Los Angeles City Hall in Mayor Tom Bradley's administration beckoned.

Bright, young and ambitious, Greuel had balanced duties on the high school cheerleading squad and as student body president with part-time work at Frontier Building Supply — where she kept the books, drove a forklift and answered the phone that sometimes rang for her mother's side business, the White Lace Inn.

The 17-year-old Greuel, raised a Republican, was star-struck when she first met the Democratic mayor during a youth leadership ceremony atop City Hall. "Here was this 6-foot-5 inspirational leader," she said, "and as I've jokingly said, I fell in love that day."

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When Bradley handed her an award, her course was set. Over the next decade, she would join a group of young aides who drove the five-term mayor's agenda, from the inspiring run-up to the 1984 Olympic Games to the difficult rebuilding after the city's 1992 riots. Her portfolio at City Hall — homelessness, housing, child care and AIDS — took the young UCLA graduate from the conservative enclaves of the Valley into the most destitute corners of South and East L.A.

"I used to call her the mayor of hopeless causes," former Bradley Deputy Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said. "She had all the really tough, intractable issues … and she dove in."

Now a leading contender to follow her political hero to City Hall's top office, Greuel says she learned from Bradley the skills the job demands: a tireless work ethic, an ability to glide between city factions and a relentless focus on basic city services.

"What I really learned from all of those years was that the details matter," said Greuel, whose admiration for Bradley's zeal in reporting potholes led her to style herself as the "pothole queen" when she later represented the San Fernando Valley on the City Council.

But critics contend that as Greuel, currently the city's controller, raised her political profile she shied away from the imaginative and idealistic projects that were a hallmark of her years in the Bradley administration. Councilman Richard Alarcon, who worked with Greuel in Bradley's office, said he endorsed Greuel's chief rival, Eric Garcetti, after watching her gravitate toward politically safe initiatives.

"When Wendy was with Mayor Bradley, it was all about action — all about creating projects, ideas, L.A.'s Best," Alarcon said, alluding to the acclaimed after-school program that has now expanded to more than 150 Los Angeles schools. "We were doing a lot more than filling potholes."

Greuel says Bradley inspired her "passion to fight for social justice" and to stand up for the most vulnerable. But some saw her City Council focus as tending toward the more narrow — modernizing parking meters and synchronizing traffic signals.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, the former police chief who is supporting Greuel's rival Jan Perry, said that Bradley created the downtown skyline, rebuilt the airport and brought the Olympics to L.A.

"He had a variety of legacies — most of them were big-picture ideas," Parks said. "In Wendy's era on the council…it was more of the mechanics of dealing with transportation and potholes."

In the early years however, Greuel's drive on those social issues was unquestioned.

Olivia Mitchell, Greuel's first boss in Bradley's youth development office, described Greuel as the ultimate "go-getter." At night, Greuel volunteered to be Mitchell's driver, ferrying her boss to community gatherings, prisoner probation meetings and continuation high schools in her brown Camaro.

"She wanted to know everything I knew and the people I knew," Mitchell said. Later, colleagues would tease her about being willing to "go to the opening of an envelope," Greuel said.

Former Bradley aide Donna Bojarsky said Greuel sought out "high-value, low-glamour" assignments. She also cultivated long-term political relationships that have helped her stack up endorsements in the current race.

Fellow Bradley aide Kerman Maddox noted that she was the one staffer who went to every group's party.

"We're talking 1980s Los Angeles, a tough, gritty, racially-balkanized city," Maddox said. "We'd tease her: 'How many white girls are hanging out in South L.A? It's just you.' But that's her.... She could move from camp to camp, faction to faction, because she got along with everyone."

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