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TELLING CHAPTERS: The candidates for L.A. mayor

Jan Perry in some ways a classic Angeleno

An African American who is Jewish and speaks Spanish, Jan Perry thrived in L.A. But her campaign faces a lack of name recognition and complaints that she's too pro-business.

February 27, 2013|By Seema Mehta and Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Councilwoman Jan Perry, center, has had to balance requests from the privileged and the poor in her district, which has led to uncomfortable fights.
L.A. Councilwoman Jan Perry, center, has had to balance requests from the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

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

When Jan Perry came to Los Angeles as a college freshman to watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play in the 1974 Rose Bowl, she had no idea that a trip to a football game would change her life.

"All I remember is being shocked at how warm it was when I got here and the sky was blue and that people were wearing shorts," Perry said, recalling walking down Hollywood Boulevard, visiting Olvera Street and seeing the Jackson Five in the Rose Parade. "I was struck by the diversity, just the mosaic of people."

As soon as she went home to Ohio, she filled out a transfer application to USC, and enrolled her sophomore year.

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That was the beginning of a new chapter for Perry, now a veteran City County member running to become Los Angeles' first African American woman to be elected mayor.

"I came here and I felt like I belonged," she said recently over burgers at a downtown restaurant. "There was something about being here, I really felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do, and just walk through any door. I was just on a search for something. Fulfillment."

Of the elected officials in the race, Perry, 57, is the only non-native Los Angeles resident.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

She is known for being business-friendly, which has drawn critics who complain that she appeases powerful interests at the expense of constituents and city coffers.

She grew up in a suburb of Cleveland during racially tumultuous times, having a cross burned on her family's lawn, but also seeing both of her parents elected mayor of their town.

In some ways, she is a classic Angeleno: an African American transplant from the snowy Midwest who converted to Judaism and speaks Spanish. She represents a district whose demographics are rapidly shifting from a stronghold of black voters to Latino.

Before Perry got into politics, she was a paralegal for 14 years and earned a master's degree in public administration. While living in Mid-Wilshire on the Miracle Mile, she became active in neighborhood preservation. She instantly impressed Renee Weitzer, then a staffer for Councilman John Ferraro, with her ability to gauge the effects of proposed development on the neighborhood.

"She was very realistic. She wasn't anti-development, she wasn't pro-development," Weitzer said. "She just had a knack for it."

So Weitzer urged Perry to apply for a planning deputy job in then-Councilman Mike Woo's office. Perry was a hard worker, balancing "angry homeowners and irritated real estate developers," Woo recalled.

Perry later joined the staffs of council members Rita Walters and Nate Holden before running herself. She moved into the 9th District and, amid criticism that she was a carpetbagger, won the 2001 race to represent downtown and part of South L.A.

The district is a study in disparity — celebrities sit courtside at Lakers games at Staples Center, minutes from where the city's most downtrodden residents sleep on skid row. The southern part, once the post-World War II home to middle-class African Americans, is one of the city's poorest areas.

Perry has had to straddle these worlds, shepherding high-end development, such as downtown's Ritz-Carlton hotel complex, while trying to create housing and jobs for the neediest.

Balancing the privileged and the poor has led to uncomfortable fights.

She and other city officials were viewed as villains when 350 families who grew food and flowers on the 14-acre South Central Farm were evicted in 2006.

The city had acquired the land by eminent domain in the 1980s but never used it, so the prior owner sued. The city sold it back to him in 2003 in a deal that called for him to donate 2.6 acres for a park. The council later scrapped that plan and instead had the landowner pay to improve nearby parks, clearing the way for the property's sale to clothing manufacturers.

Perry said the plot, in an industrial area, was unsuitable for a park because of diesel emissions. Farmers and their supporters accused her of using the health-risk issue as a pretext to push through development. The clash was featured in "The Garden," an Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary.

Perry counters that the farmers were pawns of activists, and that she worked alongside Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to find nearby land for them to continue gardening.

Although he disagreed with Perry's handling of the farm, Woo cites it as proof of her resilience.

"I would say her greatest single strength is she has very strong backbone," he said.

Perry said her decision-making can be traced to a long-standing interest in development and planning.

"I always liked to design things, and I still do," she said,  noting that as a child, she built a backyard rock garden with three-foot boulders. "The truth of it is if you are willing to understand and work at the details, you can really change a neighborhood."

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