I asked City Council member Jan Perry, a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, if she was on a spiritual quest when she converted to Judaism. “Right,” she replied. “Your question is a good way to put it.”
Perry, whose conversation offers a mixture of the spiritual and practical politics, is perhaps the most interesting of those planning to run for mayor in 2013. She’s Jewish, African-American, a woman and an articulate challenger of the insider old-boys club that runs City Hall. She currently is the only woman on the 15-member City Council, which another woman, Pat Russell, once led as president and where, in the past, other female council members have had considerable power.
I found her discussion of spiritual values intriguing, considering all her years in a city hall where standards are governed mostly by campaign contributions and political deals. Perry, who is currently in her third four-year-term representing Council District 9, has taken part in those deals and has both won and lost.
She was victorious in her efforts on behalf of the downtown projects of AEG, the entertainment giant, pushing through city financial aid and favorable zoning for Staples Center, subsidies for new nearby hotels, and her support was crucial to the development of the entire AEG L.A. Live complex of theaters and restaurants. She also won city financial aid for the company for its proposed National Football League stadium in the area.
But she was a loser earlier this year when she went up against fellow Council member Herb Wesson and voted against him for the council’s top job of president. Wesson prevailed, then, supported by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had the council pass a reapportionment plan that stripped development-rich areas of downtown from Perry’s district. Wesson obviously believes in the political adage, “Don’t get mad, get even.”
Perry and I talked over lunch at the Omni Hotel on Bunker Hill, one of the areas removed from her district in the reapportionment. She was friendly, relaxed and confident. Even when she was lashing out at the council’s ruling clique — my words, not hers — her voice was modulated and her manner calm. She doesn’t seem much different now than when I met her during her time as top aide to Rita Walters, the council member who previously represented her district. The mother of an adult daughter, Perry is divorced from her husband of 17 years. “We were friends then; we are friends now,” she said.
She’s the first of the potential mayoral candidates I’ll interview over the next several months. Best known among the others are City Council member Eric Garcetti, City Controller Wendy Greuel, radio talk-show host Kevin James, developer Rick Caruso and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Of these, only Perry, Garcetti, Greuel and James have formally announced their candidacies.
We talked about her journey from the Protestant home of her politically active parents in Cleveland to her embrace of Judaism while a student at USC about 30 years ago. Her spiritual quest took her to Rabbi Laura Geller, who then headed Hillel at USC. Perry said she was “on the hunt for something big. Why am I here? What is my purpose, my role as a woman, my role in society?” She also studied with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Felder, director of UCLA Hillel, and then converted.
“The big moment for me in being Jewish was to be more community oriented in developing my observances, being part of a community,“ she said. For example, she said that on Yom Kippur, “When I was younger, I didn’t understand how important it is” on this day of repentance and atonement to pray “in a community,” among those who share her beliefs.
I can see something of her religion in her handling of one of her biggest and most complex issues, Skid Row, where she is following the Jewish imperative of reaching out and helping those in need. Politicians and the rest of Los Angeles avoids visiting the dangerous neighborhood, or even thinking about it. But, according to Jon Regardie, executive editor of the Los Angeles Downtown News, Perry has “spent more time addressing Skid Row than any other official had in decades.”
Skid Row, recently removed from her district in the reapportionment, is a wide area just east of the commercial heart of downtown Los Angeles, reaching eastward from around Main Street to near the Los Angeles River. It is filled with the homeless and other down-and-outers, many among them substance addicts, mentally ill, physically ailing and victims of the recession. Skid Row’s population also includes families with children, as well as a group of dedicated nonprofit organization workers who strive to provide housing, medical help, rehabilitation and other services, despite many obstacles.
Perry told me Skid Row should be a “recovery community,” where the homeless can find housing, make appointments with doctors, see therapists and drug counselors, a place “where they can rest” rather than live the risky life on the streets.
By coordinating efforts with the several nonprofit organizations in the area and helping them with the complicated task of obtaining public and private financing, Perry said she spurred construction of 1,200 units of permanent housing, with facilities for counseling and medical care. In addition, 5,000 units of low-income housing have been built within the boundaries of the area she represented in pre-reapportionment days.
As Perry sees it, Skid Row encapsulates the kinds of problems she would face as mayor. It’s poor. She dealt with conflict between property owners who want the homeless out of there, and with human-rights advocates who stand up for the poor and see her as a hard-hearted ally of business. She also worked with the Los Angeles Police Department, which tries to control the rampant drug dealing and other crimes on Skid Row, to enforce public health statutes and also comply with court decisions protecting homeless rights.
Also in her downtown district, Perry, in addition to supporting L.A. Live, is credited by council observers with helping developers build the condos and apartment houses that have upscaled parts of Skid Row and the areas around it. Critics have called her a handmaiden of AEG and other downtown developers, but she defends her support for the company, saying it’s a model for how to bring in more jobs and housing. She said she would “be a strategic job creator.” She wants more hotels downtown for conventions and would “promote jobs along transit lines and make sure housing is available.”
After our lunch, I wondered how she would do if elected mayor. Although I am more cynical than spiritual, I was impressed by her spiritual qualities, nurtured by her mentors, Rabbis Geller and Seidler- Felder, both of whom I respect. But being a student of practical politics, I was also impressed with her toughness. If she wins, the City Hall old boys may find out whether she, like them, follows the political rule of “Don’t get mad, get even.”
Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).