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Jewish Journal

Jan Perry Puts Down Roots

by Sheldon Teitelbaum

July 19, 2001 | 8:00 pm

So whaddaya know? The election is over, we've got a new mayor, and no sign yet of the apocalypse the other candidates promised would befall this city, no matter who won. Newly minted 9th District Councilwoman Jan Perry knew it was a new day when, shortly after her own election, Jim Hahn called to extend his own congratulations.

"Can you imagine the mayor calling a council member to offer his best wishes under the last administration?" says Perry, 46. "I was pretty flabbergasted."

One reason Perry may find it hard to subscribe to conventional end-of-days scenarios may have something to do with her conversion to Judaism nearly 20 years ago, when she began a spiritual journey toward what her religious mentor Chaim Seidler-Feller might have termed a "Conservadox" niche within the community. Judaism's emphasis on the here and now, she says, was a major attractant.

That and a "broad-minded, inclusive approach to community, and to celebrating the differences among us."

The only thing she took issue with during her conversion was the requirement that she be turned away three times before her expressed wish to become a Jew was accepted. "I told Chaim that I didn't have a lot of time, so he'd better throw everything he had at me at once."

Jan Perry was born in Cleveland in 1955, the daughter of Samuel and Betty Perry, both of them at different times mayor of a small Cleveland-area municipality. Although she grew up in a politically open household, by the age of 20, Perry determined that Cleveland was too insular and provincial to support the kind of cultural cross-pollination she favored.

Whatever she was looking for, she apparently found it in Los Angeles, first as a journalism student at USC and later, during a decade in L.A. city government. During the early '90s, Perry worked as a planning deputy for Councilman Mike Woo; she also put in time with Councilman Nate Holden, and, prior to her most recent involvement with the 2000 Census Project, was chief of staff for Councilwoman Rita Walters, who was term-limited out of the running.

An able fundraiser who harped on the slogan "money, funding, community" throughout this last campaign, Perry won endorsements from the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly. "Though Perry espouses mainstream liberal positions," read the Weekly's endorsement, "she was no fan of the living-wage ordinance when it was still before the Council, and is often a staunch ally of downtown business interests. In the end though, we think it will be easier to improve Jan Perry's politics than raise Carl Washington's intelligence."

The almost blanket dearth of mention of her Jewishness during the campaign may have something to do with the makeup of the 9th District electorate, which includes the cash-strapped downtown core and some business-improvement districts like the Central City Business District, the Fashion District and the Jewelry Mart.

It is hard to imagine that her conversion would have widespread voter appeal to the people who live in the district, although it probably didn't harm her attempts to establish ties to business elites.

Perry, who is married to Westside litigator Doug Galanter and mother to their daughter, says she didn't bring it up because, notwithstanding her support for faith-based social programs, she believes staunchly in the separation of church and state. "I never ran on a Jewish ticket," she says. "It's just not something I generally do."

Perry never subscribed to Antonio Villaraigosa's reading of Los Angeles as a disparate conglomeration of 144 competing ethnic communities who rarely talk unless to rail at the others. "Even within the 9th District," she told The Journal, "people here are separated by far less than six degrees of separation. They know each other and interrelate. People cross real or imagined boundaries here all the time, whether for social reasons, for work reasons, or because they just like each other."

Even the black-Jewish rift strikes her as overblown. "One thing I've learned in my campaign," she says, "is often, what is perceived as a strain between groups is often a strain of a more personal nature. And it has more to do with political agendas being furthered through dissent and conflict than any actual strain. We have to be able to dissect those conflicts and see them as they really are."

Ever in a hurry to make her mark, Perry says her job will be to extend economic development throughout the district, and particularly eastward and south. Her top priorities, as expounded during her campaign, remain finishing infrastructure projects already in the pipeline, creating affordable and market-driven housing, fostering historical preservation, and creating new business and development.

"You can drive around and see how much of this district has been left behind," she says. "We need to help the community develop a collaborative approach to determining what it wants, and then, getting it done. Mostly, I hope, in coming months, to show that I am a councilwoman who works for the entire district. How will people measure what I've accomplished? I'll say it again: 'Money, funding, community.'"

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