Jewish Journal

One on One With Joel Wachs

There's no doubt of the ability of the mayor to effect change.

by Sheldon Teitelbaum

Posted on Mar. 1, 2001 at 7:00 pm

He says he's 61, but you wouldn't know it either to look at him or the paper-shrouded desk in his downtown office. After half a life crusading, his batteries retain their charge even as his office space threatens to succumb to the ever-encroaching mudslide of municipal files. I am told that City Councilman Joel Wachs prefers holding forth from his offices in Studio City. But today is a day for meetings and interviews -- it is past 3 p.m. and I am his third griller of the afternoon. He is always this busy, even more so now that he is running for mayor, and his desk is always on the verge of collapse. "I haven't taken a day off in 20 months," he confides.

Sheldon Teitelbaum: We keep hearing about the ethnic divisions that rive this town. Why aren't we seeing them reflected in this race?

Joel Wachs: It's something that's been grossly overemphasized. The differences are on the outside. Inside, people are fundamentally the same. They came here for the same reasons my parents or grandparents came to this country 100 years ago. They come to make a better life for themselves and their families. They see a country filled with possibility. So now they're coming from Latin America or Asia instead of Eastern Europe, but it's all basically the same thing. So they all want to make a living, raise a family, get a better education, be safe in the neighborhood, move up in the world.

ST: Are you saying that second- and third-generation Americans are largely sympathetic to these successive waves of immigration?

JW: I think they are, and I think it's important for leaders to remind us that they should be.

ST: Granted. But within this disparate city we also have to recognize that the majority of people are Hispanic. And this community faces the possibility its next mayor will be Jewish. Is something askew with this picture?

JW: I don't think so. No one person can be everything -- black and Latino and Jewish and Asian and Anglo and man and woman and straight and gay. You can only be one person. You just have to be the kind of person who genuinely wants to, and will, embrace the rest. It's about finding greatness, strength and beauty in the variety, and recognizing that as an asset, something that makes L.A. unique, perhaps even defines it. You have to have a system of government that includes everybody, but you have to be a mayor of everybody. The reason I have been the strongest proponent of neighborhood government is that there is an institutional framework that enables everyone to contribute what they can, to grow as individuals, to feel they are a part of something, that this is their government and their city.

ST: Do you see any downsides at all in this devolution of city government here? Just as a school or a police department can blow it big time, leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces, so too, I imagine, could a neighborhood council.

JW:: I have this amazing belief in people. It's not only about responding to the sense of alienation but recognizing that most people are good and care and want to contribute their fair share, and really do want to be a part of the system. If you give people that chance, what the city will get in return is the aggregate benefit of all the many things people here are capable of contributing.

ST: If there's been any kind of animus manifested among the candidates, it seems to be between you and Steve Soboroff.

JW: That's more personal than anything. It's not ideological at all. I don't want it to be that way, but that's the way it is.

ST: In many ways you all seem to share a great deal more in common in your approaches than not.

JW: You'll see an awful lot in common in what we all say. In politics, as in everything, have you done and will you do what you say? It's very easy to figure out what you think you should say. But will you do it when you're tested? Where will your allegiances be when you have to make choices? We all say we're for the environment, but will you be when a project comes along and a real estate developer who is very influential at giving campaign contributions pushes the other way? We all say we're for historic preservation, but will you have the guts to say no when the cardinal wants to tear down a cathedral? My career has been 30 years of standing up for what I say and believe in. There are times where I stand alone, where I buck all the powerful interests. That's fine. You make enemies that way, it's tougher to raise money that way, but you also gain respect and self-respect.

ST: Having stood alone in opposition as often as you have during your career, is it possible now to govern?

JW: It hasn't been just in opposition. Many times standing alone is the first step in bringing about change. I fought the water and power department for 20 years, saying it was bloated and overstaffed, and it was, and finally we brought in the first outside, independent audit. It took a quarter of a billion out of the budget, streamlined the operation, and now we're the model utility in the entire state at a time when others could potentially go bankrupt. The initial stand is not just a stand in and of itself but a step toward improvement. Endless changes in city government that have made it more efficient and productive were changes that took that battle at first. I never fight the battles for their own sake. When I fought the $150 million tax subsidy for the sports arena or $100 million subsidy for a hotel downtown, it's not just because I want to stop that but because I have a different sense of priorities and reflect the priorities of a community that can use that money for other things -- to pave streets, fix sidewalks and trim trees, put books in schools and after-school programs for kids and paramedics. I fight chemical contamination of water not just to fight but because I want to clean up the water. I don't fight air-spraying of malathion just to fight but to find an alternative. Often these fights are politically harmful because you step on interest groups.

ST: How powerful are these various interest groups these days? It's been a while since the last time I watched "Chinatown."

JW: They're very powerful. And not just here. It's about money. It always goes back to money. You need money to run for office. The forces that get people elected, keep them in office and get them to the next place will always be powerful. The ability to make decisions in secret behind closed doors always makes it possible for people to do things they might not otherwise do if the public were looking. People act a lot differently when someone is looking over their shoulder.

ST: How do you respond to those in this campaign who say you don't trust the folks who dug the hole to pull you out of it?

JW: Most people reject that. It's not whether you've been in government for 30 years but what kind of job you've done. The reason we're leading in the polls without having spent almost any money is because not only have we been in office but we've done a good job. Everyone can talk a good game at election time. But do you have something to prove you're the real thing? I have my record, my vision, and people will judge me as such. So when someone says you've been there so long, I'll say, yeah, and I'm really proud of my record. If there had been 15 Joel Wachs, things would have been real different.

ST: Each of the candidates paid lip service to how awful the Rampart business is. And then the "buts" come.

JW: It's not buts. It's that it shouldn't be either/or. Reforming the department or protecting the public shouldn't be mutually exclusive. You can't have one without the other as far as I'm concerned. We can and should have both.

ST: So why do I get the sense from all of you that the onus is actually on the public to win back the department?

JW: The issue has been framed -- and Steve [Soboroff] has partly framed it that way -- that reform is okay, but you're tying the hands of the department to do its job. I'm saying it's not one or the other -- it's both. I think I have support from so many officers because they realize it's both. The good officers don't want to be tainted by the bad ones. But there has been a code of silence. And it is maintained more at the top than the bottom. That's why I pick on management more than on rank and file. The management is doing the investigating. Who is looking at themselves? We wouldn't have known there was a Rampart if it wasn't for Rafael Perez getting caught and stealing drugs. The reason I was the first to call for an outside investigation and take it wherever it went is that I knew it would never come voluntarily. We had to do that and only because the mayor and chief were pig-headed about it that we not have the federal government coming in. So wring it all out, I say. Open this culture up. Look at it in a broad way, reform the department, but always remember that public safety is always the number one priority of a local government.

ST: So what's the deal with education? I understand the bully pulpit. But if, as you say, it always comes down to money, then let's understand the next mayor has no budget that says "education" on it.

JW: Okay, you have no legal authority. But if you allow the Belmonts to happen -- Belmont is to the school district what Rampart is to the police that some of the MTA cost overruns and boondoggles are to transportation. If you permit the bad things to happen and continue, you not only waste a lot of money but undercut public support for giving the very resources the system needs. We need more money for teachers, not less. There's something crazy about a society that pays a ball player $10 million but begrudges a teacher $10,000. We need smaller classes and better teachers and more technology. All the things that make it better for rich people in private schools, we need more in the public schools. But when people use the failures as an excuse to cut support? So if a mayor says he can help bring some reform to that, some changes, you have begun to create an environment that creates public support for schools.

I cringe at a Belmont not only because of the wasted money and environmental disaster but because it serves as an excuse not to support the schools. An educated workforce drives the modern economy. So I have to believe that to the extent that you can use your position on something as important as this -- people leave the city for other educational systems -- the well-being of the city depends on this. Yes, there is a board of education that runs that. But I think the current mayor was right in involving himself in trying to improve the system. That's different from saying I would do all the things he says he would like to do. But there's no doubt of the ability of the mayor to effect change by virtue of being the spokesperson of the second largest city in the country -- I think that's true, and the public wants to see that in their mayor.

ST: Rabbi Harold Schulweis recently told congregants that as Jews we are commanded to take an interest in the ills afflicting other parts of this city and to take a hand in resolving them. Given our own propensity to flock either to the West Valley or the Westside or to gated communities and private schools, do you have the sense that this community has heeded the call?

JW: I see enormous numbers of people doing good in every neighborhood. It's heartwarming to see it. You'd be surprised how good a lot of people really are. If we learned anything from the riots a decade ago, it's that you can't build walls around you and divorce yourself from the rest of society. It's not only not possible, it's not moral, and certainly not the way Jews are raised. I'm out there every day, and I watch endless examples of people who put their time and energy to help others, to help elderly, to make sure kids have something going for them after school. I think mayors can lead in that way by setting a tone, by how they lead and live by example, by how they focus the attention of others. Mayors ought to be saying the same thing mayors should say. What Rabbi Schulweis said is what I expect of my rabbi. But politicians should be saying similar things. It shouldn't only be rabbis who say these things. Mayors may reach people that rabbis can't.

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