Following a recent televised debate featuring the five top candidates running for mayor of Los Angeles, some campaign watchers wondered why the candidates weren’t being grilled more intensely. “It was genteel, for the most part, but I don’t want genteel,” Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote in a blog on Jan. 29. “I want hardball, not softball.”
City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who currently is running third in fundraising and in the polls, didn’t escape his critical assessment -- Lopez wondered whether she “had her eyes closed the whole time.” In fact, Perry herself registered objections to the tone of the campaign that were similar to Lopez’s in an interview with the Journal in early January.
“It’s been exceedingly polite,” Perry said, adding that she would prefer more back and forth between candidates during debates. “But some of that is due to the framework.”
This mayoral race, with a crowded field that includes two others city hall veterans who are running on their records of achievement in city government, as well as two untested outsider candidates running on similar anti-incumbent messages, presents a challenge to be heard for all the candidates, but perhaps particularly for Perry.
Perry has represented the ninth council district since 2001, but the other two city hall veterans in the race -- City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel –each have raised more than twice as much money as Perry has and have picked up more endorsements from the city’s most powerful unions.
Perry’s positions on a number of key issues – abolishing the city’s current business tax and pursuing reforms to the pensions of city workers -- don’t differ dramatically from Garcetti or Greuel’s stances, which only helps the two other candidates in the race, attorney and talk-show host Kevin James and Emanuel Pleitez, a young former mayoral aide and businessman, to lump all three city hall veterans in their attacks.
Perry appears to be trying to thread the needle between the two pairs. In public appearances, she presents herself as a straight-talking, experienced politician who has helped bring jobs to Downtown and to advance social initiatives that protect her numerous vulnerable constituents. She also pledges to talk tough to the municipal workers unions and other entrenched interests that frequently hold sway in L.A. city government. The result is a message that sounds like a call for modest reform by an insider who knows all too well of what she speaks.
“This is not an easy place to govern,” Perry said, sitting in a coffee shop near her home Downtown, an area of the city she used to represent until last year, when the City Council-approved redistricting plan removed it from her district. “You have to be persistent, you have to be tenacious. You have to be very, very patient. You have to listen to people.”
Perry is proud of her toughness, and of a multifaceted identity that she says makes her well-suited to lead Los Angeles, which is arguably the most diverse city in the world.
“I’m an African American woman who is Jewish who has represented a Latino district for the last 11 years,” Perry said at a forum hosted by Sinai Temple on Jan. 29. “The mayor can be the bridge-builder; I’ve been the bridge-builder, and I’ve seen the results of that, and they have been good.”
Perry grew up going to an African American church with her parents in the suburbs of Cleveland -- she fondly remembers the call-and-response during services. Perry said she had difficulty with the idea of original sin, though, and explained that part of what drew her to Judaism was the religion’s being “grounded in the belief that what we do here now is the only thing that will really matter.”
So Perry, who came to Los Angeles to study journalism at the University of Southern California, eventually found her way to the Hillel at UCLA, where she studied with Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller to prepare for conversion.
“What was attractive about Jan was her passion and her intelligence, and I think she carries that with her with dignity,” said Seidler-Feller said, thinking back on his sessions with Perry, about 30 years ago. “She knows the issues and she can argue the issues with the best of them.”
Perry says she appreciates when disagreements are played out in the open, and decries what she sees as the increasingly “transactional” character of city hall. Perry says she eschews exchanges of favors between representatives, and instead focuses on building citizen support for her agenda items.
“I work from the outside in,” Perry said. “I spend a lot of time on the outside talking to stakeholders, building support, building momentum, building consensus, hearing what people have to say.
“By the time I bring a project in for a vote,” she continued, “it’s been vetted, it’s been researched, it’s been documented.”
Perry has completed a number of projects during her tenure on the council, including getting 5,000 new units of affordable housing in her district. A former planning aide to former City Councilman Mike Woo and chief of staff to her predecessor in the 9th district, former Councilwoman Rita Walters, Perry said she enjoys digging into the details of a development, and she’s proud of having helped bring the Expo line to fruition. But on the campaign trail, Perry frequently talks about returning to “core services” – like street repair, public safety and zoning -- and getting the city out of other services, calling for the city to extricate itself from operating the convention center and the zoo.
Perry has a good deal of support from businesspeople in Downtown.
“Speaking for the business community we were all very happy with her,” said Selma Fisch, whose family has significant real estate holdings along Santee Alley in the Fashion District. “She works really hard, and she’s really smart.”
In January, Perry and her supporters managed to muster enough support from delegates to prevent either of the other two leading Democratic candidates from securing the Los Angeles County Democratic party nomination, and Eric Bauman, the county party chair, said it would be a mistake for Garcetti or Greuel to count her out.
“Nobody’s really paying attention to Jan,” Bauman said, “although with $2 million and [campaign consultant] Eric Hacopian and Jan’s fortitude, they ignore her at their own risk.”
Hacopian declined to speak about any specific strategies he’s using in running Perry’s campaign, but Perry – like Greuel and Garcetti – is certainly making a play for the Jewish vote, evidenced by the advertisements for Perry that have been displayed alongside articles on the Journal’s Web site, JewishJournal.com.
Jewish voters, who only make up about six percent of registered voters, may end up casting as much as 20 percent of ballots between now and March 5, the day of the citywide primary election. Whether Perry can assemble enough support from voters citywide to finish in one of the top two spots remains to be seen.
But Perry, for her part, is optimistic.
“As long as I know that I’m moving in an upward trajectory, I’m pleased,” she said.