Despite rough times, Mitch Englander finds a lax attitude
We arrive seven minutes early at Brent's Deli, perhaps the best-known and busiest deli north of the Boulevard. He is already there, waiting. It rarely happens that a frontrunner beats you to the venue. And very plainly, Mitch Englander is the frontrunner in the race to replace Greig Smith in Council District 12.
"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Englander says of his own campaign.
Englander has served Councilman Greig Smith as chief of staff ever since Smith was elected in 2003. He spends far more time in the District than downtown. Much of his whopping financial fundraising cushion--he has likely already raised over $300,000 for this race by now--comes from within and not outside of community.
Demographically, the Twelfth is nearly a flip of a typical LA council district. There is no speakable CRA presence in the District. Homeowners outnumber renters here, by a long shot. And predictably Englander, a Republican who splits with his party on culture wars issues like right to life and gay marriage, sees LA in a different way than a lot of people from the basin and in the hills do.
"I mean, LA is a disaster city, right?"
When he tells his own life's story, you see how a Republican like Mitch Englander might agree on this point with a lefty like Mike Davis. "The thing about the people out here [in Porter Ranch], they don't run away from disasters--they run towards them, to help out."
Indeed on first glimpse, Porter Ranch would seem relatively insulated from the rest of Los Angeles, and not a place from which jeremiads originate. The CRA has absolutely no presence in his district. The DWP, Rec and Parks don't have much of a physical presence either. Council District 12, Englander says, is LA's most affluent overall, a statistic not skewered by the pockets of extreme wealth one finds on the westside. The schools are all pretty good. Really, much of Porter Ranch is insulated from City Hall in ways that even Sunland Tujunga isn't. Streets wind into the foothills, suburban but in a manicured, effortless way, not the overbuilt KB Homes way.
But despite the cozy suburban touches, Englander himself has seen a lot of trauma in his life. And he is only anxious to relate the stories, some of which appear in his bio at his campaign website.
A sister of his, a Deadhead who followed Jerry Garcia around ("She stalked him," he says), was an asthmatic who entered a coma after being denied access to an emergency room. She later emerged from the coma but died after a long struggle with more illness.
An uncle was killed in a robbery the same day the sister was denied the ER access.
Englander's own mother died well before her years, and he took his mother's name because his father was abusive and she kicked him out.
Less cataclysmic but nonetheless harrowing, Englander's wife and his daughters were in a train derailment in Ventura and the accident left one of his daughter's with some nerve damage.
And when Englander was one of the responders to the Metrolink disaster, the family experienced some of their trauma again.
"Yes, there was a camera on me. I was on TV, in a suit, I stood out. I didn't respond as an officer. In some ways, I regret going. I pulled someone who was injured on the train out of the car. The TV crew got a shot of me, and my daughter who had been in the train derailment saw it on TV. That was it--I mean, we couldn't even mention the word train in our household for so long, and there it was again, daddy on TV, and a train crash. That sent us right back into therapy."
With all the early trauma in life--Englander is still only 40--does the would-be Councilman practice any religion devotedly?
"We're between temples," he explains. "We're looking for one that might provide a good bat mitzvah for the girls." The girls attend Catholic school, as Englander's wife is Catholic.
"At the holidays, we celebrate everything," Englander says.
He was on the Valley secession team. He is proud of his role as an occasional whistleblower.
"We've got to change the DWP. I've been trying to change things. We have to have an independent inspector general. I've done work on this. I was the guy who gave the billings story to the Daily News."
"Doug Dowie worked at the Daily News," we remind him.
"There were bad things going on," he says. "The DWP is corrupt."
Are things any less corrupt now?
"No," Englander charges.
In the spring of 2004, Dowie--still a controversial figure who maintains his innocence and who may yet serve hard time--was being investigated by a Grand Jury. The same spring, Englander and Alex Padilla, then City Council president, pressed a City Hall security guard to let them into Mayor Hahn's office with a movie camera while Hahn wasn't there. Mayor Hahn felt violated, but Padilla and Englander said at the time they were shooting prank footage for the annual political roast on behalf of Englander's favorite diabetes charity--a charity which was run, for what it's worth, by affiliates of Sunshine Canyon, a landfill which is in his District and which lots of people want shut down or confined. Readers curious about this may reference Rob Greene's column about it for the LA Weekly from the time of the incident.
Today, with eyes to Council himself, Englander's campaign is being run by John Shallman for the the time being. Englander tells me that Shallman is month-to-month with him. He says raising lots of money early on wasn't intended to scare anybody away, but he wanted in the end to have everyone aware of his intention. When to declare himself a candidate, he admits, was indeed the subject of much discussion.
We ask Englander about the fact that Greig Smith is moving on after eight years rather than seeking a final term. He said that he's doing it to honor his original thinking about term limits--when he ran, he ran hoping for eight years, not twelve, and he didn't back the way the extension was done.
As for his agenda for his District, Englander comes across as a kind of a hopeful efficiency expert, hoping to make the city answer the phones better, &c. (He recently made a reservation on Southwest Airlines and was impressed enough with their customer service to keep calling back just to make notes on how to improve the City's). He wants not only a ratepayer for the DWP and an independent Inspector too, and both with full seats on the commission. He doesn't mind the idea of privatizing more civic services ("Great, if it makes sense.")
Who does a good job in the City?
"Pouria Abbassi"--the head of the Convention Center, Englander says. He describes Abbassi as a man who is always prepared and who comes into meetings with charts and projections and timetables and targets. He admires Abbassi's efficiency.
And one suspects this is the kind of Councilman Englander would aspire to be, one with an eye towards charts, projections, timetables and targets--occasionally running towards and not away from various disasters in the "disaster city."