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Dances with Wolves

Paul Krekorian thrives in LA's toughest council district

I caught up with Councilman Paul Krekorian at the Aroma Cafe in Tujunga Village, the day before tax day, and the first thing I asked him was when he realized that in taking on a City of Los Angeles council district, he was, in effect, presiding over an area the size and population of Pittsburgh.

"I still don't realize that," he laughed. "That big?"

As a long-standing local political figure, humility and frankness have served the nimble Krekorian, now Councilman from one of the City's most cantankerous council districts, very well over the years. His two natural inclinations came in especially handy a little over a year ago, when Krekorian surprised many, including those in the Mayor's office, in his most recent quest for office, when he decided to leave the State Assembly a little early for a chancy run to represent the collar of LA neighborhoods that stretches around Burbank and Glendale from Studio City to Sunland Tujunga.

His team ran a masterful campaign--at one point offering to recycle his better-financed opponent's fliers--and caught would-be heir apparent Chris Essel's well-heeled power pep squad napping. Since then, Krekorian has charmed the District not with rhetoric but most of all with candor, displaying perfect pitch to the citizens and activists of CD 2, who may be the City's most politically in-tune of all, and is easily one of LA's best loved Councilmembers.

"Yes, being a City Councilmember surprised me," Krekorian tells me at last. "Much is expected of our Councilmembers. The people in the City are frustrated and angry and they have reason to be. In the State legislature, what you do has widespread impact. You are vastly more dependent on your policy staff. In the city, you touch everything yourself."

But Krekorian's move from State to City also gives him a policy deftness that inspires confidence in constituents in every corner of his district. Well over 70% voted for him in his freshman election against journeyman candidate Augusto Bisani--a number indicating that many crossed party lines to vote for Democrat Krekorian. Sitting down with the Councilman, you learn how he does it: by mixing honesty and agility in equal measures.

"No, actually, there is a CRA presence in the District," he readily admits when I ask him if not much of a CRA presence in his district has made his new life easier than that of his peers. "We have a few projects and they have gone pretty well--we've had some good discussions..."

Krekorian is great at reversing the field on you. He is almost Germanic in his ability to abstract a too-direct political question and to nail a too-general one. I ask him about a recent affordable housing bond, for instance, and he comes up with the following: "Initiative reform is absolutely essential. It's no longer a tool of grass-roots democracy." His mind naturally goes from your micro issue to his macro issue and vice versa. This is how he was able to easily jujitsu Essel--who was backed by Big Money, John Shallman, &c.--but who was neither much of a policy wonk nor much of a macro thinker.

And this is how he's been able to keep the pitchfork people in his district at bay on a 64-unit 1818 development on Samoa in the City's density-despising ground zero, Sunland Tujunga. Krekorian hasn't overtly endorsed the project, but after suggesting during his campaign that elements of SB 1818 were flawed, he has sent a letter to the City's Housing Department encouraging tax-exempt status and funding. The building "isn't the typical 1818 project Paul railed against," Krekorian's communication director Jeremy Oberstein tells me, reflecting Krekorian's own sotto voce, flip-it style on thorny political matters.

Skipping the thorny development discussion, we talk about the City's coming thorny budget discussion. "I don't expect a budget that will please me," Krekorian tells me. Compared to everything else I've heard on the City's coming budget, this sounds like a Zen koan.

"I have guarded optimism," he admits. "I think we'll do something that works." It's the kind of statement with which you expect a wry smile, but Paul Krekorian doesn't smile wryly. He's always talking in earnest.

So I push on the deficit side--I note that New York City in the 1970's simply borrowed to bail itself out of dire straits, why not LA?

"Some degree of borrowing may be part of the overall solution," Krekorian tells me, "but we can't borrow of course against structural deficits."

"No borrowing against structural deficits?" I jump in. "That's a pretty sophisticated economic talk...Does [City CAO Miguel] Santana think in terms of 'no borrowing against structural deficits?'"

I note that Krekorian looks a little pained. Friendly, still, but pained. He doesn't like to be put on the spot evaluating another civic figure. "You'd have to ask him. Likely he does. I'll just tell you what I think: borrowing will be a part of the solution, I think, but not a large part."

This predisposition to be conciliatory to all in the middle of a crisis has helped him win favor with both the Mayor's office and Valley malcontents, a handsome balancing act.

"He's witty, he's charming, he comes into Council prepared," longtime Mayoral consultant Mike Trujillo tells me later. "What's not to like?"

Krekorian is getting phone calls, and Oberstein keeps him on track this afternoon.

"It's been good to have a substantive talk about City politics," he concludes. Looking at my notes, I'm left wondering if Paul Krekorian can't help but ever have substantive talks about City politics.