It was three years ago when I decided to get into politics. I was sitting with my sister, who had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. “You should run for City Council,” she said.
“Stick around and I will,” I said.
“Give me something to stick around for,” she responded.
That was the beginning of an amazing journey into all the issues central to West Hollywood.
That night I called John D’Amico, and we met the next day for coffee. “Hi John,” I said. “I’m going to run for City Council and want to be the first to ask for your support.” “I already have my pony… in the race,” D’Amico said, referring to Heidi Shink,.. hmmm, the best laid plans of mice and men.. – this is politics.. I learned.
Then I met with Steve Afriat, the lobbyist and campaign manager. “Tell me how this works,” I said.
“I’m going to tell you the same thing I told John D’Amico,” Afriat said. “I can’t run your campaign because I have business in front of (John) Heilman and (Abbe) Land and don’t want that to be affected.” But then he offered: “If you need anything here’s my card. Call anytime.” Another lesson, I’m not an insider…
I heard D’Amico claim publicly that there was no one ready to take a City Council seat in the March election. “You’re not going to be able to say that to me,” I said. So I started going to every, or almost every, Public Safety, Rent Stabilization, Human Services, Planning, and many other city board and commission meetings. What I saw was that government was a slow process. The people involved had good hearts, but very few had the entrepreneurial sense of “lets get it done,” a sense of urgency. I felt government is not that creative. But it was fun to quickly join in and offer my input into the issues. Anyone can contribute, you don’t have to be elected.
I decided to run in the March election for City Council, That’s when I learned that asking people for money to fund my campaign was absolutely the hardest thing to do. If somebody gave me $25, I wanted to take them to a $50 dinner. At my first fundraising barbeque I spent $600 and took in $300. One day a lady with a walker gave me a check for $35. “It’s more than I can afford, but I want you to have it,” she said. I held the check in my pocket and didn’t have the heart to cash it. I saw her a month later and said, “thank you but I can’t cash this. Your support is priceless.” “Thanks,” she said. “I really needed it this month.”
Fundraising? Making a list of everybody you know to ask them for money? That’s not me. Then I thought, some people like to spend their money on a fancy dinner, others on vacations, or if they are parents to send kids to private schools and colleges, throw a wedding or a bar mitzvah. I decided to look at the money I needed to fund my campaign like money for my bar mitzvah. And the city as my family. Thank you all for coming to my bar mitzvah!
My campaign was a two-man band. We spent about $20 per vote this election and the winners spent $1,000 to $1,500 for each of their votes. Money still drives elections. Thank you to so many for your support. Our 1,033 votes in March and 800 June 2 votes (the estimate by time time we finish counting Tuesday night) this election is truly amazing with a budget of less than $20,000.
The March election, with 12 candidates running for three seats, was tough to break through. Clearly big money was driving the race. People endorsed their colleagues. Personal, political and business relationships guaranteed placement on slate cards. D’Amico played the game with all the candidates — endorsing but not endorsing, “I will host your barbeque, but that isn’t an endorsement” he said of Joe Guardarrama. Then, as it was told to me, he told a colleague: “ I want all the Lauren Meister people to vote for Joe. I can keep Lauren in check.” He pushed that Guardarrama / Meister slate. He turned into everything he ran against. “Collusion,” I cried. “That’s politics!”
Heilman’s loss on March 3, a Tuesday, was a watershed moment for me. I saw hope in running again in the June election against other “non-incumbents” and on my record as a citizen activist. I pulled papers to run for office on Wednesday morning. John Duran called me the next day and asked me to pull out and endorse John Heilman. “Are you kidding me?” I said.
On Thursday night after his defeat the word was that Heilman was tormented about whether to run again in the June special election. People were pushing him to do it. I could feel the struggle of this man, who had invested 30 years in West Hollywood. So I sent John a text. “Hi John, I have this plaque above my sink. It says, ‘What would you attempt to accomplish if you knew you cannot fail?’ Follow your heart.” He pulled the papers the next day to run again for the June 2 election.
I talked to Heilman. “John do you still love this city?” I asked. “Yes I do,” he said. “John are you willing to mend broken fences?” I asked. “Perhaps, ” he said. “John,” I said, “you got to tell people you love the city again, or I’m gonna beat you. ” Heilman smiled and went to work.
Then the June election campaign began. The Chamber of Commerce endorsed Heilman again without interviewing the other candidates. There emerged an “independent expenditure” committee run by Estavan Montemayor, who had run Horvath’s campaign. They rolled right into June. For the first time in the history of West Hollywood there was an independent expenditure committee with an on-the-ground campaign plan. And Heilman actually campaigned door-to-door. What I saw was a man getting back in touch with the people. The D’Amico team was no different, — Renee Nahum and company running the D’Amico – Guardaramma ticket in March rolled forward into the Shink campaign for June. In many ways it was a Heilman versus D’Amico race from the start. Too much at stake for a non-money candidate to break through.
I heard the statements coming from the Shink and D’Amico team about what they would do: fire the city manager, stop integrating affordable housing units, change zoning codes (which would reduce affordable housing), blame Heilman for the city’s parking problems, low interest rates that drive development and everything but the causes of supply and demand. I learned that two candidates, Shink and Ettman, lacked the simple knowledge of how we issue bonds to finance our projects like the City Hall parking garage.
Ettman in particular talked big, “I have all this money,” he said, bragging about his campaign funds (he had loaned himself $50,000). But funny, he spent everybody else’s donations and ended the campaign with just about enough to pay himself back. He offered me $10,000 in March to support him and the planning commission, and later $20,000 and the planning commission . The night before the election he placed his signs all in front of mine. Today, as this is published, look around town, we all cleaned up our signs but his lay all over town. Politics is often about self-interest.
Shink had been my good friend before the race. But she and I will need to go to counseling if we are to rebuild our friendship. That’s because now I’m going to have a hard time believing a word she says. I was distressed at some of her claimed accomplishments, which were lies. And how, as she get claimed, did she get kicked out of her house at 16 for coming out as a lesbian, and WeHo took her in, when she went to NYU at 17… and came to West Hollywood about 12 years later?
I saw it was hard for anyone to argue against the stability of John Heilman.
I know that West Hollywood’s voters are very smart. They were smart enough to vote for term limits but to reject Steve Martin, the author of term limits Measure C, when he ran for office on the same ballot.
What we saw when the votes came in on Tuesday was that John D’Amico was the big loser in this election. He lost his reputation for independence that I had admired. While I like the guy personally, I saw him flip and flop on endorsements (“no I’m not endorsing Guardaramma” and then “yes” to Guardarrama in March, then “no” to Guardarrama in June, for example) and turn into everything he had campaigned against. Shink, despite having the endorsement of D’Amico and Meister, got a bit over 25 percent of the vote. Tuesday’s election was a Heilman mandate and a D’Amico defeat.
Despite the fact that I hoped the voters would vote against the big money , in this case the big money proved to be smart money. John Heilman has served us honestly for 30 years. He has never run for higher office. And I believe he now is re-invigorated.
I left the Council Chambers where the votes are counted on Tuesday night and walked to Here Lounge to congratulate John Heilman on his race — no underhanded attacks. Standing on his record and ideas. I thought to myself, “I kept my promise to my sister.. sorry I didn’t ring the bell, but I gave it all I could.”
John was on the stage as I walked in to a packed room of supporters. He was speaking, a man reborn. He espoused the values and ideals of what makes West Hollywood great. I lifted my camera to take a photo and he saw me, – and pointed me out. The crowd began to chant “BLOCK”, “BLOCK”, and the people around me started to push me to the stage. I leaned back, after all it was not my party.. – but the crowd kept it up. “LAR – RY, LAR-RY, LAR-RY,” so I went close and hugged them all. That moment meant so much to me. It was the moment that I could look up to my sister and say, “we did ring the bell. ”
Now I’m excited about resuming my place at the public comment podium at City Council meetings to keep all of you on the Council in check. Where are those crosswalk safety studies? Why are we implementing only short term safety measures? Move forward on that aging in place initiative with solutions, not lip service. Are we going to get PReP out to our residents?
The Heilman haters need to stop hating… shake it off, shake it off. You don’t have to agree with every decision. But if you love West Hollywood then you are walking in a city built on John’s shoulders..and passion. Say it again John: “I love West Hollywood. ” Clearly the best man won.
Block, owner of The Block Party store in WeHo’s Boystown, as a candidate in the March and June City Council races.