The Mayor's Lavender Smokescreen

MAILANDER ON POLITICS - "What is it about the Mayor and lesbians?” I asked a political consultant last Thursday while waiting in front of Silver Lake’s Del Taco for a ride to LA Opera’s La Boheme.  There was a little nervous laughter—actually, there was a lot of it--but no real answers forthcoming.

I also met up with a local editor for coffee on Election Day and asked the same question—and got the same kind of half-smiley, half-nervous response.

And two days after Election Day, after Torie Osborn’s insurgent lesbian candidacy had come up just short in one of the most bewildering political faceoffs in local history—between Osborn, who was the Mayor’s candidate of choice, and some others, notably incumbent Betsy Butler—the question rang in my ears again, even as I was waiting at the same Del Taco for my ride to the Bolshoi’s performance of Swan Lake.

Absent theories, I posited my own: that the Mayor had found that magic Clintonian formula, the one that says you should publicly patronize the very people you privately mess with the most, for the sake of trying to erase his own dubious past history with women.

After all, the man has had some shameless (and shamelessly well-documented) affairs through his political career, before poor Corina—who had even helped lend to him his contrived catchy name—could take it no longer.  And local labor leaders have especially noted how, whenever the Mayor suggests staff cuts to the City, they disproportionately affect women.

What better smokescreen to use to cover himself for whatever national stage he might be angling than pushing the lavender stripe of feminist progressive politics whenever possible? (He even lit the otherwise decidedly phallic City Hall building this week in lavender, honoring LGBT Heritage month).  

And what better, hopeful, one-note political vanguard group to prey on, hoping that the chosen might remain forever beholden to him—as the Mayor typically hopes whenever he nominates an out-of-town apparatchik to head an agency—than an often disenfranchised interest group, even within its own LGBT community?

The Osborn backing was bewildering even to some of the Mayor’s closest advisors.  After all, the Mayor’s own cousin, Speaker of the Assembly John Perez, a gay man and powerful LGBT advocate, was decidedly backing Butler, whom Perez valued as an already proven, talented up-and-comer in the Assembly.  And Butler and Osborn already agreed on nearly every issue—yet Butler had much legislative esteem, and Osborn no particular legislative cache whatsoever.

The Mayor first began playing lesbians like trump cards when he promoted the select civic affordable housing causes of a Hahn appointee, Mercedes Márquez, who ultimately left LA’s Housing Authority to become HUD Assistant Secretary of Community Planning and Development at Villaraigosa’s urging.  The Mayor also did the personal service of performing Márquez’s marriage to her partner Mirta Ocana in June 2008, before the couple left for Washington. (Márquez left the Obama Administration in April of this year).

The City’s Housing Department of course has endured its share of criticism ever since affordable housing advocate Márquez reshaped the agency into something that perpetually erred on the side of boosting rental properties--which is not to say boosting renters—all with Villaraigosa’s strong encouragement, as out-of-town developers and Riordanites preyed on the Mayor’s bizarre housing policies in the Mayor’s early days.  

In their anxiety to please out of town developers and quasi-relief agencies, Márquez's Housing Department helped set policy that grew the City’s owner-occupied to rental ratio to distressing levels, levels not typical to other healthy urban areas, ultimately erring on the rental side by 60% to a scant 40% owner-occupied (a more typical “healthy” urban ratio is 50-50).

And Márquez was asked to shill for the Mayor’s failed billion dollar affordable housing bond, which was barely defeated by voters in November 2006, and accordingly obliged.

“It’s like a double-fix,” one writer and City Hall observer said in a phone call Thursday.  “On the one hand, you’re not likely to worry about Villaraigosa’s private life with women if he’s always doing this progressive ‘you-go-girl’ stuff—and on the other hand, when he gets a potentially vulnerable, grateful agency head in pocket, he gets to dictate policy to her, providing she remains grateful.”

There have been others—Brenda Barnette of LA Animal Services comes to mind.  But no lesbian in the Mayor’s coterie formed a more formidable agency head than his one-time Community Redevelopment Agency chief Cecilia Estolano, now of Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors LLC--and the tale of the ongoings between the two is worth telling.

Estolano would be nobody’s fig leaf—and one spell of events that took place five years ago demonstrated that fact to City Hall’s chattering class in spades.  It began on Monday, November 5, 2007, at 10:30 am, when the Mayor showed up to address 250 employees of Estolano’s erstwhile Community Redevelopment Agency.

The Mayor was drunk.  He was still drunk from the preceding night out; he even claimed to have matched a famous mariachi in town shot for shot the night before.  I wasn't there; but five people who attended the meeting have reported to me over the years that he was drunk; and there may even be a video.  He was drunk, and even proud of it.

It wasn't an especially good day for CRA’s director, Estolano, either.  Employees noticed that her hair was dripping wet.  (Even on a good day, she has wildly unmanageable hair, as all her siblings do--it's from the Greek side of the family.  But this morning she simply gave up and wet it down to the point that it was dripping.)

Neither the Mayor nor the Department head took a shine to each other at this meeting: that was obvious to all.  Cecilia shook her head at the Mayor's shameless, halting, slurring performance.  The Mayor sneered at his own lesbian appointee with the freaky wet hair.

The Mayor later that week called for a far more intimate meeting with Cecilia.  It was a chilly meeting. The Mayor was very upset that two pet eastside CRA projects in Jose Huizar's district--his old district--had failed to date with no chances of going forward.

One of these projects was the redevelopment of the old Sears Distribution center; the City had spent two years dealing with a fabled boxer Oscar de la Hoya to redevelop the site, and the deal fell through after inking a virtual agreement, when De La Hoya insisted on much more money, which Estolano declined.

The other was the Agency's inability to land investment in a planned biotech and stem-cell research center in East LA that probably never had a real chance at all but that Latino politicians were pushing hard for in the wake of the passage of the State's Stem Cell Research bill.  Both were under the responsibility of the same project manager, who needed to land at least one of the two deals to help bolster the third Eastside project, called Adelante, which wasn't turning nearly quickly enough nor turning the kind of revenue needed to revitalize the Mayor's own eastside.

Then—the AnselmoBreda deal also fell through.  The Mayor wanted that one most of all.  But his team had put AnselmoBreda through far too many hoops.  Estolano, who turned out to be more unmanageable than Villaraigosa would have liked, would ultimately tell media that the company would never likely do business in LA, and perhaps never even America again.

After the testy time with the CRA, Estolano ultimately moved to Green For All, a Bay Area based not-for-profit startup, late in 2009.  It may even be incorrect to say she was fired; though many in the Mayor's office considered her "removable," it is more correct to say that she was moved by Democratic Party power-brokers.  

Many locals snickered; but Green For All had already received $500,000,000 (yes, five hundred million) from the Obama Administration for "green job training" for the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Pretty good for an organization that had only been around for one year and had never even filed a 990 to that point.

The Mayor's new team had found Cecilia ineffective in pleading the City's case to Sacramento; she was less effective at this—or perhaps less interested in doing so—than other redevelopment directors had been.  And they also found—to the Mayor’s dismay most of all—that she actually had a mind of her own, and couldn’t be reeled in by the Mayor’s office, as some other notably grateful appointees of the Mayor could.

Subsequent to the Villaraigosa-Estolano standoff, the CRA itself has indeed disintegrated.  

The Mayor’s plans for growing employment in the City have largely crashed and burned as well.  

The Mayor located and subsequently burned through Austin Beutner, a political novice and would-be jobs czar who helped streamline City permit processes with the banal cool of an efficiency expert before his own quixotic leap into politics.  

The Villaraigosa people were left with not much accomplishment on the jobs front and hyping the fact that restaurants were easier to permit than ever before.  (Does anyone really believe that the City needs any more restaurants?) And despite all the flameouts, the Mayor keeps trying his old strategy—trying to find people who might be both vulnerable and grateful to him—and the strategy seems less effective than ever before.

In the wake of the weird and exhausting race in Assembly District 50, national LGBT figure Torie Osborn is likely very disappointed to have finished barely out of the money.  

But my feeling is she should thank her lucky stars that she won’t have to suffer the indignity of being asked to become one of the Mayor’s obliging Assembly cogs.  

The good news is: whomever wins that Westside race in November will certainly not feel obliged to suffer that indignity either.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at

Tags: Joseph Mailander, politics, Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa, Cecilia Estolano, Torie Osborn, Betsy Butler, LGBT, gays, Austin Beutner

Vol 10 Issue 46
Pub: June 8, 2012