Jan Perry's favorite spot in the city is at the corner of Slauson and Compton avenues. It’s the unlikely site of a seven-acre, man-made wetlands park filled with flora and fauna, including a children’s garden and hiking trails. That’s quite a transformation from its original use as a storage yard for the Department of Water and Power.
That’s been the storyline of Perry’s 12 years on the Los Angeles City Council: taking neglected or underutilized sites and turning them into community assets. For most of her tenure, Perry’s Ninth District covered downtown and much of South Los Angeles. She’s pro-business and pro-development. Her tenure has overseen the revitalization of downtown, including construction of the L.A. Live complex.
“The thing that L.A. Live embodies is the catalytic, large investment to show to smaller investors [and] small developers [that] downtown is a good place to be," said Perry during an interview in her City Hall office. "We’ve put our stake here and you should follow and that’s why it was important. It’s a foundation upon which to build."
The councilwoman used downtown projects to spur economic development in the poorer parts of South Los Angeles. New construction projects often included affordable housing units. Developers were told to hire construction workers who lived in the district. Opportunities like those will now be few and far between, since the city’s recent redistricting process severed South L.A. from most of downtown.
"The difference that boundaries make is where the dollars can be invested," Perry said. "So now South L.A., the southern part of the former Ninth District, has no middle-income community to leverage for investment in the lower income portion of the district."
Redistricting displayed Perry’s strengths and weaknesses in a way that few other political events had. In the fall of 2011, Perry publicly accused her colleagues of making backroom deals to name a new city council president and skew the redistricting process. Her frankness ended up hurting her. When the new council district lines were approved, Perry — who lives downtown — was drawn out of her own district.
Perry later apologized for her indiscretion. Undaunted, she launched her campaign for mayor, banking on her upfront approach to governing.
"What she cares about publicly, she cares about privately," said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association, who has known Perry for more than 20 years.
Lopez says Perry will frequently call her to find services for the mentally ill and handicapped people she meets along Los Angeles and San Pedro streets downtown. She describes a time when the councilwoman personally sought out a place to store the wheelchair of a man who was taken to the hospital by paramedics.
"Those are the things over the years that I know and that I hold in my heart — that have no exposure. But this is the depth to which this human being cares about other human beings," Lopez said.
The Ninth District has long been viewed as a seat of black political power. Jan Perry is African-American, as were her predecessors, Rita Walters and Gilbert Lindsay. But the district's population is three-quarters Latino. Fewer than 20 percent of the area’s residents are African-American. One observer says politics in the district aren’t based on ethnicity.
"Skin color, the ethnicity, the religious beliefs of a person are far less important than their ability to cue into those needs and work as hard as they can on a daily basis in City Hall to get that job accomplished," said Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, an organization that works to improve race relations in L.A.
Lopez added that Perry decided to run for mayor so she could continue to address the needs of Angelenos — this time throughout the city.
"Her only reason for running is because she believes that she can do the best job of taking this city and taking it on its next chapter and that's what she really believes and that's the only reason she wants to serve the city of Los Angeles," Lopez said.
That could carry Perry to the mayor's office, despite stiff competition from Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel.
"I don’t hold myself in comparison to anybody else," Perry said. "When I have an opportunity I take it and I run with it full throttle until I have to stop."