Jan Perry: Speaking Power to Truth

By Madeline Janis

A recent Los Angeles Times profile portrayed mayoral candidate and L.A. City Councilmember Jan Perry as a politician with a “willingness to speak her mind” and, quoting Perry herself, as someone who likes to “cut to the chase in my words and deeds.” The Times also quoted dignitaries who credit Perry for being a leading force behind Downtown’s revival and for creating thousands of jobs that she has promoted with tax subsidies.

The Times added that, “On occasion, Perry has also stood up to unions, as she did in 2008 when labor allies tried to force the Fresh & Easy market chain to guarantee 30 living wage jobs in return for city approval of a housing and retail project in a Historic South-Central area that needed a grocery store. ‘This puts the project in serious jeopardy,’ Perry wrote in a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.”

I was the “labor ally” who pushed for a living wage in exchange for a $2.5 million subsidy for that 18,000 square-foot market on the border of Downtown and South Los Angeles. As a member of the Board of the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency for 10 years, I repeatedly interacted with Perry on hundreds of development projects. In my view, the real question about Perry’s record is not whether she has been willing to speak her mind to “labor allies” and community groups, who have seldom supported her financially during her political career. Rather, it revolves around her opposition to policies like the living wage – and who she was advocating for.

An even more important question, in a city still dominated by developer interests, is this: Has Councilmember Perry been willing to stand up to the corporate lobbyists whose clients have been her biggest financial supporters and the beneficiaries of her advocacy over her 12-year tenure on the City Council?

The answer to that question is an emphatic “No.” In my experience, Perry almost always pushed for whatever the large developers wanted, with as few strings attached as possible, often times putting enormous pressure on all levels of decision-makers to approve deals involving millions of dollars in public subsidies and land – with little public input, without important community benefits and without clear, well-drafted agreements in place.

The Adams and Central Fresh & Easy market deal is a good example of this behavior. The original proposal was for a $2.5 million public subsidy to pay for an 18,000 square-foot market, to be operated by Fresh & Easy, a supermarket chain owned by the British corporate giant, Tesco. This proposal was unusual, in that it called for a direct grant to go to the developer to pay for the market, rather than the more typical loan that has to be paid back over time. While the grant was structured as an “easement” on the property, the “easement” had few conditions other than the requirement that there be some sort of food sale on the property.

At the time, I was one of seven CRA board members tasked with reviewing and approving all projects. When the proposal was initially put on the board agenda, I wrote a memo to the agency CEO on behalf of three board members asking that the agreement be crafted to ensure transparency and enforceability, given the size of the public investment. (Two and a half million dollars for 30 part-time jobs worked out to be an unprecedented $83,000 per job, more than twice the $35,000 maximum allowed in federal economic development subsidy programs.)

At the time, the three of us wanted to ensure that – in exchange for the public investment – there was an enforceable program guaranteeing that local residents could gain access to those jobs and that the jobs pay at least a “living wage” (then about $10 per hour). We also asked that the market on the property be required to sell “healthy food” and that the final, signed agreement be circulated to every board member in advance of the hearing, so that it could be fully and fairly vetted before approval.

What happened next was classic Jan Perry. Rather than calling up the board members and engaging in a conversation about how to craft the best deal, she wrote a highly intimidating letter directly to the mayor excoriating us for even proposing the living wage idea. Because of that intense political pressure, the chair of the CRA board decided to move the matter to a quick vote, despite the fact that final agreements on the project had not been fully negotiated or signed by the developer, as was typically required by CRA policy. The project was then approved by a majority of the board.

Fast forward to the end of 2012 and Tesco’s decision to close all of its Fresh & Easy markets in the United States. Without guarantees of a full-service supermarket or living wage jobs, the taxpayers may soon end up with a 99 cent store selling processed foods — and jobs that pay $8 per hour in exchange for our $2.5 million investment.

Unfortunately, I witnessed this type of intimidating, reckless behavior by Perry on many occasions.

Another incident came when one of my board colleagues and I questioned an $11 million subsidy to a developer who had been accused by the Legal Aid Foundation of civil rights abuses and Perry again vehemently argued that the deal needed to be approved immediately. (That project’s developer was later found to have committed civil rights violations by a federal judge.) Also, when two board members questioned a multimillion dollar subsidy to a garment factory owner who had proposed moving from South Gate to South L.A. (with few if any net new jobs), Councilmember Perry once more acted swiftly to push the deal through, accusing us of being “out of touch” and “naïve.”

Courage, unlike beauty, is not in the eye of the beholder– it’s either there or it’s missing. The L.A. Times may portray Jan Perry as “plainspoken” and “hard to fit in a box,” but it doesn’t take bravery to stand up to advocates for Los Angeles’ poor and underemployed – only the backing of powerful developers. This is especially critical when millions of dollars of precious public resources hang in the balance.

(Madeline Janis is co-founder of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and serves as its National Policy Director. She led the L.A. living wage campaign in the 1990s and from 2002 until 2012, she was a member of the board of commissioners of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.)