Photo: © Joel H. Mark
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hat rarest of West Hollywood residents — an avid follower of but not a player in local politics — may wonder if there is a power behind the throne-like dais from which City Council members look down regally upon public speakers stumbling through the 120 seconds they are allotted to voice their opinions on decisions major and minor.
There is such a person. He is someone who has belonged to those old boys (and girls) clubs like the West Hollywood / Beverly Hills Democratic Club and Stonewall Democrats, whose members have an outsized influence on decisions affecting the quality of life in WeHo.
He is someone who knows how to deftly steer owners of billboards and developers of hotels and shopping centers and apartment buildings through the complex web of city regulations to deposit their plans, nicely packaged, before the City Council for approval.
He is someone who has clout on the WeHo Chamber of Commerce, where he has served as a director. The chamber itself is a local force even though a majority of its members aren’t WeHo residents or business owners. (It both receives support from the city and donates to the re-election campaigns of council members who authorize that support).
This power behind at least four of the five City Council thrones has been the subject of criticism over the years, not least from WEHOville.com, for his dual role as City Council king maker and lobbyist for city vendors and supplicants. He also happens to be universally viewed as a nice guy.
This power behind the throne is Steve Afriat, who is WEHOville’s 2013 Person of the Year.
WEHOville considered a number of candidates. They included Protect Plummer Park, the WeHo activists who have waged a campaign, successful until recently, to stop the city’s redevelopment of the Eastside park. There’s the Term Limits Team, another group of activists that successfully campaigned to limit future council members to three four-year terms. Another is David Cooley, creator of the iconic Abbey bar and restaurant, who hopes to launch Cooley’s gastropub on Santa Monica Boulevard. There’s Charles Cohen, owner of the Pacific Design Center, who has stirred things with a proposal to build a megamall on Santa Monica Boulevard. Also considered was Michael Weinstein, founder and CEO of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the world’s largest HIV organization, who has campaigned successfully to require porn performers to wear condoms. Michael Jay and Beau Laughlin were on our list for the impact their Hudson bar and restaurant has had and their DBA nightclub is likely to have on the city’s Eastside. And there is Larry Block, the self-described “rabble rouser,” who has become known for calling out the City Council on various issues and is running for a council seat in 2015.
You, the readers of WEHOville, have submitted other nominations. They include West Hollywood Social Services Director Daphne Dennis, who is retiring soon after several decades of service, and Jeanne Dobrin, a vocal activist for nearly 40 years, who has barely slowed down now that she is 93. You also recommended City Councilmember John Duran, one of few openly HIV-positive elected officials in the nation, who is running for Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s seat this year. Councilmember John D’Amico, elected in 2011, was nominated, as were Jen Dunbar, one of the creators of the West Hollywood Preservation Association, and Stephanie Harker, who helms Protect Plummer Park. Robert Gamboa, co-chair of the city’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, and Sheila Lightfoot, another activist who campaigned for City Council term limits, also were recommended. Ramiro Gomez, a West Hollywood artist known for installing life-size cardboard cutouts of nannies, gardeners, valet workers and housekeepers in wealthy Westside neighborhoods was nominated. And so was Joe Hollywood, known for his blog about celebrities and pretty much everything else.
Steve Afriat’s Impact on West Hollywood
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s in years past, Afriat’s impact on the city in 2013 has been significant. For one thing, he managed the campaigns of council incumbents Jeffrey Prang and John Duran, who won re-election by a big margin despite a well-organized (and successful) effort to enact a term limits measure that brought out voters opposed to council incumbents. In the past he has managed the campaigns of longtime council member John Heilman and Mayor Abbe Land.
Afriat Consulting, his lobbying firm, represents companies such as Ace Outdoor Advertising, Marriott and the Pacific Design Center, which all do business with the city. His PDC client, Cohen Bros. Realty, is the company behind one of the most controversial proposals advanced in West Hollywood in years — the proposed reconstruction of the MTA bus depot on Santa Monica Boulevard into a megacomplex that would include a hotel, a shopping center, apartments, a movie theater, an 800-seat open amphitheater and a 50,000-square-foot sheriff’s station.
The city’s lobbyist registry identifies other Afriat clients as Republic Services, the city’s former waste management contractor, and Marriott International, which plans to build a 190-room hotel with nightclub on the southeast corner of Sunset Boulevard and Doheny Drive. Then there’s Ace Outdoor Advertising, which is trying to convince the City Council to approve alteration of a controversial “tall wall” billboard at 8730 Sunset Blvd. near Sherbourne Avenue, and W-Bel Age, which is negotiating with the city for renewal of its conditional use permit for property owned at 1020 N. San Vicente Blvd. just south of Sunset.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hile he is in the business of being a political mover and shaker, Afriat also has been involved with West Hollywood for more personal reasons. For example, he sat on the West Hollywood Incorporation Committee, which worked to successfully incorporate West Hollywood as an independent city in 1984.
“…I was chief of staff to Zev Yaroslavksy – the first ever openly gay (one),” Afriat recalled, speaking of the long serving Los Angeles County supervisor who is stepping down at the end of this year. “Among my responsibilities was as liaison to the LGBT community — called the gay community back then. I had a lot of friends there, was active in Stonewall (the LGBT Democratic Party club) and evolved into helping, hands on, with the WHIC.
“West Hollywood was a safe haven for those of us who were out at a time, when it was not quite as safe, and with the onset of AIDS it was a place where gay men in particular could feel safe and welcome. While not a resident, I have always considered myself a citizen of West Hollywood and care very much about its success.”
During some frightening years for the gay community, Afriat worked with Craig Miller to found the annual AIDS Walk www.aidswalk.net. Launched in 1985, it then as now benefitted AIDS Project Los Angeles and has become the largest AIDS fundraising event in California. “It was truly magical,” Afriat said, describing it as the civic project he is proudest to have been involved with.
Afriat also is proud to have been a Social Studies teacher at a Los Angeles County magnet school from 1978 to 1980. He taught both junior and senior high students courses in history, journalism, philosophy and government. It was a role where, he said, “I got to see the impact of my work on young lives … To this day, I still miss teaching. It is the most fulfilling thing I have ever done.”
Afriat left teaching in 1980 to run for a state Assembly seat. A Democratic nominee, he lost in the Ronald Reagan landslide that year. But he met Zev Yaroslavsky, http://zev.lacounty.gov/ who hired Afriat as his chief of staff. He left Yaroslavsky’s staff in 1985 to start the consulting firm that he runs today.
The firm, run out of Burbank, has represented a wide range of clients such as Hilton Hotels, the Southern California Grocers Association, the Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Officers Association, the National Paint & Coatings Association, the Cedar Shake & Shingle Bureau, Getty Financial Corporation, McDonald’s and Taco Bell.
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]friat’s dual role as a campaign manager and political lobbyist has opened him up to criticism (WEHOville.com has called on the West Hollywood City Council to ban those who manage election campaign for council members from also lobbying the council.) Afriat concedes that some may assume a conflict of interest. But, he says, “no one who has criticized me for this has come up with any evidence supporting a conflict of interest. While I certainly understand how it may appear, appearances are a pretty poor way to make judgments.”
“I would also point out that I am paid fair market fees when I manage campaigns,” he said. “I do not do the work as a favor. The relationship is a business relationship. And, for those who know campaigns, it is more common that the consultant and candidate are not even speaking to each other than it is that they are friends. When I represent clients I work hard to gain community consensus and pride myself in getting my clients to compromise and hearing reasonable objections from stakeholders. Campaigns are seasonal, and by diversifying my practice I am able to keep all my employees (and me) working all year long.”
Afriat said that, while some may see him as a tool of big business, he actually has offered pro bono advice to community organizations in West Hollywood.
“I have never represented a landlord opposing a tenant, or worked on a project that displaced residential tenants,” he said. “I have resigned from clients who were not community sensitive and have done pro-bono work for community groups as well as tried to be helpful to neighborhood stakeholders including WeHoNA (the West Hollywood Neighorhood Alliance) and Plummer Park advocates.”
Afriat does get praise from people on both sides of issues in which he is involved. “I’ve worked with him on both sides of issues,” said Elyse Eisenberg, chair of the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association, in a story about him last year. “I much prefer to be on the same side as him. He is a pure professional. He is extremely well-versed in the subjects he represents. He always gets to the heart of the issue.”
“I am proud that I have made a mark in West Hollywood,” Afriat said. “For good or bad, I have helped create jobs, often good union jobs. I have been able to contribute to the fabric of West Hollywood in a way that honors its mission as a creative and dynamic city. I have been able to participate as an active member of the LGBTQ community and have consistently supported future generations in getting involved in their community and in government. I grew up in Democratic and labor politics and have always believed in their vision.
“My earliest work was delivering supplies to farm workers in Arvin-Lamont who were fighting to organize. Taking tear gas with them and seeing them and their children sleep on dirt floors taught me about the role government can play to help people, as well as put real problems in perspective. I have been honored by Kol Ami and the LA County Young Democrats for my work in the community and in the Democratic party, and wear the label of a liberal progressive democrat and a gay man with pride.”