January 10, 2005
In a sign of the growing political influence that animal advocates wield in Los Angeles, the top challengers to Mayor James K. Hahn showed up Sunday to address people attired in animal-themed clothes in a bid to win their endorsement.
Although small in number, the city's feisty animal activists possess attributes they hope will make them players in the March 8 election: money, intense passion and the means to rally thousands of like-minded voters.
So when Citizens for a Humane Los Angeles held what organizers billed as the nation's first political convention for animal advocates, Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Bernard C. Parks, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) came armed with their plans to make Los Angeles "animal friendly," as well as their winning anecdotes about beloved pets.
In the end, however, the endorsement went to a lesser-known candidate, Walter Moore, a Republican lawyer from Westchester who has been courting the city's animal activist community for weeks.
During his 30-minute address, Moore confessed to the 140 animal lovers that he "used to be married to one of those cat women." He also pledged that his first act as mayor would be to call the head of the shelters and order: "Stop the killing. Now."
Moore received 59 votes. Villaraigosa was second with 39. Hertzberg had 23, followed by Alarcon with 8 and Parks with 4 votes.
Hahn, whose dog, Roxy, and cat, Ms. Peppermint, were adopted from city shelters, did not attend the convention.
A campaign spokesman said he had a scheduling conflict.
The convention — which featured wildlife advocates, dog and cat rescuers and others outraged at the treatment of animals in the city's shelters — signaled a new approach by activists.
It took political analysts by surprise.
"This is not a group that has traditionally played in politics in Los Angeles or other urban areas," said Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
For more than a year, a small group of advocates has been doggedly protesting Hahn and his administration, complaining that the city is needlessly killing tens of thousands of cats, dogs, turtles, rabbits and other animals in its shelters.
The mayor's office says shelter conditions are improving and euthanasia is down 13% from last year. But activists don't think enough is being done.
In the past, activists have crashed the mayor's events, protested outside his home in San Pedro and even spray-painted the word "murderer" on the car of the former Animal Services general manager. Even as those actions have called attention to the issue, many animal advocates have decried them.
Sunday's event was a move toward the mainstream. Held at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in North Hollywood, it featured red, white and blue balloons and bunting, and might have been any political convention — except for the preponderance of dog-themed ties and sweatshirts and the bulge of dog biscuits in pockets.
"There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of citizens in Los Angeles who care about animals," said Scott Sorrentino, president and co-founder of the Rescue and Humane Alliance Los Angeles. "In an election that can be decided by hundreds of votes, these thousands of people could be the difference."
Some of the activists are well off and well connected, and could raise tens of thousands of dollars to spend on an independent expenditure campaign on behalf of a candidate.
Michael Bell, a voice artist for the television show "Rugrats," said the group is in touch with about 30,000 ardent animal activists — about a third of what a candidate needs to make it into a May runoff election.
That was enough to entice the five candidates to slog through the rain.
Villaraigosa, who won support from some animal groups when he ran against Hahn in 2001, delivered a pledge to make Los Angeles "the most animal-loving city in America."
He distributed a four-page plan to improve conditions and eliminate euthanasia in the city's animal shelters. "If a great city can't treat its animals well, how is it treating its children?" he asked.
He spoke lovingly about Hammy the Hamster and his dogs, Butterscotch and Caramelo. And he said he wants more dog parks and better treatment for elephants in the city's zoo.
Villaraigosa faced heavy criticism from some attendees because he voted as a city councilman to support Guerdon Stuckey, the mayor's controversial choice to head the city's Animal Services Department.
He urged them to look past that vote.
The Eastside councilman and former Assembly speaker predicted that the election would lead to a runoff between himself and Hahn.
"If I have a strength, I believe it's an ability to inspire people to do more. Not because I'm perfect on every issue, but because I care," he said.
"I'm not a demagogue, everybody," he added. "I'm the real deal."
Not to be outdone, Hertzberg, a lawyer from Sherman Oaks, described his passion for horseback-riding in the Sepulveda Basin and issued a three-page plan calling for a "revolution" in the city's Animal Services Department.
Alarcon spoke lovingly of his daughter's pit bull, Chocolate. Then he made a confession: "I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm an animal rights activist," he said. But the lawmaker added that he sees a connection between "violence in our streets" and violence toward animals.
All the candidates criticized Hahn for failing to develop a plan to meet his goal to end the killing of adoptable animals by 2008.
Some of the animal activists expressed disappointment that the group had not endorsed Villaraigosa.
"It's easy to make promises," Bell told his fellow advocates. "In Antonio Villaraigosa's case, we've gotten what we've asked for."
Bell added that he also worried that "a vote for anyone else might be a vote for Hahn, and I can't take that chance."
He predicted that many animal advocates would support Villaraigosa, if he makes it into a runoff.
But many advocates stressed that the real importance of the day's events was not that the coalition made an endorsement but that the candidates demonstrated that they are paying attention to animal issues.
Laura Beth Heisen, who was a member of the city's Animal Services Commission until Hahn replaced her, noted that the convention forced each candidate to study up on animal issues and draw up some sort of platform.
"All of the candidates are now recognizing the humane community as an important factor," she said.