Joel Wachs hasn't been an Angeleno for a dozen years, but he still has his key to the city. And he feels its political tremors. L.A., where he made his political bones on the City Council, has just sworn in a new mayor — a brass ring he tried three times to grab. Only three other men served longer on the City Council than Wachs, but after 30 years as that rare political creature — a social liberal and fiscal conservative — he moved east in 2001, to head the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The man who once set aside a third of his city salary for art now dispenses millions in grants — some of them to the city he once served.
You're a New Yorker now, but you supported Eric Garcetti — with a check.
I didn't think I would get involved at first because I liked three of the people running.
Why did you decide on Garcetti?
I'm incredibly impressed with Eric. I think this is the most intelligent person in that office in my lifetime.
I was shocked when I saw the money coming in to the independent committees, particularly from the DWP [from the IBEW Union, Local 18]. That would have had such negative consequences if they succeeded. That made me get off my fanny and write a check.
I like Wendy [Greuel], she worked for me, I endorsed her as my successor. I think she could be independent. The [union] wasn't giving Wendy money because they liked Wendy. They were giving her money because they wanted to get Eric. They wanted to make him pay a price for helping to lead some of the pension reforms. They were going to teach him a lesson.
Let me give you a parallel. Eighty percent of the people in this country want [gun] background checks, yet you have 46 senators voting against it because of the power of the NRA. Where does the power come from? The senator who votes against [background checks] doesn't need $1 million from the NRA. The senator is afraid the NRA will target him in the next election.
If the [union] could defeat Eric over pension reform, everyone in City Hall is going to be afraid the [union] is going to go after them.
Are New Yorkers more engaged in local politics than Angelenos?
No, the vote turnout is not so good here in the city elections. The interest in New York is more on the mayoralty because the mayor has much greater powers than in Los Angeles. I don't see people here more engaged at the very local level; it might even be less. In Manhattan, we're all just going our own way, living in big high-rises, not so much involved in issues [like] are the trees being trimmed, are the streets being paved. But in New York, people rarely complain about paying taxes. The emphasis here is on getting their money's worth. That's a difference; in L.A., everyone seems to feel they've paid enough taxes.
You watched Proposition 8 from afar, and now the federal courts have overturned it.
I'm proud to have been the author of the comprehensive [city] law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace, in public facilities, in government, back in the late '70s. In the early '80s we passed a law preventing discrimination against HIV-positive people. We have been in the forefront in L.A., so it was kind of hurtful that Proposition 8 passed. That said, if the Supreme Court hadn't acted as it did, if Proposition 8 were on the ballot in California today, enough change has taken place that Proposition 8 would lose.
You were not formally "out" as a politician.
When I first ran for office, no one at any level of government in the U.S. had been elected as an openly gay person. I ran before Harvey Milk. Everybody knew, because I never shied away from taking on gay issues. I fought entrapment by police, I rode in the [gay pride parade]. We had the first gay [campaign] fundraiser known in Los Angeles, in 1971. Everybody paid cash. Nobody wanted their names on any list. That's how different it was then.
You left L.A. a dozen years ago to become the director of the Andy Warhol Foundation. How do you like the job and living vertically?
I'm loving every minute of it. There's obviously a completely different lifestyle. I don't have a pool and a backyard and all that nice light and space. I live in two rooms on the 30th floor of a high-rise. But I have Central Park across the street. It's such a democratizing place; it's accessible for everyone. Every morning I walk in the park and it's beautiful at all times of the year.