For would-be Los Angeles Mayor Jan Perry, it was a bittersweet ground breaking last week for a residential high-rise a block from her apartment near Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Dignitaries hailed Perry as a leading force behind downtown's revival. "She has unbelievable tenacity," Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina told invited guests gathered at the vacant building site for a ceremonial shoveling of dirt.
But there was a poignant, unspoken subtext to the praise. Perry no longer represents the area, or even her own building. Last year, fellow City Council members carved most of downtown out of her district, in the aftermath of a public feud with council President Herb Wesson. Her new district covers a larger expanse of the most impoverished stretches of South L.A.
For Perry, it was a humiliating break with years of linking her political identity to the downtown development boom. The new apartment tower site, like her Bunker Hill home, is now part of Councilman Jose Huizar's domain.
"He's got big shoes to fill, following Jan," Molina told the groundbreaking audience, paying a compliment that highlighted Perry's loss.
In a city with a powerful council that can easily thwart a mayor's will, an important question for Perry is how effectively she could work with former colleagues on her governing agenda.
For nearly all major issues, the mayor must win eight of the council's 15 votes. Given her history of tension with other members, Perry could face a tougher challenge than some of her mayoral rivals in building council support when she needs it, said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A.
"You absolutely need to play nice," he said.
In the campaign, Perry plays up her willingness to speak her mind. She tries to maximize the contrast with her more cautious, top-tier rivals in the March 5 primary, Councilman Eric Garcetti of Silver Lake and City Controller Wendy Greuel of Studio City.
"I don't calculate what I do in terms of what it will mean for me, long term," she said in an interview at a coffee house across from the Music Center.
But even she, in moments of reflection, will acknowledge her plain speaking carries risks. It was her conspicuous refusal to support Wesson's election as council president, she said, that cost her the coveted Central City business district.
"I like to cut to the chase in my words and my deeds," Perry said.
With most of the Los Angeles political establishment split between Greuel and Garcetti, Perry hopes she can project an authenticity that will resonate with voters, and trump her opponents' money and better-known names.
She starts with a base of black voters, mainly in South L.A. But African Americans normally make up only 15% of the city's vote, so Perry must build broader support to secure a spot in the May 21 runoff.
Closest to home, she is competing mostly with Garcetti for Latinos. Perry's district, just south of downtown, is predominantly Latino. Like Garcetti, who is half Mexican, Perry often speaks Spanish, if less fluently, at public events. At a recent house party for women in Boyle Heights, she passed out cheese-and-jalapeno pastries and fielded questions in Spanish.
Perry is also vying for Jewish support. Raised as a Protestant in the suburbs of Cleveland, she converted to Judaism in the 1980s while earning a master's degree in public administration at USC. She studied Judaism under Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, now executive director of Hillel at UCLA.
"I was, like many people at that age, searching for my purpose and a way to make sense of who I was," she recalled.
"She doesn't fit in a box," said Parke Skelton, a campaign consultant who worked on Perry's council races. "African American, Jewish, pro-business Democrat who's had her ups and downs with labor — it's kind of an interesting one-person coalition."
A key target for Perry is conservative white voters, especially in the San Fernando Valley, where Greuel and Republican radio talk-show personality Kevin James are tussling for dominance.
At a Northridge breakfast for business owners last week, Perry took credit for thousands of jobs created by L.A. Live and other downtown projects she has promoted with city tax subsidies. Getting Los Angeles growing again and on a sound fiscal footing is her top priority, she tells such groups.