Meet the Pied Piper of L.A.'s Populist Revolt

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Measure S is but the latest ballot measure campaign waged by the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation Michael Weinstein who has burnished a reputation as one of the most feared political fighters in L.A.

For almost the entirety of the yearlong Measure S campaign that culminates next week with the March 7 election, the architect behind the controversial ballot measure, Michael Weinstein, has stayed out of the picture. Perhaps conscious of his lighting-rod status as a prize-fighting pugilist in local politics, Weinstein avoided the press, allowing his surrogates to be the face of the multimillion-dollar campaign that aims to clean up what they characterize as a septic, pay-to-play culture at City Hall that has long dictated real estate development in Los Angeles.

But with just days to go before voters head to the polls, Weinstein — no stranger to bare-knuckle political fights and with the scars and scalps to prove it — is back and is in no mood to turn the other cheek.

“The whole campaign on the ‘no’ side is trying to personalize this because they want to change the subject,” Weinstein told THR at a Feb. 28 press conference on Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks from the headquarters of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation which he has overseen for the last 30 years. “I haven’t responded to the personal attacks against me. And there is plenty to go after with these people — but we are not doing it. And the reason is, that’s not the point. They want to change the subject because they cannot win. Nobody can defend a pay-to-play system.”

Measure S is but the latest ballot measure campaign waged by the 64-year-old Weinstein and he has come under fire for even mounting the $2.5 million effort because of its focus on real estate development. According to his critics, a real estate-focused initiative clearly falls outside the stated mission of a non-profit like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Measure S is part of larger pattern of Weinstein and his foundation going rogue in their political efforts.

Recently, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation contributed more than $19 million to back Proposition 60, which would have required condom use in adult film production, and Proposition 61, which sought to lower the prices state agencies pay for prescription drugs. Both of those measures failed but resulted in the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry, filing a formal complaint with the Treasurer Inspector General for Tax Administration, accusing Weinstein of improper political spending (the Free Speech Coalition lobbied heavily against Proposition 60).

If passed, Measure S would suspend for two years any development that requires a modification to the city’s existing planning rules. Due to the city’s outdated general plan, which determines local zoning rules, those modifications are routine for new developments. Proponents argue that a two-year suspension is necessary to update that plan. If passed, Measure S could impact several entertainment industry-related projects including 20th Century Fox’s studio lot redevelopment plan. If nothing else, Measure S has stirred a passionate debate about how buildings should get approval during what is arguably the biggest real estate development boom in the history of L.A.

“When they approve a high-rise, and they say that 5 percent of the units are going to be reserved for (affordable housing), and then you literally have people sleeping in the shadows of those buildings — that is amoral,” says Weinstein. “And it is shocking to me that in a city as liberal as L.A. we have all these liberal Democrats subscribing to trickle-down economics, and this mystical thinking that if you build luxury housing you are going to alleviate housing [problems] for the most needy.”

The prospect of curbing development for two years has brought a broad and disparate opposition coalition together that includes L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Governor Jerry Brown, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. County Federation of Labor among others. Several months ago the “Yes on S” campaign announced that it had secured the endorsements of several A-list actors including Leonardo DiCaprio and Chloe Sevigny, only to have several of those stars reverse their position, including DiCaprio (Measure S campaign director Jill Stewart chalked up the snafu to a “miscommunication”). Since then Hollywood has remained mum on the issue other than a few comics like Will Weldon tweeting their opposition to it.

Opponents argue that Measure S is poorly worded and ultimately self-defeating. They contend that it will drive up housing costs, increase homelessness, speed up gentrification and create even more inequality. In sum, putting the brakes on development would curtail the building of enough units to meet the needs of current and future residents.

“I’ve been very careful to say, ‘Look, we’re actually aligned,’ and I think most Angelenos are, on the first three or four things [on the S ballot—which include limiting general plan amendments and curbing contact between developers and elected officials],” Garcetti told THR. “I didn't need S to tell me that. But I also believe a lot in the affordable housing. I believe a lot in our parks and hospitals, and these need General Plan amendments. To make our housing crisis worse, is to me, unacceptable. It’s an unacceptable price to pay. So, let’s fix what needs to be fixed, but S would be destructive.” 

Back on Sunset and just moments after the press conference concluded, a driver in a white SUV slowed to a crawl and shouted a string of unprintable expletives from his car window directed at Weinstein. It was a jarring moment. But even more illustrative was Weinstein’s response: He barely blinked.

Weinstein’s activism was formed in the crucible of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, when elected leaders across the country were pilloried and shamed for paying scant attention to the disease that was killing thousands. “To understand Michael you have to understand the world we went through in the ’80s,” West Hollywood city council member John Duran told THR. As legal counsel for Act Up, Duran fought alongside Weinstein in the 1980s before finding himself battling his former ally on later issues. “We adopted commando-style, take-no-prisoner tactics — shutting down buildings, marching in the streets — and we became more confrontational, because we had to. Michael was very headstrong and I think that is still true today. I am opposed to Measure S but I completely understand Michael and his tactics and I believe that he believes what he is doing is right and that he will do anything to get the measure passed.”

Weinstein argues that the Measure S campaign is a human rights issue because the surging cost of housing in L.A. has left many of the patients treated by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation homeless. As for the millions spent on recent local ballot initiatives, Weinstein says he has the full support of his board and that those monies make up a small fraction of the overall budget of his foundation, accounting for less than 4 percent of the Foundation’s budget.

The one area where there is agreement is on the issue of voter turnout. Both sides are bracing for especially low numbers next week, even by the typically anemic standards of local elections here. Garcetti is hoping the popularity he garnered in his first term will be the deciding factor. “I’ve leaned in very heavily, raising considerable money to make sure [opponents to Measure S] can get the resources out to tell their message and I think polling reflects that this is something that increasingly, people have a lot of questions on. So I think we’ve been successful with that,” he said.