Monday, January 14, 2008
PERSONS OF THE YEAR: Lee Kanon Alpert
Valley Lawyer/Civic Leader Has Come Long Way From Detroit Streets
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
It’s a long way from inner-city Detroit to the Encino office park that houses the offices of Alpert, Barr & Grant.
But for the senior member of the firm, Lee Kanon Alpert, 61, who grew up just blocks from the flashpoint of the 1967 riots that still scar his native city, his current surroundings are a visible manifestation of a life’s journey that seems better suited to a Horatio Alger novel than to a profile of an award-winning lawyer.
Alpert, who talks candidly about his development from a youngster who fought in the streets to a man whose ability to solve problems through debate and negotiation have made him a significant figure in the local legal, civic, and political communities, is being honored as a MetNews Person of the Year.
If the school of hard knocks is the best place to learn, Lee Alpert had quite an education.
Alpert, whose father worked seven days a week in a struggling auto parts business, grew up in the home of his maternal grandparents in the 1700 block of Pingree Street. His dad never made much money, he says, but “was very wealthy when it came to teaching how to do the right thing.”
He was 12 when his parents moved to the suburb of Oak Park, where his mother still lives. He spent a lot of time with his grandfather, a baker who died not long after he and his parents moved and who introduced him to a lot of the neighborhood characters, including a gentleman whose name he does not remember but whom he mistook for a police officer “because he always had guns.”
And while the Alperts were among a dwindling number of white families in the area, Lee Alpert says he was little concerned about race, and was happy to be “part of the community.”
But in retrospect, he says, it was a difficult place, lacking much of what makes a community. There were no supermarkets in the area, and few professionals, so a trip to the doctor meant riding two or three buses, even with a cold or a fever.
There was a law office, he recalls, and one of the lawyers whose name was on the door was Carl Levin. He didn’t know Levin back then, but got to meet him—he’s now the senior U.S. senator from Michigan—a few years ago when he was in the nation’s capital for a meeting with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., whose campaigns he has supported.
He ran with the Pingree Street Gang. He explains that gang membership in the 1950s involved “no guns, no drugs,” but lots of fights with “fists, knives, baseball bats, rocks, or whatever was handy.”
‘Very Difficult’ Transition
Alpert recalls he was in the middle of it often enough, earning a paddling from the vice principal on one occasion for beating up a member of the school safety patrol. And the transition from city kid to suburbanite “was very difficult,” he says.
He went to Oak Park with an attitude, he admits. He was suspended from school not long after he got there, and it took awhile, he says, to realize that there were places where disputes aren’t automatically settled with fists.
He found his outlet in sports, playing football and basketball, putting the shot, and studying martial arts. (He holds a brown belt in Okinawan karate.)
He dreamt of becoming a varsity athlete at Michigan State University, but a shoulder injury forced him to abandon that plan, and at 17, he told his mother that he wanted to join the Marine Corps.
She cried, and they eventually negotiated a compromise—he would try to get into college, and if he couldn’t get in, she would support his decision to join the service.
To go to college, though, he needed to make some money, so he took a job as a clerk in a delicatessen. He applied to Wayne State University in Detroit —he could save money by living at home—but says he was actually hoping to be rejected.
“Most kids in [my] neighborhood didn’t go to college,” he explains. But he could not break the deal with his mother—“I’ve always kept my commitments,” he explains—and when the letter of acceptance came, his Marine ambitions, as well as his brief career in the restaurant industry, came to an end.
The college experience was terrific, he says. He liked the freedom, and became involved in intramural sports and fraternity life.
Alpert, who is Jewish, joined Tau Epsilon Phi, which is a historically Jewish fraternity, although the chapter at Wayne State was a “mixed house.” He was soon recognized for his leadership skills, becoming president of the schools’ Interfraternity Council—his running mate was the group’s first African American vice president, he proudly notes—and of the Great Lakes Regional Interfraternity Conference.
But the temper still occasionally flared, as on the occasion when he got into an argument and cleared an adviser’s desk.
That incident led to a meeting with a man he says continues to influence him to this day, Jack Bates, a longtime dean at Wayne State with a background in clinical psychology.
“For a smart young man, you do some awfully stupid things sometimes,” he recalls Bates telling him.
Bates then explained a method of making choices, which he says he taught his sons and continues to follow to this day, called the “decision tree.”
In decision tree analysis, the person who needs to make the decision is to examine each alternative, and the benefits and consequences of it, each of which forms another branch of the tree.
An important lesson Bates taught him, he explains, is that doing nothing is also a decision, with potential benefits and consequences, and gets its own branch on the tree. Bates became his mentor, meeting with him weekly.
The insecurity he felt as a child was finally behind him, he says looking back.
“I loved my life,” he explains. “I’d never thought I could get where I was.”
He passes that sense along in his mentoring of young professionals, including one whom he describes, and who describes him, as extended family.
Keith Weaver, now vice president for government relations at Sony Pictures Entertainment, was a junior aide to then-state Sen. Herschel Rosenthal, a Democrat who represented part of the Valley, a little over a decade ago.
As a new field representative, he explains, he was told who the movers and shakers in the area were, and “Lee was on the list of people [he was told] to connect with.” Alpert, he says, didn’t merely take his calls, but “took time to educate me” on how things were done.
Alpert, he adds, “just really has an interest in young people with a strong work ethic and who are genuine and sincere.” And Weaver says he particularly appreciated the fact that Alpert was willing to take in interest in a young black man at a time when the Valley political scene was far less diverse than it is now.
Being a protege of Lee Alpert, he comments, means taking on his sense of community; Weaver has joined his mentor on the board that oversees Encino and Tarzana Regional Medical Center, the board of the Valley Economic Development Corporation, and the City of Los Angeles Board of Neighborhood Commissioners.
Wanted to Teach
Alpert’s desire to pass on knowledge once manifested itself in a desire to teach, which continues to this day, he says. (He has taught college-level business law, but disclaims any interest in joining a law school faculty, saying he doesn’t like the competitive nature of legal education.)
He became a substitute teacher in the Detroit public schools, working with what were then called “emotionally and physically handicapped” pupils. But his Michigan residency came to an end after he was offered an activities scholarship to USC.
Although he had applied for the scholarship, and for a similar grant from Ohio State, he wasn’t really sure he wanted to leave Detroit. So he went to Bates, “we made our decision tree,” he explains, and he decided to accept the offer.
“Otherwise, I don’t know where I would be,” he says.
He continued with his education studies, and taught in Reseda at what is now called the Miller Career and Transition Center, a school for moderately to severely disabled students.
He describes the work as rewarding, but “tough” on him emotionally, because his students were so sick, some of them not living long enough to graduate. Besides, he had met his future wife, then Arlene Podell—her brother was in his fraternity—and they couldn’t see how he was going to raise a family on a teacher’s salary.
He had become interested in issues of social justice, he says, such as the inability of many people to afford a lawyer. And seeing law as a profession in which he could help people while earning “a decent living,” he entered Loyola Law School, graduating in 1972.
He worked for several firms before teaming with a Loyola classmate, Michael Mink, and the partnership lasted nearly 18 years, until Mink was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court.
Gary Barr, who was once the top tax litigator in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, joined the firm before Mink left, and Adam Grant was a sole practitioner leasing space from Alpert & Barr before joining the firm, which now includes eight lawyers, including four principals.
The firm has come a long way since the days when it “didn’t have money for dictating equipment,” Mink—now a Superior Court judge in Burbank—recalls.
The transition in Alpert’s practice since Mink left in 1994 doesn’t surprise him, Mink says.
“Lee’s more of a... negotiator...someone who resolves problems ...I don’t think of him as a tough guy litigator,” he comments. “When it comes to making deals or dealing with public agencies or trying to resolve things,” he says, he’s seen few better than Alpert.
It was his then-partner, he adds, who introduced him to Ed Davis. Davis, who is now deceased, was a onetime Los Angeles police chief who served in the state Senate and became a client of Alpert’s, as well as Mink’s leading backer in his bid for a judicial appointment.
What Alpert is proud of about his firm, he says, is that it not only provides the lawyers with “a good life,” but demands that they serve the community. Three of the principals—Alpert, Barr, and Mark Blackman—are past presidents of the San Fernando Valley Bar Association.
Alpert also served 17 years on the Los Angeles County Judicial Procedures Commission, where his service was “very much appreciated” and “contributed greatly to the quality of the efforts of” the commission, former County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman says.
Alpert’s practice once largely focused on family law. He tried a number of substantial divorce cases, going up against some of the top lawyers in that field, until he became “really disenchanted” with that part of his practice.
Too many cases, he says, degenerated into fights over “pets and pots and pans,” and he came to realize that the practice was inconsistent with his view of the law as a means of solving problems rather than creating them. His solution, he explains, was to transition into transactional work and government relations.
He became involved in cable television from its beginnings in Los Angeles, and has continued to represent Time Warner Cable through its assumption of the franchises formerly held by Adelphia and Comcast. He has also appeared on-air, discussing community issues.
He describes himself politically as a “a progressive Republican, a Riordan Republican” who has not totally strayed from his Democratic roots.
Like most Jews, and most Detroiters, he had grown up as a Democrat. But in the 1980s, he saw in that party a turn to the left that was inconsistent with his moderate, pro-business, “inclusive” philosophy.
He saw Democrats on the left—he cites Jesse Jackson as an example—as being “as racist as the people they were attacking.” And so he became an independent, and later a Republican, although he doesn’t quite fit in with some peoples’ idea of Republicanism either, he acknowledges.
He pleads a disconnect with the GOP’s embrace of “extreme right” positions, and says he is more comfortable with Democrats on some social issues. He has had the dreaded label of “RINO”—Republican in Name Only—thrown at him, to his face, by a Republican elected official whom he will not name.
He prefers to cast himself in the mold of political consultant Joseph Cerrell, a past MetNews Person of the Year, whom he describes as a lifelong Democrat “who has as many friends in the Republican Party as in the Democratic Party.”
In that vein, Alpert says, he has reached out to support candidates of both parties whom he considers politically moderate and possessed of personal integrity. He describes having cut ties with an elected official he once ardently supported, but declined to name, in part because he felt the person had reneged on a commitment to a third person whom Alpert says deserved better.
He has so far rejected all entreaties to support candidates in the upcoming presidential primary, he says, but mentions Republican John McCain as having the combination of government experience and personal integrity that he hopes for in a chief executive.
(He made a similar comment about Democrat Joseph Biden in an interview prior to Biden’s exit from the presidential race.)
Locally, he has backed Democrats like Rep. Howard Berman, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg—whom he supported in the last mayoral primary—and Antonio Villaraigosa, whose mayoral bid he endorsed after Hertzberg was eliminated.
He acknowledges that he and Villaraigosa “don’t agree on everything,” but calls the mayor a “dynamic leader” who “is making the city feel like a city,” and paying attention to all areas, including the Valley.
City officials rely on Alpert to communicate area concerns, Delgadillo explains. “He can tell what the average man and woman on the Valley street is thinking,” the city attorney says.
The two men worked closely together when Delgadillo was deputy mayor under Riordan. Alpert was a workhorse for the Valley, Delgadillo says, constantly reminding the powers that be that distressed areas can be found “in North Hollywood, and Pacoima, and Van Nuys,” and not just in the central and southern sections of the city.
“He confirmed for me the issues of poverty and loss of jobs in the San Fernando Valley were significant and should not be overlooked, even though in other areas those issues were more prominently featured in the mainstream media,” Delgadillo says.
Alpert, he added, “didn’t come just with complaints but with solutions [and] a genuine offer to roll up his sleeves and get to work.”
Among Republicans, Alpert has supported the campaigns of governors George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger; 2001 mayoral contender Steve Soboroff, and Keith Richman, who represented a Valley Assembly district from 2000 to 2006 and for whom he served as campaign chairman.
But among all of the candidates he has backed, he expresses a special reverence for Riordan.
Work With Riordan
Alpert was a strong backer of Riordan’s successful campaigns for mayor in 1993 and 1997. He helped begin the implementation of Riordan’s plan for neighborhood councils by serving as the first president of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, and was also an airports commissioner, and strongly backed Riordan’s campaign for governor in 2002.
Riordan’s loss in the primary to William Simon that year was a “travesty” that led to the reelection of Gov. Gray Davis, Alpert comments. Riordan would have beaten the unpopular Davis, he insists.
There has been speculation over the years that he would himself run for the City Council or the Legislature, but he has no intention of doing so, nor is he interested in a judgeship, he says. He prefers the role of attorney/citizen activist, where he can choose his assignments, he explains.
He was recently nominated by Villaraigosa to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners. “I thought I was done with commissions,” he explains, before the mayor’s office called “out of the blue.”
He “thought long and hard” before agreeing, he relates, because he’s been “trying to slow down a little.” But with the city “running out of water,” and its “electric infrastructure in desperate need of repair,” he says, he decided to accept, although he retains a number of other civic responsibilities.
He chairs the board that oversees Encino and Tarzana hospitals, which are in the process of being sold by Tenet Healthcare Corporation, and has held on to that position because he “wants to make sure the new buyer can do a better job.”
He also chairs the board of Genesis LA, a nonprofit economic development corporation that grew out of Delgadillo’s work as deputy mayor and provides “gap funding” to encourage developers to build in depressed areas. Delgadillo says Alpert has “really helped build that into something we’re both very proud of.”
Alpert continues to serve on the board of the VEDC, which seeks to “generate the economy at the local level, he explains, through job training, entrepreneurship education, and small business financing.
Neutral on Secession
Like much of the Valley civic leadership, he has expressed frustration in the past at the area’s relationship with City Hall. Unlike many, however, such as his friend and fellow attorney David Fleming, he declined to support the Valley secession proposal, which was rejected by citywide vote in November 2002.
He instead took a neutral position, he explains, putting together an independent group to gather and disseminate information about the benefits and detriments of secession. But, noting that a number of other areas of the city have had secession movements of their own, he credits the effort with having created a great deal of civic activism and a renewed focus on the role of the Valley as an integral part of the city.
Alpert points to Fleming’s election as the first Valley member to chair the board of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the constant presence of Villaraigosa, “like Riordan and unlike [former Mayor James] Hahn.”
As for his own future, the attorney says, he sees little change in his lifestyle, because he doesn’t see anything on the horizon that will give him the satisfaction that he enjoys now, especially since his success has given him the freedom to turn down a client if “it isn’t a good fit.”
He’s a “lousy golfer,” he explains, and can’t spare the time to become better.
He might want to teach business law again, he says, or perhaps coach youth sports, as he did when his two sons were youngsters.
He has been married for 37 years to Arlene Alpert, a charitable and community activist in her own right. She was honored last year as 40th Assembly District “Woman of the Year” by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, part of the Legislature’s observance of Women’s History Month.
Older son Brett Alpert, 33, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan with an expertise in disaster preparedness for academic institutions, and aspirations of becoming a high-level college administrator. Scott Alpert, 30, majored in criminal justice and is now a Los Angeles police officer, assigned to Newton Division.
His younger son, Lee Alpert explains, inherited a bit of his father’s flare for risk and, “wanted to do something important that didn’t involve working behind a desk.”
Unlike a lot of lawyers these days, Lee Alpert takes a positive view of the profession.
Having evolved from the kid who battled for his place on the streets of Detroit to a leader in a profession dedicated to resolving disputes without violence, he insists that most members of that profession are “great people who do good for our society.”
He says bluntly:
“I’m proud to be a lawyer. I’ll never back away from that.”
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company