THE THOMAS AND DOROTHY LEAVEY CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF LOS ANGELES RESEARCH COLLECTIONJOEL WACHS PAPERS (CSLA-29)
Joel Wachs was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1939, but grew up in Los Angeles, graduating from Washington High School in 1957. He continued his education in Los Angeles, at UCLA, where he received the B.A. in Political Science, with honors, in 1961. Wachs then enrolled in Harvard Law School, receiving his law degree in 1964. He then continued his post-graduate work in law by earning a Master’s degree in tax law from New York University in 1965.
Joel Wachs returned to his hometown of Los Angeles to practice corporate tax law. In 1971, his skillfully managed campaign for the office of Los Angeles City Councilmember for District 2—the San Fernando Valley area of Encino, North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, and Studio City—forced incumbent James Potter into a run-off election, which Wachs handily won. This began thirty years of service for Wachs in the city council that has left a strong mark on the history of the city. Wachs (himself homosexual) was responsible for the passage of the city’s landmark anti-AIDS discrimination law in 1985, one of the first, if not the first, such statutes in the nation. A vigorous supporter of the arts and a keen collector of modern art, Wachs realized a dream when, through his leadership, the Los Angeles City Council passed legislation in 1988 establishing the Los Angeles Endowment for the Arts, a trust fund for cultural events and projects. Other issues that Wachs strongly supported included rent control and assistance for the city’s elderly. The proverbial fiscal watchdog, he initially opposed the building of the Staples Center, an arena for the professional hockey and basketball teams of Los Angeles, over city financing of the developers. Wachs stood firm for open negotiations between the developers of the Staples Center and the city and for guarantees on the repayment of city money by developers through revenues collected from the venue’s use above and beyond normal city tax revenues generated there. The City Council approved, in 1997, a plan for the Staples Center that provided for the developers to make up any shortfall in revenues necessary to cover the city’s financial commitment.
Wachs assumed the presidency of the Los Angeles City Council in 1981, in a controversial election that saw outgoing City Council President John Ferraro maneuver Wachs into the presidency rather than Pat Russell, an ally of Ferraro’s opponent, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. In 1986, the 2nd Council District was redrawn, leaving Wachs with only 10% of his former district; Sunland and Tujunga were communities now in his district and more rural than his previous constituencies. Displaying his trademark ingenuity, Wachs adapted himself to the new district, even to the extent of throwing a country western music festival for his new constituents. He easily won re-election in 1987.
Wachs ran, unsuccessfully, three times for mayor. After his last loss (2001) he resigned from his city council position to assume the presidency of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, a position that he still holds.
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