As a child growing up in the 1940s in Brooklyn, Larry Levine wanted to be an attorney. But after moving to Burbank at age 10 and taking a newswriting class in junior high school he decided on a career path as a reporter and editor for local newspapers. He would become a reporter and editor at the Burbank Review, the Glendale News-Press and finally the Copley News Service working out of Los Angeles City Hall. That was until the political upheaval of the late 1960s caused a growing political awareness that prompted a career change. He has since consulted for local, state and federal office candidates and on statewide ballot initiatives for 44 years. “I’ve had a great life doing what I’m doing,” said Levine, who also dabbled in television writing, songwriting, and is shopping around a novel and a memoir. Now 75, his most recent campaign was with Andra Hoffman, one of 11 candidates in a September special election for the 45th Assembly District representing the west San Fernando Valley. Levine took time to talk with the Business Journal at his Sherman Oaks office about journalism, politics and how the women in his life not only helped shape his career but his palette.
Question: How have campaigns changed since you became a consultant in 1970?
Answer: When I started there were no consultants; there were just campaign managers. There were no companies that did multiple campaigns. It evolved into the business it is now where you set up a business and you consult on multiple campaigns. The campaign manager is someone who runs the day-to-day operation in the headquarters.
Has it become more lucrative too?
The business has changed so much it is hard to compare. Now that they form firms, the income level for individual consultants has risen sharply because they are taking on more work. Some people will charge a fee plus commission and markups. Some of us, and there are fewer and fewer, say this is my fee with no commission. I charge a flat fee. It depends on the race. If it is a lower-budget race I will drop the fee commensurate with the budget. A higher-budget race, for the Assembly or city council, is in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, which is a long way from the first campaign, which was $800 a month.
What is your role as a consultant?
I am responsible for everything that happens in a campaign. We don’t do fundraising. But I am responsible for hiring the fundraiser and supervising the fundraising operation. I found out years ago that fundraising is so time-consuming that if you are doing that, you don’t have time to think about how to intelligently spend the money. You need one person who wakes every morning and goes to bed every night thinking about how to raise (money) and another person who does the same thinking about the best way to spend it.
How many campaigns have you worked on?
I have been involved in 120 or more campaigns over the 44 years I’ve been doing this. Each one is different, each candidate is different. We pulled some serious rabbits out of some impossible hats. Nobody thought this year we could win the Bob Blumenfield City Council race without a runoff. Five years ago when we did Bob’s campaign for the Assembly we got outspent and won by more than 33 percent. We did Mike Feuer’s race when he ran for the Assembly, got outspent there and won by 16 percent.
What was your toughest campaign and what lessons did you learn from it?
I don’t know if there was a toughest one. The nuclear safety thing (a 1976 initiative that would have banned new reactors) was the most punishing campaign I’ve ever been through. It was physically and psychologically punishing. We were up against the international nuclear industry. It was a brutal campaign. I like to look back on that and say, “OK, we lost the election almost 2 to 1, but ask the nuclear power industry if they feel like they won.” There is less nuclear power operating in California today than there was the day we lost that election.
Has the Internet changed political campaigns at all?
It hasn’t. It has become a big distraction. We all go through the notion that we’ve got to have a website and got to have a social media presence. I maintain that the only people who look at that are your opponents, and maybe some reporters. When I find the voters standing on their doorstep every day waiting for the political mail to arrive, I will believe that the next thing they might do is go online to find information on candidates. I don’t even believe that the younger generation that is tech savvy does it.
Your son Lloyd served in the Assembly. Did you work on any of his campaigns?
No, I was smarter than that. (laughs) He came to me the first time (in 2002). He was working as legislative director for John Longville, who was a member of the Assembly. And Lloyd said to me, “I’m thinking of running for the Assembly.” We spent a long time talking about the lifestyle change of being a candidate and the lifestyle change of being a member. And he said one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard a candidate say. He said, “I have a good lifestyle right now; I have my friends, my running club. If I win I’ll have a different good life. If I lose I’ll have the same good life.” Which is a good attitude.
Before politics, you were a reporter. How did that come about?
I was in the eighth grade at Luther Burbank Junior High School in Burbank and I had a fifth period elective that I didn’t know what to do with. A friend of mine said why not take Beginning Newswriting, it’s an easy A. I took it and the first thing I wrote won a national contest. I really took to newswriting. I loved it.
How early did you start writing professionally?
While I was in high school I was stringing for the Hollywood Citizen News for sports, for the Burbank Daily Review, the old Valley Times, the old Green Sheet. I was writing and getting paid for it. It was one of those magic things that happened.
Considering your later career switch, were you interested in politics at this time?
I come from a very political background. My father and my grandfather were deeply involved in politics. In 1948 I was out on the streets of Brooklyn with my father and subway stops handing out Truman for President literature. Here’s the Vietnam War, and I came late to an anti-war position. It took me a long time to turn against that war.
I really bought into the fact that this country was the best country in the world and wouldn’t do anything wrong, and that our government wouldn’t do what ultimately what it was doing. I was a loyal American. What really started to turn me was the reaction of the government against the anti-war people.
Was there a specific incident that changed your mind?
In June 1967 I covered an anti-war demonstration in Century City. Lyndon Johnson was there for a fundraiser, and 10,000 people came out. That night turned into a brawl. Those of us who were reporters who ventured out of the hotel retreated really quickly. We knew the LAPD of that era was not shy about roughing up a reporter.
What did you do then?
I filed my story about midnight, and I didn’t feel like going home. That whole weekend I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sit still. I was physically affected by what I had seen. I got to work Monday morning and found out the anti-war demonstrators had picked up copies of my story, reproduced it and handed it out at sympathy demonstrations. I looked at that story trying to figure out why. What was in the story that led them to believe it represented their position? I never could figure it out but it had to be there. That was in June. In November I went to my bureau chief and said I can’t do this anymore.
There was something passive about sitting back and writing about the turmoil especially as my political viewpoint began to crystallize. If they had picked (the story) up and handed it out as justification for their position there had to be a bias in it. I just couldn’t find it. So it was a combination of having too much respect for the institution of journalism at the same time I had a growing personal opposition to the war.
What happened after leaving journalism?
I opened a small advertising agency specializing in advertising for wholesale tour companies – writing their brochures, placing their magazine ads. I had some friends who asked me if I would do it for them. I and two partners opened a wholesale travel business. We specialized in high-end Hawaiian travel. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life.
How did you transition to a political consultant?
I got hired briefly to write organizing material when the old County Employees Association organized into SEIU Local 660. I got loaned into Tom Bradley’s 1969 mayoral campaign to write radio commercials. I met a guy at the time, he was a little older than I was, and we talked a lot about my restlessness. He said why not get involved in a political campaign – you could be a press guy.
What was your first campaign?
I got involved in a U.S. Senate primary in 1970 for George Brown. I formed lifelong friendships in that campaign, and I realized I could do this. Bob Jeans, the campaign manager, he and I became fast and instant friends. He mentored me. Everything I know about politics today flowed out of stuff I learned from Bob in the early ’70s. We had campaigns going on in California and six other states, and Bob died. He left me with the whole thing (in 1976).
What was your reaction to that?
After Bob died, I said to my wife Jennifer, that’s it; I am not going to do any more statewide campaigns. I did end up doing a couple more. The last one was in 1982. By now I had two kids. I wanted to be a part of my kids’ lives. My two kids were four-sport athletes for four years in high school. In the combined years I missed one basketball game and one baseball game.
Are there skills that are common to being a reporter and a political consultant?
What I learned from newswriting is how to organize thoughts; quickly cut to what is important and what isn’t; and how to prioritize the importance of different things. In that sense they are the same skill. When the bombs are going off, which bomb do you care about, which one will have repercussions and which one is passing in the night? I’ve often said that 70 percent of what happens in a campaign is irrelevant.
The recent Los Angeles mayoral election attracted a low turnout from voters. Why?
The voters are satisfied. Voters come out in big numbers when they are angry or unhappy. There is no anger or unhappiness in L.A. right now. We found that in the Blumenfield race in the west San Fernando Valley. That is an area that is fairly alienated from City Hall, partially because of the distance, partially because of the makeup of the district. We walked precincts and there were no issues getting fed back to us.
You grew up in the 1960s, a time of great political polarization in this country. How would you compare the polarization of today with then?
It was far more informed then. It is far more surface now. The polarization of the ’50s and ’60s involved very definable and very specific issues – civil rights in the South, segregation, the Vietnam War. It’s a lot more vague now. Ergo, you see the Occupy movement with no clearly defined message. They are just angry, they are unhappy, they don’t like things. But they can’t isolate what it is they don’t like and can’t define what they want to do. Economic and social justice are vague things to be chasing after. End the war in Vietnam, that’s specific. End segregation, that’s definable. But economic justice, what is economic justice?
Do you have any favorite presidents or other politicians?
I became a John Kennedy fan. I liked Adlai Stevenson but along came Kennedy and there was something there. I was still a kid. In 1960 I was 21 years old when he was elected. I was optimistic. I loved the rhetoric of the Kennedy era. What president quotes (poet Robert) Frost in speeches, quotes (French existentialist Albert) Camus in his speeches? I liked the style of Lyndon Johnson; the can-do (attitude). When it came to the health care (reform) in his first year, I wish Obama had a little bit of Lyndon Johnson in him because he could have got it done in three months without a single Republican vote.
You have done other types of writing during your career, including television and novels, haven’t you?
I used to write story treatments for Warner Bros. Mostly for “Hawaiian Eye” and “The Roaring ’20s.” I didn’t write scripts.
Writing also figures into your interest in food and restaurants?
A few years back I started an online food magazine and restaurant website. When “Gourmet” magazine folded I had already started the restaurant website because I love food. Myself and 17 other people do restaurant recommendations. When that magazine folded, I thought what the world needs is a real quality online food magazine. I contacted my graphic designer and we brainstormed it and we have an online food magazine called Table Talk at Larry’s. It’s read in 132 countries. I am now looking to make it a vehicle for advertising so that I can break even on the thing. So far it’s all been out of my pocket. It gives me a chance to write.
And there is the novel you have written.
I have a completed novel that I am showing around. I hadn’t written fiction in years, except Rick Orlov at the Daily News says everything I do is fiction. In the last two years I have done a major revision on it. I’ve knocked 20,000 words off of it, changed three major plot points and I’ve got it out in the hands of a couple of agents again to see what happens. I have two other novels under development. I completed them myself and realized they could be better if I brought in a partner to write a certain character. My son Lloyd has one of them.
What about non-fiction?
I got a memoir with recipes that is in the hands of a couple of agents. It’s called “Cooking for a Beautiful Woman.” It’s 15 chapters, each one having to do with a strong woman’s or girl’s presence in my life who helped shape the arc of who I am. The common thread through it all is food and restaurants.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.