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Thursday, Nov 30, 2023


MORRIS NEWMAN Contributing Reporter Fred N. Gaines likes to describe his firm, Gaines & Strahlstrom, as “the biggest pure land-use law firm in the Valley.” He also likes to talk about landmark cases in property rights that he has litigated. But what really grabs the 38-year-old attorney is politics. His tiny office in Warner Center seems to light up when the subject turns to campaigning and his many connections to the Democratic party, including some that lead straight to the White House. Gaines, a Valley native who holds degrees from UCLA, UC Berkeley and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, seems drawn to electioneering. In 1988, when still in his 20s, he hit the road to do advance work for Michael Dukakis’ unsuccessful presidential bid. Today, he remains active in organizing and managing campaigns for Democratic politicians at the state and congressional level and does not entirely dismiss the idea that he might run for office someday himself, although he claims the idea of political office is slowly losing its appeal. Question: Your firm has been described as the heir apparent of Reznik and Reznik, which was arguably the highest-profile land-use firm in the Valley. Are you happy to be in that position? Answer: To me, it is not much of a change from what I have been doing for a number of years. I was chairman of the land-use group at Reznik for several years. One of the reasons Reznik & Reznik was a great place for me was because it fit with my interests and my activities. I spent a lot of time both substantively in the law and in community activities establishing a name for myself. Q: This is a very small firm. How can it claim to be the biggest land-use firm in the Valley? A: Our law firm has four attorneys practicing full time in land-use law, and if you look around town, that’s about as big a department devoted to land-use law as you will find almost anywhere. Even in the big firms you rarely find more than a couple land-use attorneys. Q: How did you become a land-use attorney? A: For me, it has the perfect combination of law, politics and community affairs. I had grown up in the Valley. I went to Grant High School in Van Nuys. I went to UCLA, where I was also active in student government; I was student body president in my senior year. I intended to go to law school, and then I got a fellowship to study at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, so I thought that was a worthwhile diversion from law school for a while. Later, I went to Boalt Hall at Berkeley. Q: That sounds like the background of somebody who wants to be a high-level policy wonk or a politician. Was that your track? A: That was something that I certainly thought about. After Boalt, I went to work at Manatt Phelps. Mickey Kantor was one of the my direct supervisors during my three years at Manatt. John Emerson, (another Manatt colleague), went on to work in the Clinton White House; he was Clinton’s California campaign manager. In 1980 my master’s (thesis) advisor at the Kennedy School was a guy named Michael Dukakis. I graduated from the Kennedy School in ’83, and in ’87 I was contacted. “Hey Fred, would you be willing to help us with a little campaign that we’re going to run?” I did, and I did advance work in California and a couple other places, starting February ’87 all the way through the ’88 election. It was a very interesting year, a very exciting year, if ultimately disappointing. Then a year later I lived in the Valley and met Ben Reznik. At that time he was getting more and more interested in land-use law. Land-use law was not necessarily something that I had in mind entering law school, but it was always my intention to find a practice that combined both the practice of law and what I thought was my background and knowledge in community affairs. Q: Are you still tempted by politics? Do you want to go into politics eventually? A: Less and less as time goes on. When I was still in school and when I graduated college, I thought a lot about running for office. Today, I don’t think about it very much. I am enjoying my practice. I am enjoying my community activities. I don’t think I would ever be happy if I was totally away from being involved in elections and political issues. But I am really enjoying what I am doing. We live in Calabasas and I work in Woodland Hills. To be close to the kids and to be able to coach the soccer team and be home for their activities is very important. Q: What is your current view of the state of Democratic politics in the Valley? A: Democratic politics is alive and well in the Valley. While it is a fiscally conservative voter base, the Valley voter base agrees with Democratic politics. That’s why candidates like (Sen. Dianne) Finestein and (Sen. Barbara) Boxer and Bill Clinton have done well, as have local candidates like Bob Hertzberg and (U.S. Rep.) Brad Sherman. What will dominate politics in the future of the Valley will be local issues, like safety, schools and charter reform, and those will cross party lines. Q: Ben Reznik, your former boss, was well known for his strong views on property rights. Do you hold similarly passionate views? A: I think that my style is a little more compromising, a little less confrontational (than Reznik’s) … I do think that property rights have gotten lost in some of the debates regarding planning, particularly in California. Since Prop. 13 has held the lid on the ability of the government to pay its own way, governments throughout California have looked for any way they can to create revenue for things they want to do. When development has been going strong, they have certainly looked to property owners to pay more than their fair share. Q: What are the hot land-use issues in the Valley right now? A: The most important land-use issues are charter reform and the secession movement, and what will come out of those, and how land-use matters will be dealt with in the future. Whether we get succession or charter reform, there will be a change, and the result will probably be more local control of land-use issues. No matter how it turns out, what is most important to people in the land-use process is the clarity of the process, consistency of outcomes, so you don’t have different outcomes for (similar) projects, and a reasonable time frame for decision-making (in the entitlement process.) Also, how the Valley deals with redevelopment or reuse of properties is a hot issue. As the Valley becomes built out, one of the keys to whether the Valley remains a viable place for business and a liveable place for residents is how we reuse properties. One of the key properties in the Valley is the old Civic Center in Van Nuys, which is in the process of being redeveloped. It has always been one of the centers of the Valley, and it is important to see if it can be brought back, as downtown and other areas in Los Angeles have been brought back to life.

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