She Speaks Loudly And Carries A Big Stick- Glendale Mayor Virginia Bremberg
Fiery Glendale Mayor Virginia Bremberg even speaks of buying Burbank and turning it into a ‘parking lot’
December 23, 1991
By CHIP JACOBS
She’s an idealistic firebrand to some, a wily pol to others, but one thing Glendalians agree about their vocal mayor: Mary Poppins she ain’t. Even Virginia (Ginger) Bremberg concedes she can be “a terror to snakes” when rattled.
In three stints as Glendale’s chief, the 65-year-old Bremberg has bludgeoned developers, taken Los Angeles City Hall to task, infuriated the press, and enlivened many a narcolepsy-inducing council meeting. And a city known more for its Ozzie-and-Harriet persona than its economic muscle will never be the same when the roundish, 4-foot-10-inch, native Minnesotan departs.
“When she bulldozes you, you know it,” said Glendale Councilman Larry Zarian. “We all know to watch out for her attack face.”
Two years ago, Bremberg revealed that visage when she led a high-profile drive to bounce both Los Angeles and Burbank from Glendale’s Scholl Canyon Landfill, after both cities dumped more trash than they were allotted. “And neither one are allowed back,” Bremberg says, her folksy charm softening her tough talk. “Landfill capacity is way more important than money from L.A.,” estimated at $2 million to $3 million in yearly fees.
Yet, behind the rhetoric, Bremberg observers say, lies a shrewd, tireless, often stubborn leader who has helped the county’s third most populated city sidestep a painful recession. With a jobless rate of 5.8 percent, retail-oriented Glendale boasts an unemployment that is well below the county average and its better-known neighbor to the east, Pasadena.
“Our sales taxes are not what they were last year, no question about it,” Bremberg says of the city’s $296 million budget. “The car dealers are down 45 percent, the (Glendale) Galleria 9 percent, but we are doing better than Burbank because we are not as dependent on heavy industry.”
Glendale’s financial base has also been bolstered by its campaign in the 1980s to entice corporate headquarters into city borders with vows of no business or gross-receipt taxes and better-managed services. With Carnation, the International House of Pancakes, Baskin Robbins and Walt Disney’s Imagineering division now firmly ensconced in the eastern San Fernando Valley municipality, the city has apparently delivered.
“A lot of people in City Hall are responsible for our success. But I am not above what other politicians do: taking all the credit,” she deadpans of her 10 years on the council, three of them as mayor.
Bremberg, who earns $800 a month, also believes Glendale’s prosperity can be ascribed to its conservative fiscal practices. City books show no bond debt, even though its infrastructure — streets, power plant, fire department services — has been modernized.
So cocksure is Bremberg, who calls herself a “pro-choice, moderate Republican,” that in 1988 she told two real estate agents, “Glendale is so successful that we should buy Burbank for a parking lot.” While she claims that statement was made in jest, she remains upbeat.
“When Pasadena was deferring maintenance costs, we are putting in and paying for good sewers and streets,” she snaps.
Echoing the views of others, Glendale Chamber of Commerce President Allan Stone characterizes Bremberg as tough, energetic, and generally pro-business, although she can be tough on developers. “And Glendale is the end of the earth for her,” Stone adds.
But success often breeds troubled offspring. Indeed, fear and loathing of possible “Los Angelization” is on the minds of many of the periphery of L.A. these days. Just this year in Glendale, ethnic tensions between Russian and Iranian Armenians have spilled over at local schools and gang violence has already claimed several lives, shattering the city’s WASPY, Orange County-like image.
“Anybody who thinks this is a one-horse town hasn’t read the census,” Bremberg says. “We’re dealing with reality.”
Glendale, a city manager-run government with most elected officials technically volunteers, is also humming Southern California’s fashionable “go-slow” development blues. While there is no ceiling on commercial development, new residential projects have been limited to 700 multi- and single-family homes yearly.
In recent years, that cap has sparked confrontations between developers and Glendale officials, who discovered that antiquated zoning laws were enabling builders to bulldoze single-family homes and erect what Bremberg labeled “blocks of cookie-cutter apartments.
To stop the rape-and-run contractors, we had to downzone. It took 19 work and council sessions. When we found out later there were loopholes, we had to do it all over again,” she recalls.
Meanwhile, in the southern part of the city near San Fernando Road — a dilapidated hodgepodge of junk yards, auto repair shops and light manufacturing — there is talk of launching Glendale’s second urban renewal project. But rumors that politically influential Walt Disney Co. was behind the move as a way to increase its access to cheap land was a “flat-out lie,” Bremberg says sharply.
With a style that blends wit with a zeal for City Hall detail, Bremberg is vigilant of the bureaucracy she leads but far from the anti-establishment bashers that are returning to political vogue, observers say. And she is staunchly against Sacramento or Washington, D.C., stomping on Glendale’s “home rule” concept.
But a feminist model or trend-setter? Hardly, she says.
“I’m really a generalist with an extraordinary interest in local politics. I’ve never considered running for Congress because they are too far away from the basic needs of the people. I like getting the calls about barking dogs or trash that isn’t picked up. . . . Hopefully, I’m proof that a grandmother in tennis shoes can’t be ignored, though my mouth gets me into trouble regularly.”
One group she is trying to ignore is the Glendale News Press, the city’s feisty 10,000-circulation daily newspaper. Since April, when the News Press ran a front-page editorial blasting the mayor for opposing a proposed City Hall smoking ban, the chain-smoking Bremberg has refused to speak to the paper’s reporters — even after last June’s powerful earthquake.
Said News Press Executive Editor Jeff Prugh, “Like most politicians, she is not what she seems to be. There’s a lot of pent-up arrogance making itself known.”
Added one Glendale political insider, “Her temperament really shows when she gets hit with a broadside.”
Brushing aside those comments, Bremberg, who received $21,000 in campaign contributions during the last election, calls the paper the “Glendale Enquirer” because of its “inaccurate reporting.”
Bremberg’s frequent focus on down-to-earth concerns, such as landfills, recycling and water reclamation, has earned her the title of “Garbage Lady.”
But Bremberg has also championed Glendale’s decade-old fight to get a $208-million light-rail train system connecting it to downtown Los Angeles. However, the city’s purchase of the old Amtrak station and willingness to pitch in millions in tax dollars wasn’t enough to get the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to include the light rail in a draft of its 30-year spending plan last spring.
That’s when Bremberg verbally pounced on LACTC commissioners, accusing them of ignoring Glendale’s mounting congestion while favoring proposals from more lethargic San Gabriel Valley cities. In the end, Bremberg prevailed, getting Glendale on a list of six candidate projects the LACTC will fund.
“I was furious we weren’t included at first. I told (a Los Angeles city councilman and LACTC board member) I would grind up glass in his salad if he didn’t listen to me,” she says.
It was pure Bremberg, according to Glendale councilman Zarian. “She was letting a giant know that we are here. But what most people don’t know is her soft side, that she can get very emotional when it comes to patriotism and volunteerism.”
Reared in Tracy, Minn., Bremberg got her formative political training from her mother, a midwestern suffragette. After graduating from Wisconsin’s Beloit College, she worked in radio, advertising and teaching before marrying an electrical engineer in 1951. Upon moving to Glendale 18 years ago, she became president of the Chevy Chase Homeowners Association and got elected to the Glendale City Council on her second try in 1981.
A private person, Bremberg is a devoted fan of Dodger Dogs and the McLaughlin Group. When under pressure at City Hall, she turns to mystery books. “I like going from sewer repair schedules to blood and guts.”
Quips Councilwoman Eileen Givens, “Nobody can ‘outginger’ Ginger.”
copyright Los Angeles Business Journal