Question: You had a successful career as a businessman. What made you decide to go into politics?
Answer: I never set out to go into politics. But I got drawn more and more into serving in various capacities at Sinai Temple. When I was elected president, I decided to sell most of my company's assets and focus full-time on running the synagogue. The turning point came as I was finishing up my second year as president. I made bridging the differences between the Persian members of the temple and the rest of the members my priority during my presidency. And when people saw that I was able to do this, several approached me and said I should consider doing the same thing on a much larger scale, for the city of Beverly Hills.
Q: And that convinced you?
A: Yes, and also the fact that no Persian had ever made a successful run for any elected office in the city. This was despite the fact that many Persians were very successful in business and very highly educated. But they couldn't translate that into political success. They had no say-so in government decisions that affected every aspect of their lives. And there was something else.
Q: What was that?
A: Right after Sept. 11, many Persians were arrested and held for months by the FBI or other federal agencies. They were not allowed any representation and they had no one to turn to. It reminded me of what happened to the Japanese here in the U.S. during World War II. I was thinking to myself, if only these people had someone to turn to, who could help them get attention from the government. That's when I realized that if I ran for City Council, that would raise the stature of Persians and give people like these someone in the government to turn to.
Q: But those are the kind of issues that you face every day on the council. In fact one of the bigger issues you campaigned on four years ago was the Montage hotel project. You had campaigned against it; yet in the end you supported it.
A: Actually, I didn't campaign against the whole project, just portions of it. But once Steve Webb and I got on the council, we found that we were able to effect some changes to the project. We convinced the developer to go with a smaller project and that the garden, which was originally to be part of the hotel, would be open to all the people in the city. In exchange, the developer got two extra stories of condominiums.
Q: But that was a bitter fight.
A: The important thing is that we won on every front. We took it to the people in a vote and they supported it. And we got favorable rulings all the way up to the state Supreme Court. The only reason why we had to go that far was that the other side had so much money.
Q: What do you think of Beny Alagem's proposal to build a Waldorf-Astoria hotel and condo towers, which is also shaping up to be another big controversy.
A: I don't have an official position yet. But I will say this: The way the Hilton folks presented this project, all they emphasized was the Waldorf-Astoria. They thought that just by announcing it, people would get all excited and welcome such a prestigious symbol with open arms. They didn't really go into all the details.
Q: Have you seen the specifics?
A: It was only weeks later, after a lot of questions, that I learned that even with the Waldorf Astoria, there would be an overall reduction in the number of hotel rooms. Also, since higher room rates could be charged at the Waldorf Astoria, the city would get more revenues from the site than it currently does.
Q: And what about the traffic?
A: The developer has promised to add a lane on Wilshire Boulevard and make other improvements to the intersection with Santa Monica Boulevard. We're still studying this, but it's possible that the intersection may see some overall improvement in traffic flow.
Q: But this became a lightning rod in your re-election campaign when opponents said you were in the developer's pocket.
A: No question I lost a few votes because of this. But I lost many more votes because of the decision by the city clerk to print the ballots in Farsi and English. He did this without consulting us. He thought he was doing us a very big favor. But I know I lost at least 250 votes just from the backlash to the ballot issue. I know this because that's how many letters I got from people who said they would vote against me.
Q: That issue and the fact that you're the Iranian-American mayor of an iconic American city has gotten you quite a bit of attention recently. What's that been like?
A: It has been amazing just how much this has been covered. Just at 6 a.m. this morning, I was on the line with the BBC. I hope this coverage will make it possible for me to help find a way to serve as a bridge between Iranian-Americans and Americans here in Beverly Hills and between Iranians and Americans on a broader scale.
Q: But what about more basic issues, such as how to improve the business climate in the city?
A: Being a businessman, I realize that business is the lifeblood of the city budget. The business district is only 9 percent of the city by area, but it provides 75 percent of our revenue. So we need to make sure the business atmosphere is welcoming. We will be very proactive, going to businesses, getting them to tell us their concerns.
Q: So what can you do to keep major tenants from leaving the city, such as when Creative Artists Agency left for Century City?
A: By the time we got involved in that situation, it was already too late; they had made the decision to move. Also, there was some issue there between the partners of the agency that would have made it very difficult for us to act in any case. We did not make the same mistake again with the William Morris Agency; we got involved right up front and were able to hammer out an agreement for them to stay. They are going to expand into a site right across from the Montage Hotel. The environmental impact statement is in the works now.
Q: What about Rodeo Drive, the city's chief tourist attraction?
A: Look, after 9/11, tourism to our city dropped tremendously, by 35 percent or 40 percent. It illustrated just how tourism dependent we are. So Rodeo Drive is very important to us. I'm looking for a higher level of companies there than what's there now. I'm not talking about chain stores, but really high-class boutique stores, along with more kiosks. It should really be more like the Champs Elys & #233;es, more pedestrian-friendly. I've talked with (clothier) Fred Hayman about this, as well as the Rodeo Drive Committee.
Q: Then there's Beverly Hills' traffic nightmare. Besides the Wilshire Boulevard subway plan that's years in the future, what improvements do you want in the near term?
A: I'm going to use every bit of technology that's out there to improve traffic. One of the first things I'm going to push for is smart traffic signals, where a camera looks at the intersection and decides how long the signal should stay green or red and how long the turn signals should be.
Q: Let's talk a little about your past. What made you decide to come to the United States to study?
A: When I was in Iran as an 18-year-old, it wasn't easy to get into university. There were quotas against Jews. It started with the applications, where they asked your religion. They intentionally differentiated between Muslims and non-Muslims. My oldest brother was the first to feel this and he decided to come to America. My younger brother and I decided to join him. At age 19, I came to the U.S. and attended Mankato University in Minnesota, which was part of the University of Minnesota system.
Q: How did you end up here in L.A.?
A: It was really a decision by all three of us. There was very little opportunity to work in Minnesota and we heard there were all sorts of jobs out West. So we piled into a 1957 Chevy and drove west. We first went to San Diego, but then went on to L.A. because that's where the jobs were. I worked in a cafeteria and enrolled at what is now California State University, Northridge.
Q: So that's how you supported yourself through school?
A: Only for a little bit. Then we got a break and started playing Persian music at bar mitzvahs and weddings. I played the santour, a Persian stringed instrument that's similar to the hammer dulcimer. That's how we paid for our education.
Q: How did you end up starting your own company?
A: After I graduated from Northridge in 1965, I went to work for Ampex Corp., a big sound and electronics company. I developed a product that extended the life of a computer by adding memory. Up until that point, specific memory add-ons had been made for specific brands of computers. We developed a standardized add-on product that could be inserted into any computer. In 1978, I decided to open up my own company, called American International. I focused on add-on memory products for tape players and disc drives.
Q: Now that you are a high-profile mayor, what's your average day like? And do you get to spend time with your family?
A: Actually, I spend about 40 percent of my time on city business and about 30 percent on running my business and the rest with my family. The city business is often in the evenings, so I can spend much of my days running by business.
Q: You're still running a business?
A: After I sold off the assets of the memory add-on company, I kept the organization and name intact. About 18 months ago, I started a new business, distributing and selling food packaging. The packaging is produced in factories in China and I bring it to this country. I know, it's an old-line business compared to the technology-focused company I had before, but it's moving very well along now.
Q: What do you think about the current tensions between the U.S. and Iran?
A: I hope there is a way I can help defuse the tensions between America and Iran. I don't want to see a war; it won't solve anything. Look, you keep your enemy close by talking to them. Dialogue brings more solutions than war. That being said, I definitely do not agree with everything that the Iranian government is doing right now. When the President of Iran, (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, started denying that the Holocaust ever happened, I became very angry. I said that he should be given a one-way ticket to Auschwitz.
Organization: City of Beverly Hills
Born: Shiraz, Iran; 1940
Education: B.S., electronic engineering, California State University, Northridge
Career Turning Points: Decision to come to United States to attend university; becoming president of Sinai Temple in Westwood; running for Beverly Hills City Council
Most Influential Person: Mother, who taught Delshad English and encouraged him to study outside of Iran
Personal: Lives with wife Lonnie, a
schoolteacher, in Beverly Hills; two grown children, Debra and Daniel
Hobbies: Plays music, especially a Persian stringed instrument called the santour; tennis, bicycling. Used to pilot airplanes and yachts; also
a certified diver.
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