David Nahai has his hands full as the new general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. The agency's water pipes and transmission system are decades out of date, and he has lobbied for an unpopular rate increase to pay for repairs. Nahai settled in the U.S. years before the 1978-79 Iranian revolution pushed tens of thousands of his countrymen to immigrate to L.A. He worked at big law firms before starting his own in the mid-1980s that specialized in real estate transactions and environmental law. The self-professed environmentalist got his start in public service in 1997, when he was appointed to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. He served as chairman and battled cities over efforts to clean up Santa Monica Bay. In 2005, newly elected L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed Nahai to the DWP Board of Commissioners. He was named general manager last fall after Ron Deaton stepped down following a massive heart attack. Nahai talked to the Business Journal about his immigrant experience, and how it influenced his career, and, ultimately, his involvement in civic affairs.

Question: You left Iran to get an education at boarding school in England when you were 10. That must have been difficult.

Answer: My parents felt that I would get a better education outside of Iran, so that's why I and my sisters were sent away to boarding school. It was something that many well-off families in the Persian Jewish community did at that time. Also, they had an uneasy feeling correct as it turned out that things might deteriorate in Iran and they wanted to make sure we had the education and the skills to survive outside Iran should that be necessary.

Q: You also made your first trip to the U.S. at a very young age. What was your impression of this country?

A: I was 7 or 8 when we made our first trip here. I don't remember too much about it, except that when we stayed at a hotel in Manhattan, it was during the Nixon-Kennedy campaign (of 1960). The Nixon campaign office was either in our hotel or right next door, and I would go down there and they would give me all these Nixon buttons to distribute. But day after day I always came back with my full allotment nobody wanted them. It was only years later that I realized why I was in the heart of Kennedy country. But that was my first experience with grass-roots campaigning.

Q: Why did you decide to come to the U.S.?

A: While I was studying law in England, I realized that it would be beneficial for my career to have a degree from an American law school, especially since I wanted to specialize in international commercial transactions. When I applied to Boalt Law School at UC Berkeley, I fully intended to come back to England once I had gotten my degree.

Q: Why did you stay?

A: The revolution happened back in Iran and my parents and much of the rest of my family had to flee. They along with many other Persian Jews decided to come to Los Angeles, where there was already a Persian Jewish community. So I decided rather than go back to London that I would move to Los Angeles after finishing law school.

Q: Have you sought to return to Iran?

A: I have no desire to go back to Iran. The last time I was there was in the summer of 1978 (just before the revolution). I no longer have any relatives in Iran; they all left before or during the revolution. And since I was not in Iran for very long when I was growing up, I don't have many friends there.

Q: What do you think of the current situation in Iran and the state of relations between Iran and the U.S.?

A: I think the current Iranian regime is reprehensible. It's oppressive internally and at a minimum disruptive internationally. However, I think those who beat the drums of war are reckless and unthinking. This is a situation in which there has to be very strong diplomacy and other kinds of leverage applied. Attacking Iran is not the answer.

Q: You mentioned your uncle was a role model for you. Why?

A: All of my extended family was in the insurance business the family ran what was then the largest private insurance company in Iran. My uncle started that business and I was always impressed with how he started it and ran it. That was one of my inspirations for launching my own law firm years later in Los Angeles.

Q: What was it like starting your own law firm?

A: It gave me both a sense of immense gratification and also of insecurity. Gratifying as I started to see the fruits of my labor, but then there's always the feeling of what happens as you confront the next test. Also, I learned what it was like to meet payroll every two weeks, to have other people depending on me.

Q: Why did you decide to transition out of what could have been a very lucrative law practice and accept the appointment to the L.A. regional water quality board?

A: As an immigrant, I wanted to start giving back to the community. It's a similar sentiment that many immigrants to this country have once they reach a plateau of comfort: It's time to give back. And L.A. had really welcomed me with open arms, as it does for so many immigrants. When I heard of an opening on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, I put my name in and Gov. (Pete) Wilson appointed me.

Q: That sounds a bit more daunting than most volunteer work.

A: Yes, it was. Our waterways, both above ground and below ground through the storm drain system, are the single biggest source of pollution to the coast. But what I didn't fully realize was the extent of the divide between the coastal cities that wanted their coastlines cleaned up and the inland cities that didn't want to pay for cleaning up their waterways. That was my biggest challenge on the board.

Q: You took some heat from the building industry for your stand on this issue

A: Yes I did. In fact, I was one of the few gubernatorial appointees to the water board who had a controversial reappointment. I've tried reaching out to the building industry since then, but the hard feelings persisted for quite a while.

Q: How did you first get interested in environmental issues?

A: I guess you could say I first became interested in the environment when I was in boarding school in England. I was really into existentialism. I realized the environment won't take care of itself: It's entrusted to us. We can do a great deal of good or harm to the planet and the choice is up to us.

Q: What do you do in your personal life to reduce your environmental impact?

A: In terms of conservation, I've always done little things like going around the house and turning the lights off. For the size home we have, our energy use is below average. I'd like my family to do even better. For example, we're replacing all of our lights with compact fluorescent bulbs. And recently, we had our home energy and water use audited to see how we can improve conservation.

Q: Anything else?

A: Well, I drive a hybrid car a Nissan Altima hybrid. I try to reduce my vehicle miles traveled, but like most Angelenos, I'm finding that very difficult to do. When I go to the grocery store, I'll use paper bags or reusable bags rather than plastic. And our entire family is diligent about recycling.

Q: Recently, your family had an incident during the debate on the water rate increase where a reporter entered your property and asked your wife how much your water bill was. What was your reaction to this?

A: I was shocked by the reporter's behavior. I respect the freedom of the press. He has the right to report as his good conscience would dictate. But to turn up at my home and harass my wife and my son, I've never experienced anything like that. It was completely beyond the pale.

Q: What made you decide to leave the water board and seek appointment to the water and power board?

A: Actually, I didn't seek out the DWP board. I originally applied to be on the Harbor Commission. But Mayor Villaraigosa decided to name me to the DWP board instead. I had supported Antonio during his first run for mayor in 2001, again during his campaign for City Council a couple years later and then during his second run for mayor in 2004-05.

Q: What was your impression of the DWP?

A: It was an agency that was going through some tough times. There was a feeling of malaise throughout the agency, which had just come off the Fleishman Hillard scandal. It also wasn't facing up to the challenges of the future: The infrastructure was falling further and further behind, the workforce was unhappy, the agency wasn't really moving in an environmental direction and the contracting policies weren't adequately overseen.

Q: Sounds like a lot of challenges.

A: One of the biggest challenges was getting my arms around the workforce here. The morale was very low and the agency hadn't had a hands-on leader for months since Ron (Deaton) fell ill. One of the first things I did was actually go out and meet with workers from across the agency, from Owens Valley to the repair crews.

Q: You sound busy. What's your typical day like?

A: Mostly it's going from one meeting to another a lot of meetings with community groups, with many of those going late into the evening. One of the key things I'm trying to do is to change the DWP's image, and the way you do that is to get out and put a face on the agency. I also spend time in Sacramento representing the agency on issues that come up with regulatory agencies and the Legislature. I was just up there yesterday testifying.

Q: Sounds like you don't have much time for a personal life.

A: No, not since I took over as general manager. It's been a huge time commitment and I knew it would be when I was nominated. That was one reason why I divested my interest in the law firm. The other reason is that I wanted to be free of any perception of a conflict of interest. In any case, now that I'm general manager, I find that I don't have the time to do anything else outside of work except go to the gym and look forward to vacations when we can travel as a family.

Q: How did you meet your wife, Gina?

A: We met at a Persian Jewish wedding. The bride was one of her close friends and the groom was one of my closest friends. We started dating and two years later we were married.

Q: How did she launch her career as a novelist?

A: She was going to USC law school and hated it. She told me one night that she had all these stories that she wanted to tell about growing up in Iran. I encouraged her to start writing and she's just published her fourth novel, "Caspian Rain."

Q: What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

A: Someone once told me that you should concentrate fully on what is in front of you. If you do that, then a lot will solve itself.

H. David Nahai
Title:
General Manager
Organization: Los Angeles Department of Water & Power
Born: 1952; Tehran, Iran
Education: London School of Economics; J.D., Boalt Hall School of Law, UC Berkeley
Career Turning Points: Attending Boalt Hall School of Law; deciding to open up own law practice; getting appointed to regional water board
Most Influential People: Parents, uncle who started family insurance business in Iran; L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Personal: Lives in Los Angeles with wife Gina, a novelist; three children, ages 15, 19 and 23
Hobbies: Travel, reading

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