Glenn Gritzner Is the School District’s Political Troubleshooter at 34
Known for deftly navigating treacherous political waters, Glenn Gritzner successfully led two major bond campaigns – a combined $7 billion – for LAUSD. Photo by Gary Leonard.
by Jason MandellPublished: Friday, July 2, 2004 9:51 PM PDT
An ongoing series about 35-and-under movers and shakers shaping their fields. Glenn Gritzner is the type of guy who likes a challenge. So, in 1993, when an L.A. Times columnist asked readers to balance the state’s budget, the then-23-year-old decided to try.
“I had some spare time and I thought, ‘Why not?’” he recalled.
Gritzner won, and the prize was more than the thrill of seeing his name in the newspaper for the first time. “[The writer] sent me a few tacky T-shirts from Washington, D.C.”
A little more than decade later, Gritzner is still dealing with budgets and reading his name in the paper. As special assistant to Roy Romer, the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Gritzner plays a lead role in the district’s most notable projects, from school construction to bond battles. In each venture, Gritzner serves as the political troubleshooter.
Since joining LAUSD three years ago, Gritzner has put his political savvy to impressive use. He successfully tackled what were arguably the district’s two most pivotal challenges in recent history. In 2002, he ran the campaign for the district’s Bond K, which asked voters to approve $3.35 billion for the construction of new schools in Los Angeles. At the time, it was the largest local school bond in national history, and support for the measure was uncertain.
To further complicate matters, the bond was on the same November ballot as the vote on whether the San Fernando Valley should secede from L.A. Many secessionists had negative views of the LAUSD and its plan for new schools, even though the two issues weren’t connected.
Bond K passed with 68% of the vote, well over the 55% needed. Gritzner said fulfilling his first major test at the school district spurred “a combination of relief and elation.”
“It was a huge responsibility to be given,” he said. “I just felt a real sense of accomplishment.”
A year-and-a-half later, Gritzner began the process all over again, when he was put in charge of Bond R, a $3.87 billion school construction bond. That measure also faced a major challenge. It shared a ballot with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s high-profile propositions 57 and 55 – a combined $27 billion. Bond R passed with 63%, proving Gritzner’s political prowess.
Fish Out of Water
Gritzner’s path to the political life in Los Angeles has been a winding one. He grew up in Bakersfield and Tehachapi in California’s Central Valley. In high school, Gritzner participated in mock trials, ran track and found enough time for studying to be named valedictorian. “I was kind of one of those over-involved kids,” he said.
In 1987 he attended Cal State Bakersfield, and two years later transferred to UCLA. After leaving the land of “oil and agriculture and country music,” Gritzner said Los Angeles felt like home.
“I was like a freshwater fish that was swimming in salt water his whole life,” said Gritzner.
Gritzner graduated from UCLA in 1992 with a degree in communications, unsure of his future. He took a job assisting an executive at First Interstate Bank, and later moved into government relations at the company. Gritzner said that during his four years at the bank, where his boss and other colleagues were politically involved, he found he was drawn to politics.
“I always had an interest in it,” he said. “I was one of those ‘read the paper and have opinions’ people. Somewhere during that time I thought I could actually do public service or politics, and actually make a difference in the world.”
While at First Interstate, Gritzner met his wife, Lisa, who is now chief of staff for Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski.
In 1996, the couple moved to Boston, where Gritzner studied public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Shortly after graduating, Gritzner’s mother called him about a telephone message from the Century City-based financial firm Sun America.
“I get this woman on the phone and she says, ‘Do you know who Eli Broad is?’” he recalled.
Broad, a billionaire business mogul and civic power player, had been handed Gritzner’s resume and wanted to interview him for a job in community affairs. Gritzner flew back to L.A. for the interview.
A few weeks later, though he still hadn’t heard back from Broad’s office, he and his wife decided to move back to L.A. Gritzner soon learned that Broad’s firm had been bought out, and the job opening disappeared.
Gritzner landed a job editing noted Downtown civic figure David Abel’s newsletters on urban development and public investment. He was then hired as co-executive director of the smart growth nonprofit Transportation Land Use Collaborative. Gritzner said tackling diverse fields comes naturally to him.
“I’ve always had the blessing and the curse of being interested in a huge variety of things,” he said. “Whenever somebody comes down the path and gives you a new opportunity, you take it.”
In September 2001, Fabian Nu�ez, then director of government affairs at LAUSD, tapped Gritzner to coordinate government relations. A few months later he was appointed special assistant to Supt. Romer. Gritzner vividly recalls the moment when his role handling the district’s bond campaigns took shape.
“Romer looked at me and said, ‘Whenever I see you, I think bond,’” Gritzner said. “That comment pretty much dictated my life for the next 18 months.”
Another unexpected challenge for Gritzner came in September 2002, when an earthquake fault was discovered under Belmont Learning Center, putting the brakes on the unfinished project that had garnered notoriety as the state’s costliest high school.
Serving as the liaison between Romer’s office and the school board, where tensions often reached a boiling point, Gritzner weathered the storm. It also speaks to his savvy that he was able to get the district’s two major bonds passed during a time when LAUSD was under fire for the Belmont debacle.
Gritzner is currently working on what will likely be the district’s next political hot button: a plan to convert the historic Ambassador Hotel into a school. Preservationists and local business groups are rallying against the district’s proposal.
Gritzner seems unfazed by the battle ahead. He said he enjoys using strategy and political cunning to deal with tough issues. Anyway, he’s used to it.
“I saw [school board member] Julie Korenstein in the elevator a few weeks ago and she said, ‘Hey, what fire are you putting out today?’”