Councilwoman Jan Perry's campaign for mayor is as much about overcoming perceptions as it is persuading people to vote for her.
"I don't understand why people say I'm the underdog," Perry said during a recent interview. "With matching funds, I'll have about the same amount of money as the others. And I've been around as long as they have."
The "others" in this race are City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who have been polling as the top two of the eight candidates running in the March 5 election to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. A November poll by Loyola Marymount University put Perry in third place, followed by Kevin James, a Republican former talk show host and former federal prosecutor.
But the same poll also found that 67percent of voters hadn't made up their minds yet. Perry, 57, a three-term member of the City Council who is termed out in July, remains optimistic she will be able to persuade many of those undecided voters that she is best suited to lead the city into the future even with all its financial problems.
"People have always underestimated me," Perry said. "But there is a large percentage of voters who have not decided yet, and there is that opportunity for me."
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, said it would be a mistake by the other candidates to not take Perry seriously.
"There's a big difference between an underdog and a long shot," Sonenshein said. "She is the underdog but remains viable. The goal for all these candidates is to be in the final two for the (May 21) runoff.
"(Greuel and Garcetti) probably have better citywide recognition. But Perry is probably the best situated to play the semi-outsider critic role. She is better situated than Kevin James to speak with authority because he doesn't hold public office."
Over the years, Perry has proven to be an independent voice, not afraid to go after the City Council leadership -- even when it could backfire on her.
During this past year, Perry took on Council President Herb Wesson, whom she accused of being duplicitous when it came to the redrawing of City Council districts.
As a result, her district was dramatically redrawn, pushing her to the south and out of much of the downtown area she had helped modernize.
She also has been vocal about the number of termed out state legislators running for the City Council, voicing her concern that Sacramento-style politics could be taking over City Hall.
Politics runs deep in Perry's DNA.
Both her parents were involved in politics in her native Woodmere, Ohio, serving separate times as mayor.
Perry came to Los Angeles in 1970 to attend the University of Southern California, saying she decided to make the city her home after going to a Rose Bowl game.
She converted to Judaism soon after college, then married, had a child, and was working as a paralegal and was active with a neighborhood association when City Councilman Michael Woo asked her to work for him as a planning deputy in 1990.
"Actually, it was a staff member for (former council president) John Ferraro who recommended her to me," Woo recalled recently. "I needed a planning deputy who could work through the sometimes tortuous planning issues with neighborhood associations. Jan knew how the city worked and was a tremendous help."
When Woo ran for mayor in 1993, he said Perry helped introduce him to leaders in the African-American community, where he was able to capture better than 70 percent of the vote, though he lost to Richard Riordan.
In 1993, Perry became chief deputy to former Councilwoman Rita Walters until the two had a falling out. Perry said she was never told why Walters was upset with her, but she went to work for former Councilman Nate Holden and then for Mayor Riordan.
In 2000, Perry announced she would run for the council seat when Walters was termed out.
"I wasn't really surprised," Woo said. "Anyone who watched her work knew she would be involved in politics in some way."
If anyone was surprised, it was Perry herself.
"I never considered running for elected office," Perry said. "I grew up in a family of politicians and it was the last thing on my mind."
Since taking office, Perry has been credited with shepherding through the L.A. Live project, including the J.W. Marriott Hotel and, more recently, supporting the proposed football stadium on the site along with the proposed expansion of the Convention Center.
In addition, she has created two wetlands within her urban district and worked to increase what residents expect from City Hall.
"What still surprises me is when I show up for events people say they are shocked that I have showed up," Perry said. "I'm shocked they're shocked. I think that's why, in a city like Los Angeles, people feel so disconnected to their government. I think people need to expect more from their government.
"I was out in Pacoima the other day and I worked there years ago and it surprised me that some of the streets that were unpaved in 1979 are still not paved. People need to expect more, demand more from the city."
Perry lauds Villaraigosa for a number of his initiatives -- particularly with schools and transportation.
"What he has done with schools is start a dialogue and raised awareness of the issues," Perry said, adding she would continue his Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and develop new programs aimed at middle schools to try to attack the dropout problem.
She also believes the city is beginning to see inroads on developments around transit lines.
"I was speaking to a group of young architects recently and they told me they are looking for housing along the Expo Line," Perry said "I don't think young people are as tied to cars as the rest of us. It's a way to deal with traffic and expand housing."
Perry does not have the major union endorsements in the election -- most of those have gone to Garcetti and Greuel.
She is supported by a number of African-American officials, including Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, former county Supervisor Yvonne Burke and Councilman Bernard Parks. Two other former colleagues, Ruth Galanter and Greig Smith, also have endorsed her as well as a number of community organizations from within her district.
So far the tone of the mayor's race among the three leading City Hall insider candidates has remained relatively civil, while James has run an outsider's campaign on the attack against a "broken" City Hall.
Politically, Perry is a moderate when it comes to finances and she was instrumental in proposals to reform the pensions paid to city workers while seeking parity in pay for DWP workers.
She said the city's economic issues -- including a projected $216 million shortfall next year -- do not deter her.
"I think one of the best times to enter into a process of evolution is when you are at the lowest ebb," Perry said. "That provides an opening for innovative thinking, for more flexibility. When the challenge is greater, the opportunity to recover is better."