Heather Repenning was well on her way to a career in academia when she met Eric Garcetti during his first run for Los Angeles City Council in 2001. That changed everything.
"I didn't think at the time I was going to go into politics. I was in academia," Repenning told The River City News, "but being part of his campaign inspired me in what it meant to be part of local government. I just wanted to work for him."
So, she did, in a range of roles over eleven years before being appointed director of external affairs in 2013 by now-Mayor Garcetti. Then last month the mayor nominated Repenning to serve on the Board of Public Works and she was confirmed to the full-time position. "We are kind of a unique commission in the city," Repenning said. "We are the only full time commission that exists." The five-member board serves as the head of Los Angeles's Department of Public Works which has 5,400 employees responsible for design, construction, and public projects, beautification, as well as street maintenance and garbage & graffiti removal.
The board meets in public as a governing body.
Mayor Garcetti had high praise for Repenning when he announced the nomination. "Providing easy-to-access basic city services is central to my agenda, and our Board of Public Works provides essential oversight of those services and infrastructure projects that Angelenos care about most," Mayor Garcetti said in a news release last month. "Heather Repenning knows our city departments and our customer base through years of first-hand experience and I trust her to make sure our key Public Works bureaus are serving our communities in the most impactful and cost efficient ways."
The same news release credited Repenning as serving as part of a key team that helped triple the number of parks and revitalize neighborhoods from Hollywood to Atwater Village to Echo Park while Garcetti was on council. In the 2013 mayor's race, she served as political director and as field deputy and district director for community development in the Thirteenth Council District Field Office.
The success of Repenning, who spent part of her childhood in Covington's Old Seminary Square neighborhood, is no surprise to those who have known her for a long time. Just ask her father, Dennis Repenning, attorney and chair of the Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents.
"I tell people this and it happens to be true: she's the smartest person I've ever met," Dennis Repenning said of his daughter. "She's just extremely intelligent and she has a great sense of humor. I don't know if she got any of that from me. I think she developed it on her own."
Dennis said that his daughter "was always a political animal and certainly I was", but over the past several years he has found himself learning from her experiences. Heather was a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, representing California. That inspired Dennis and he was a delegate Kentucky at the 2012 convention. "California was sitting right in front of the Kentucky delegation. There I am seeing my daughter and I thought, this is kind of amazing. This is quite a kid," he remembered.
Dad could brag about his daughter for hours, noting her fluency in multiple languages and her impressive education credentials that includes degrees from Swarthmore and the University of California-Irvine. Heather moved to Florida with her mother when she was 10, but spent summers and made frequent visits back to Kentucky. Now she admires her new home and all its offerings out west where she lives in Los Angeles's Eastside.
"It's a really diverse place," she said. "Los Angeles and Southern California are very spread out, unlike older cities built before the automobile. In Los Angeles, we just keep going, so I think for newcomers it can be a little daunting and sometimes it feels like it doesn't have a center. I think what you learn through living here is, it's a place made up of patchwork of really unique and interesting neighborhoods, so each neighborhood has its own center and own character, so I think that once you sort of understand that structure and embrace it, I think it becomes less big."
"I routinely run into people in the grocery store. It doesn't feel like a huge place."
She cites the weather, the culture, and the vast food offerings as some of the highlights of living in LA. And now in her new position she continues an unlikely career path in local government which has turned out to be more rewarding than expected.
"I thought I would be a professor. I always really loved school and I love books, reading, writing, and I think at a certain point I started to question the impact and I think most people want their lives to have meaning," Repenning said. "So much of academia, a lot of the writing and work that you do is really kind of inaccessible to the average person. It's very esoteric and so, I wasn't consciously looking for something else. I ended up finding local politics and local government somewhat randomly and just found it's a very unique way to impact people's lives and it's a very satisfying way to help solve problems and make sure that resources and services are being used and delivered in a smart and thoughtful way."
"Unlike other areas of government, you can see your work. There are parks that I worked on several years ago that I now take my daughter to. That's not just for us, but for other families that maybe live in a small apartment and don't have a backyard. That's why I've stayed with it."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher
Photo: Heather Repenning (provided)