AS 50-FOOT-HIGH flames raced toward the coast, Malibu mayor Jefferson Wagner was facing down the fire. He wasn’t being a hero or even trying to make it look like he was. He was simply doing what a lot of Malibu residents were doing—preparing to defend his own home.
The November 2018 Woolsey Fire, Los Angeles’ most destructive on record—it would claim three lives and 1,500 structures—had already consumed nearly 80,000 acres, driven by bone-dry 70-mile-per-hour winds. Wagner’s home sits in a rural canyon about six miles up the coast from Surfrider Beach, famous for its long right-hand point break. As Wagner stood in his driveway, the golden hillsides around him were being scorched black by the inferno.
When the initial wall of flames moved past his house without touching it, Wagner thought he was in the clear. But while inspecting his home a few minutes later, still wearing the firefighter turnouts he kept on hand, he spotted smoke on the roof. “My heart sank when I went for a ladder and realized they had all melted,” he remembers. It was at this point that Wagner’s partner of 20 years, Candace Brown, decided to take their cat down toward the coast to safety.
While driving past a group of firefighters a few hundred yards from their home, Brown begged them to bring Wagner a ladder so he could save their home. They refused, insistent they’d been ordered to stay put, a general requirement for city firefighters during a wildland blaze.
With no ladder, Wagner began fighting the fire from inside his home, shooting water up toward the ceiling. But the roof collapsed, and one of the cinder blocks holding his satellite dish in place landed on his head, knocking him out. Wagner came to only when melting roofing asphalt dripped onto him, burning through his jacket. Following the hose line outside was all he could do to save himself. His house burned completely, and he spent three days in the ICU with carbon monoxide poisoning and kidney damage.
“Firefighters used to be my heroes” is all that Wagner says now of the incident.
At 66 years old, Wagner is a 44-year resident of Malibu. He’s owned a surf shop in town since the 1970s and is now in his second term as mayor, a position rotated between five elected councilmembers over their four-year terms. Whereas Malibu is often seen as an exclusive enclave of the rich and famous—a dreamland where billionaires have sprawling estates and 30-foot-high hedges—Wagner’s Malibu is very much rural California, a place where roads are still unpaved and some residents live in mobile homes on a shoestring.
“People are fascinated, even fixated, with Caitlin Jenner or Miley Cyrus,” Wagner says. “But there is the rest of us.”
But now, in the wake of the fire, Wagner is getting back to the business of preserving old Malibu—his Malibu—just like he fought to save his house. And he’s doing his best to make sure this fight isn’t in vain, too.
WHEN I STOPPED BY Wagner’s surf shop one day this summer, he was slumped over, his head nestled into his arm on the counter. The store was empty. When he heard me come in, he popped awake and gave me his usual warm hello and made a comment about catching up on sleep whenever he can. He was visibly exhausted. And not just physically. Along with manning the surf shop six days a week and lobbying his fellow councilmembers to vote no on intrusive new developments, he’s been forced to battle, like many residents, with his insurance company, which refused to pay out on his destroyed home.
“I never had a real retirement, I didn’t save properly,” he says. “My retirement was my house. It’s supposed to be a time in my life when I’m winding down. It feels like I’m starting all over.”
Wagner has become particularly good at combing through the fine print, so he’s disputing his insurance company on his own, an uphill battle to say the least. It’s that attention to detail that has made him particularly effective—and controversial—as Malibu’s mayor. Developers in the city are notorious for trying to subvert size and scope restrictions with clever language. Most of Wagner’s successes as mayor have had nothing to do with a yes or no vote but rather in helping to force more community-friendly design through wisely worded regulations. He is particularly proud of Malibu’s distinction as one of the only beach towns in California to maintain a 28-foot height limit on new buildings.
“For example, we didn’t stop the new Whole Foods from being built,” he says. “But we stopped it from being oversized. You really have to know the rules to pull that off.”
More recently, Wagner, along with a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, helped scuttle U2 guitarist The Edge’s plans to build a five-home subdivision on the bluffs above town. More often than not, however, Wagner cuts a lonelier figure on the board. He was recently outvoted 4–1 on a proposal that would limit home size to 11,000 square feet. “Next thing you know, you have walls for neighbors,” he says.
Being the most vocal naysayer to development is one of Wagner’s curmudgeonly charms, but critics say it’s also a lazy way of positioning himself as a savior. One thing about Wagner, though: He’s never been afraid of stirring the pot. In fact, in May 2018, just 18 months before the Woolsey Fire, Wagner’s home was raided at dawn by Los Angeles County cops, guns drawn. They were searching for evidence to prove that he had not maintained a primary residence within Malibu city limits, as is required to hold office.
Wagner actually owns two properties in Malibu, his house and a condo less than a mile from city hall. No charges were filed.
“It was flat-out intimidation,” says Wagner. “I knew it right away.” The raid happened just days after Wagner had voted against a salary increase for a city official. Today, Wagner will tell anyone who asks that it was retribution, even if that only courts more controversy.
“He’s talented, but he can be quick to throw stones,” says fire captain and fellow councilmember Rick Mullen. “That said, he’s very reliable in voting for the right things—he’s been really true to his word.”
BORN IN PALM SPRINGS, and raised in Calabasas, Wagner discovered the surf scene in Malibu as a boy. The first time he ever tried to catch a wave, he was pushed off his board by Surfrider legend Mickey Dora. A dozen or so years later, he opened his first surf shop in a tiny space across from Zuma Beach, which is how he picked up the nickname Zuma Jay, a moniker he still uses on his business cards to this day—both the ones for his surf shop and for city hall. The first shop didn’t last long, though, as he closed it so he could sail around the world for two years.
When he returned to Malibu, Wagner cemented his place by opening another store, the one he operates today. Throughout the decade, Wagner surfed, shaped boards, slept on the floor of his shop, and took showers using the hose out back. One of his most vivid memories of that time was simply walking on the beach and hearing the sound of the sand. “The sand squeaked beneath your feet,” he remembers. “That’s clean sand. If you go down to Surfrider today, you’ll never hear that squeak again. I felt that right down in my soul. I knew we had to take care of this place.”
In the 1970s, Malibu hadn’t yet been incorporated as a city—it was still under the jurisdiction of L. A. County—but the celebrities were arriving in droves. Among gritty locals, Zuma Jay was a well-known and well-liked business owner. He also had a knack for endearing himself to new A-listers in town, like Johnny Carson, who emceed one of Wagner’s fundraising events for a local park.
“I was building a reputation as someone who was fair,” he says. “But mostly just as someone who wouldn’t screw you.”
Meanwhile, Wagner was still barely making ends meet with whatever his surf shop pulled in, and so he was forever hustling for odd side jobs. Over the years, that included stunt work, special effects gigs, trucking, and even weapons and explosives handling for the U.S. military during training exercises, which is a big part of his income to this day. “My plan was always to just take the next job that paid well,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle.”
Sometime in the late 1980s, Wagner was spotted by renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber. Seemingly overnight, he was earning $3,000 a day as a model doing campaigns for everyone from Banana Republic to Ralph Lauren. At 38, he was hired to be the Marlboro Man for print ads, and the money he earned from the gig helped him build his home in Latigo Canyon in the 1990s. During this time he also got married, but it lasted just long enough to welcome his only child, daughter Ava.
It was in the 1990s that Wagner began to feel that the officials running Malibu were no longer in touch with his Malibu. He ran for office in 1993 but didn’t make the cut. Over the next decade, he remained active in local causes but kept politics at arm’s length. In 2008, at age 54, Wagner decided to run again. This time, he threw far more resources into his campaign. He not only won a spot on the council but he received more votes than any of the other four winning candidates. “I had matured,” he says. “And I became more focused.”
Of course, becoming a city official served only to reveal to Wagner just how contentious local politics had become. It also cast a light on some of Wagner’s contradictions. Back in the day, he was considered the outsider. Now he’s railing against the new generation of change. It’s that deeply ingrained “old Malibu” ethos that feeds his legend, but it also makes him important to the city at a fragile time.
“The legend and the man have become a little inseparable at this point,” says fellow councilmember and onetime business partner Mikke Pierson. “When Jay speaks, people either say, ‘I can’t believe he just said that’ or ‘Thank God someone finally said that.’ ”
THE ROAD UP into Latigo Canyon snakes its way through verdant countryside, already thriving after winter rains. There are groves of 200-year-old oak trees that somehow escaped the Woolsey blaze with little more than a sunburn. Atop a narrow ridge and spilling over a steep hillside is the plot of land where Wagner’s home once sat. With the debris removal nearly finished, it is now just a couple of empty terraces that look over a soot-filled swimming pool and a lonely tennis court.
“They called the bomb squad on me the other day,” he tells me, chuckling.
“They” is the debris-removal company, which had unearthed some old explosives Wagner had on hand for special effects. The explosives were inert and harmless, but their labels had melted away in the fire. Wagner, in telling the story, is clearly amused that it caused such a stir. It’s also a testament to how unfazed he is by controversy—any controversy.
“If you tell it like it is—truthfully and from your heart—you never have to look over your shoulder,” he says. “This fire might put me in poverty, but I will still defend this little town until either I or it is gone.”
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