This article appeared at Huffington Post on May 21, 2013.
I am supporting Eric Garcetti for mayor, because he is the progressive with the greatest potential for new leadership in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times and many other Garcetti supporters chose the same factor of "potential." The changes that we need, however, run far deeper than what a new mayor can overcome. Unless participatory democracy becomes a greater cause in LA, Garcetti – or any mayor – will be severely limited in their potential. Now, more than ever, the city and county need more democracy, and more vision of sustainability, in order to overcome a dysfunctional system of remote control.
In case this seems like overblown rhetoric, just remember that it took federal court orders to: Reform the LAPD, stop illegal dumping of pollutants into Santa Monica Bay, and prohibit racial disparities in transit funding and order the MTA to provide more buses for the poor. LA was governed for several years by those federal court orders because of failures by local elected officials, a breakdown of democracy which left citizens powerless to exert much influence over local politics.
To the extent LA is governed locally, it is largely through appointed commissions – zoning, planning, the ports, etc. – composed of people who disproportionately live in places like Brentwood, San Marino and Pasadena – all further examples of governance by remote control.
The city and county governments are designed to be parochial bastions where the incumbent functions like a quasi-potentate over most development decisions, even where those decisions affect the city as a whole. For example, the first Council district has been notorious for permitting most of downtown development for several decades.
As voter turnout in this election reaches historical lows, it is no accident that the spending on campaigns have climbed to historic highs – well over $33 million for the mayor's race alone, $60 million for all city races. Most of that money comes from groups that have special business before the city, not from groups interested in the public interest overall.
Reforms to address this lack of democracy are short-lived. LA’s public finance law, which provided matching funds, has been shredded. LA’s neighborhood councils, invented to offset neighborhood-based movements, are powerless except for modest chores like tree planting, and are only advisory in nature.
The LA Times, the original booster of LA’s brand of uncontrolled growth, has turned critical on many issues in recent years, especially on policing, but tends to remain anchored to its downtown growth interests. The Times investigative teams face constant cutbacks, and the paper itself is subject to a billionaires’ bidding war. Other than the Times current intelligence, the “entertainment capital of the world” is an embarrassing media wasteland in its television coverage of city politics.
In a metropolis sprawling 500 square miles, only three elected officials – the mayor, city attorney and city controller – are mandated to campaign on their vision of where the city is going and what its priorities should be. Actually, it is only the mayor who has broad leadership responsibility, since the controller is a narrow watchdog over fraud, waste and abuse and city attorneys concern themselves with prosecutions. Everyone but the mayor is essentially elected based on the immediate concerns of the most vocal elements in 15 council districts.
The Iron Triangle
Once in a while, a powerful cause arises that helps sweep a mayor into office. Tom Bradley’s campaign was lifted by the civil rights movement and angry calls for police reform. Antonio Villaraigosa came to office on the dynamic support of a long-disenfranchised Latino community. Those elections mattered. Similarly, in recent years, the cause of the immigrant rights movement has been embraced by most politicians in LA as well, making the city an important outpost of reform.
Most of the time, however, city elections are an insiders’ game, the insiders being an Iron Triangle of downtown developers, the pro-development labor federation and City Hall power brokers who perpetuate a growth machine. The machine lifts the bargaining power of city workers, which is good, at the expense of neighborhoods, which is bad, while at the same time generating record-scale sprawl, traffic jams, pollution and vast inequities. The best example of the Iron Triangle in its current dysfunction is the scandal of the 405 expansion project, which will run millions over budget and years past its deadlines, provide few benefits in comparison to its costs, and has been treated with shrugs and denials by virtually every candidate in this year’s election. It took a frustrated billionaire, Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, to stir any public media attention to complications with the expansion project, and only because of his zany willingness to personally hire crews to expedite the construction project.
It should not have to be this way. Great cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York face similar challenges from their own “iron triangles”, but neighborhood interests, the media and local political clubs in those cities are far more powerful by a vast measure. Both political life and public policy outcomes are arguably better in those three cities.
LA has great entertainment, sports, vistas and beaches, but little political culture. LA’s main influence on national politics is due to the many millions of dollars, and some stardust, donated by Hollywood and Westside entertainment figures. Ideas and inventions mainly come from the Bay Area and New York, and it is not accidental that so many of our power politicians – speakers, governors, presidents – arise from the vibrant political cultures of those three mega-cities.
All these ruminations are a lengthy way of explaining how small-bore the LA mayoral campaign has been. To the extent she has a cause, Wendy Greuel may become the first woman mayor, but that possibility has not touched off much of a spark. Most of the time she is portrayed as the candidate not of vision but of Bill Clinton, Magic Johnson and Richard Riordan. Substantively, she is caught in an endless argument over whether she really identified $160 million in government waste or not. Eric Garcetti has the credentials and experience of a real visionary, which is why progressives support him, but his campaign has been an endless effort to prove that Greuel is in the pocket of the DWP union boss.
In summary, Greuel is campaigning as if she still is controller while Garcetti campaigns as the president of the city council. It is as if the only questions facing Los Angeles have to do with cutting the budget of local government in a city where 40 percent of the children are born poor. The two candidates' platforms like extensions of their current job functions and bound to the parochial design of LA politics. There is little incentive to have a vision of citywide issues, which means that our vast metropolis, one of the most visibly spectacular of the world, operates with a natural life of its own, carried by invisible forces which are rarely seen, little understood, and well beyond public grasp or accountability. It is not that our political class lacks intelligence or craft; it is that all the incentives are toward micro differences into macro ones.
Thank God for the good weather and fascinating diversity of Los Angeles, the main factors that make life quite livable. But we should be governed more by democracy and diversity than by an anarchic mix of geography and anthropology.
Possible Pro-Democracy Initiatives
It is not inevitable that a new mayor must step onto this same treadmill, although history says it is likely. If, for example, someone like Eric Garcetti wants to run for another office sometime in the future, he may want to establish a track record of more than managing the status quo. If Hollywood’s elite wants to create incentives for the creative life in this city, they could buy the Times and massively expand its investigative bureaus. While they are at it, they could subsidize a television outlet that covers politics and culture. And remembering the Beat poets and surfers of Venice, do something to curb gentrification and save today’s starving artists.
People who care about the heart of the city could support some pro-democracy initiatives, eg:
- Make neighborhood councils real and democratic, with greater-than-token powers over major development impacts and the allocation of local funds for community-oriented businesses and services (from independent bookstores to citizen grievance centers);
- End the culture of cronyism that flourishes like fungus in the absence of more effective lobbying and campaign contribution regulations;
- The City Council and county board of supervisors could be expanded in number to increase civic diversity;
- At least some City Council members should be elected at-large, requiring them to advocate a vision of the city;
- Current City Council members could delegate more local dispute-resolution matters to neighborhood councils in order to better concentrate on citywide subjects like the budget and holding agencies like the DWP, LAPD, MTA and the Port more accountable;
- Billionaires in sports and entertainment need to keep their venues affordable to working class and immigrant families, and invest massively in arts, science and recreation facilities to foster the talent of the next generation. Under no circumstances should Dodger Stadium be leveled in the faux name of “restoring” Chavez Ravine to the Mexican community while planning to concentrate sports and entertainment downtown;
- LA should lead the necessary urban revolution in renewable energy and conservation of fuels and water resources, both for the future viability of the city and as a condition for the flow of personal contributions to national candidates for office; it should never be forgotten that the fight against air pollution and air quality regulations arose in smog-ridden LA decades ago, or that LA is the only major city in America to have cemented its own river.
- LA should continue embracing its role at the crossroads of the Americas, immigration reform, the growth of Latino political leadership, and achieving model wage and working conditions for the emerging working class.
The point is that with a more inclusive democratic political process, LA might take greater charge of its destiny, instead of leaving things to private real estate development, uncontrollable immigration trends, racial tensions that might erupt, the gradual depletion of local resources, and the frightening prospects of climate change.
If you think this is list too tough to take up, I have not even mentioned earthquake preparedness, where the city and state have a long way to go.
One hopes that the next mayor is at least willing to be frank, open and educational about these challenges to democracy, equity and sustainability, and move far the traditions of official boosterism and stone-stepping to higher office that have marked our past. That is the least that we who live here should expect from government.