By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
All of which made his decision to run for mayor very, well, curious. It wasn‘t as if he had, or has, that compelling a rationale. From his vantage point in Washington, he says, it’s clear that L.A. isn‘t getting its fair share of dollars: “Sacramento County gets $6 for every one L.A. gets.” From his vantage point on the Eastside, it’s clear that “My community, like many other communities in L.A., isn‘t really partaking of what could be provided by my city.” In his earlier contested races, to be sure, Becerra clearly outshone his rivals: He was brighter, more articulate, a comer who one day could lay claim to a much wider audience. Why he thought that day had already come, however, is anybody’s guess.
Increasingly, Becerra‘s candidacy has looked like a grudge match against Villaraigosa, and privately a number of Latino leaders have none too subtly suggested he leave the race. There’s much speculation (none of it confirmed by the campaigns) that should Villaraigosa and Hahn make it into the runoff, Becerra would support Hahn -- an endorsement whose reverberations would shake Latino politics in L.A. for years to come.
If Villaraigosa were not already in the field, Becerra would have clear claim now to the mantle of L.A.‘s next liberal leader. In Congress, he has been a voice, and more recently a force, for the rights of immigrants. He’s authored tax credits for corporations that donate old computers to schools and libraries; he‘s endeavoring to create a tax credit for studios that don’t engage in runaway production. His liberal credentials aren‘t letter-perfect: In his first term, he supported NAFTA; since then, he’s placed greater emphasis on including worker rights and environmental standards in trade treaties themselves, rather than in unenforceable side agreements.
But the differences between Becerra and Villaraigosa are considerable and instructive. To some degree, they are the differences between the way a wonk (Becerra) sees the world and the way an organizer (Villaraigosa) views it. Becerra, for instance, is running as a mayor for the neighborhoods -- and when it comes to getting neighborhood councils in communities that haven‘t paid much heed to such things (chiefly, poorer and nonwhite communities), he sees a clear role that a Mayor Becerra could play. “You go into the neighborhoods,” he told the Weekly. “You hold town meetings, you make yourself available. You bring in the head of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and some people who have done neighborhood councils in other parts of town.”
For his part, Villaraigosa doesn’t think sending in the mayor -- even if he‘s the mayor -- would do the trick. “My concern is that some communities will lack the ability to organize. They need community organizers nurturing the development of neighborhood councils,” says this onetime community organizer.
At times, Becerra’s commitment to neighborhoods runs up against his wonk‘s faith in his fellow wonks. Assessing the many failings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, he argues that “It’s probably better to remove the politics from the policymaking. We‘ve got a lot of expensive and talented engineers and planners a within the MTA, and we hire out for a lot of even more expensive and very good planners and engineers.” What happens, though, if the neighborhoods don’t like their expensive and very good recommendations? “That‘s where I would make the decisions. If I believe the experts are right, I go to the neighborhoods and tell them so.” And if the neighborhoods are right? “I go to the experts and say, ’Can‘t you tweak it?’”
One recent Friday evening, Becerra is meeting with roughly two dozen people at Lucy Florence‘s cafe in Leimert Park -- the heart of the city’s African-American arts community. The meeting is one of 61 town meetings Becerra is conducting in the campaign‘s closing weeks (if the turnout is at all representative of the other meetings, he needs more like 610 meetings if he’s going to have a chance). It‘s a friendly crowd, with Becerra making all the right noises on questions of racial comity. Then one middle-aged man asks a question about housing. Becerra calls for the creation of tax credits for development -- pretty much all the candidates do -- and adds, “If we only ask the developers to provide a fee or set aside for affordable housing, they’re going to skip town.” Then, irrepressibly, the wonk surfaces. Becerra describes how, if downtown becomes a happening, “24-7” place, the next place for affordable housing will be south of downtown, in what is now a warehouse district.
The questioner has been fishing for an answer that‘s less visionary, more immediate. “But you’re talking about 10 to 12 years from now,” he gasps.
“If we don‘t start now,” says Becerra, “we’ll be talking about 15 to 20 years.”
In many of his answers, in town meetings, candidate forums and interviews, Becerra sounds more like the serious congressman he is than the serious mayoral candidate he isn‘t. From environmental policy to housing programs, he refers constantly to what the federal government can do -- noting repeatedly that the city is in no position to go out on its own. His primary solution to housing, for instance, is to persuade W., Trent Lott, Bill Thomas and the GOP capital gang to include a targeted tax credit for developers in their god-awful tax bill. I point out that W. has always said he’s against this kind of targeting. “I‘m telling you,” says Becerra, “that unless you want me to raise your fees and taxes to pay for all the affordable housing you need, I need to find creative ways. Can I convince a Republican president and Congress? Obviously, the task is harder now than it was a year ago.”
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