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City in Doldrums 

Thursday, Feb 13 2003
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IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T NOTICED— and noticing a nullity isn’t easy — Los Angeles city government is becalmed. Jim Hahn and the rest of the civic establishment have smote the dread secession dragon, and only now, months after their victory, is it clear that none of them has a to-do list for fixing up the city.

The only vote of note to be cast by the City Council in recent months has been its halfway acceptance of Chief Bratton’s proposal to let burglar alarms ring merrily unanswered. The chief’s new policy is a perfectly sound one, but what really distinguishes it is that it’s the sole new policy to appear at City Hall since — well, since the mayor nominated Bratton as chief. The mayor’s declaration of support, soon after taking office in July 2001, for a $100 million affordable housing trust fund, and the council’s support of that ordinance stand as genuine achievements. When it comes to any other question of city policy over the past two years, however, the rest is silence.

Coming after a half-decade in which L.A. city government was among the most creative in the land, this topple into torpor is a bit surprising. During (though usually not because of) Richard Riordan’s second term as mayor, the city enacted a groundbreaking living-wage ordinance, and charted new directions in urban progressivism by conditioning city support for some major new developments on the developer’s compliance with a range of social-justice standards. In Hollywood, North Hollywood, downtown by the Staples Center and elsewhere, developers consented as the price of doing business to build some parks, some affordable housing, and to push their retail tenants to hire locally and pay well. In a city where most decent-paying blue-collar and service-sector jobs have gone the way of the Red Line, such arrangements are crucial to rebuilding an Angeleno middle class.

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And then it all ground to a halt. Jackie Goldberg, whose smarts and dedication prodded the council to enact many of these measures, moved on to the state Assembly. Antonio Villaraigosa, whose 2001 mayoral campaign galvanized an entire generation of progressive wonks and activists, lost his race to Jim Hahn, leaving his wonkovists scattered across town, so near yet so far from power. Perhaps just as significant, the 2001 election marked the first since Miguel Contreras took over the L.A. County Federation of Labor in 1996 in which labor’s candidates went down in a heap. Not surprisingly, the council has new members who view the County Fed’s prowess with some skepticism, or who’ve even been elected over its opposition.

All of which has added up to a prescription for inaction down at City Hall. “There are a number of liberals on the council,” says one city official, “who have the potential to be followers, but they don’t have a leader. Eric [Garcetti, the member from Goldberg’s old Hollywood district] is very smart and progressive, but he’s young; he gets scared; he’s not been able to convince his colleagues to follow him.” Nor does the council have the kind of crusading scolds it used to have: Over on the Westside, Jack Weiss is nowhere near the whistleblower on politics-as-usual (say, on the misdeeds of the billboard industry) that his predecessor, Mike Feuer, was.

There’s still hope for Jim Hahn. His Community Redevelopment Agency is actually transforming itself into a champion of socially responsible development. For its part, L.A.’s civic left plans to continue its fight to codify the tradeoffs developers must make to qualify for city assistance, and there are activists who anticipate that Hahn will help out in some of those battles. “If we had leaders on the council,” says one such activist, “we could do a lot. If Martin and Antonio are elected, we’d have a real chance.”

“Antonio,” of course, is former Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa, who is running for city council against incumbent Nick Pacheco next month in the 14th District on the Eastside. “Martin” is Martin Ludlow, one of four serious contenders for the 10th District seat from which term limits have forced longtime incumbent Nate Holden to step down.

At age 38, Ludlow is already one of the legendary organizers of his generation, a dynamo with enough energy to rouse even the current city council to action. Ludlow was raised (by adoptive parents) in what can only be called a movement household: His father was discharged for the sin of undue zeal while serving as chaplain of Oberlin College, an institution so liberal that the very idea of transgressing its bounds boggles the mind. Young Martin apprenticed himself to some of the master organizers of the age: Marshall Ganz, of United Farmworker fame, and Gerry Hudson of Human Serve (which led the successful campaign for the Motor Voter Registration Act). Ludlow repeatedly pops up in some of the key campaigns in modern L.A. history: He worked on Maria Elena Durazo’s successful drive to oust the corrupt old leadership of the local Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union in the late ’80s, and as field coordinator organizing community input for the Christopher Commission a few years later. In recent years, he’s been the Southern California chief-of-staff for then–Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa, and political director for the County Fed.

At a time when many African-American elected officials fear the political ascent of Latinos in their South-Central base, Ludlow brings a stellar record of cross-racial organizing on living-wage and public-safety issues. “Race has become a deterrent to talking turkey on crime,” he laments, noting the difficulty a white official experiences in calling for anti-gang activities. At the same time, Ludlow wants the council and the police commission to fulfill one as-yet-unrealized promise of police reform: to provide staff, budget, and subpoena powers to the LAPD’s inspector general.

Ludlow isn’t the only progressive candidate in the 10th: Madison Shockley, who challenged Holden four years ago, is another thoughtful liberal in the chase for the seat. But Ludlow’s endorsers — organizers like Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the living-wage coalition, Anthony Thigpen of the Metro Alliance and civil rights attorney Connie Rice; and electeds such as Hilda Solis, Sheila Kuehl, Judy Chu, Cindy Montanez and Jackie Goldberg — collectively define L.A.’s new civic left. All are anti-ethnocentric, all have fought entrenched business-politico establishments on behalf of more socially responsible investment. Ludlow would be an important voice for those priorities on the city council.

But the key battle in the March city primaries is the one for the district that Nick Pacheco currently represents. It’s important not just because Villaraigosa is the leader of that civic left on whose success the stability and livability of the city ultimately depend. It’s also important because the race will determine whether Latino politics in Los Angeles descends into a nasty, visionless parochialism or becomes the centerpiece of a new crosstown progressive coalition.

Nick Pacheco is a thug. “The members here are afraid of Pacheco,” says one City Council member. “He’s chairman of the budget committee, he’s made it clear he’ll retaliate against anyone who opposes him, and he’ll do anything to get his way.” That same kneecapping ethos informs Pacheco’s campaign against Villaraigosa, which began with scurrilous mailings charging Villaraigosa with a range of extramarital carryings-on, funded and signed by a longtime Pacheco pal. But then, Pacheco — whose Eastside apparat’s campaign on behalf of Hahn’s 2001 mayoral bid featured a phone-message attack on Villaraigosa from a woman pretending to be County Supe Gloria Molina — is already a poster boy for the cause of Slime in Politics.

If re-elected, Pacheco will make common cause with Council president Alex Padilla, and new member-to-be Tony Cardenas (running with token opposition in a new East Valley district), around a vision of Latino politics that will be about little more than rewarding one’s friends and punishing one’s enemies. Los Angeles, and its new, overwhelmingly Latino working class, need stronger, smarter and more creative champions than these guys. Villaraigosa, who as Assembly Speaker authored and won support for massive school and parks bonds that the state badly needed, has a clear record of providing that kind of leadership.

Since 2001, many L.A. progressives have turned their attention away from City Hall, what with a president who threatens war on a regular basis. But L.A. ignored, we should have learned by now, periodically turns into L.A. in ashes. It needn’t be that way, if local liberals can direct their energies to the challenges of this spring’s elections.

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