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This Just In: Voters Snookered 

One day after approval of so-called Big Reform measure, lobbyists remain in power at City Hall

Wednesday, Nov 8 2006
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THE FOLKS PUSHING PROPOSITION R, the measure that rolled back term limits in Los Angeles, pulled off an especially crafty one-two punch. First they cruised to victory on Tuesday, overcoming some of the worst political buzz to dominate City Hall since the waning days of former Mayor James Hahn. Then they went one more step — breaking a campaign promise less than 24 hours after the election.

For those of you who missed the recent election campaign, the consultants behind the Big Reform measure promised repeatedly to clean up City Hall — and, parenthetically, give the 15-member council a shot at a third four-year term. The campaign promised on at least six occasions to lock lobbyists out of municipal decision making, using images of mousetraps, a nightclub bouncer and even a medieval castle with a moat to show just how impenetrable City Hall would become.

Yet mysteriously, no one bothered to tell the city’s lobbyists. And so, the morning after the election, nearly a dozen were working the City Council chamber, hovering especially intently during the debate over plans for a “living wage” at hotels near Los Angeles International Airport. Not only did those lobbyists press their case with the council, but — cashing in on a more direct plea to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — they managed to delay a vote on the controversial proposal.

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One of those who showed up was George Kieffer, a lobbyist with Manatt, Phelps and Phillips who spent months behind the scenes pushing for the crafting of Big Reform. But there were others who represent the link between City Hall and the lobbying world, the very crowd so dishonestly demonized by the campaign as crooks who give council members free cars. (They don’t.) Englander and Associates brought Ruben Gonzalez, who spent years running the office of City Controller Laura Chick. Cerrell Associates ushered in Lisa Gritzner, who once headed the office of former Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski.

The council, for its part, looked visibly buoyed over the victory of the measure, which will, in all likelihood, help six of them avoid the political guillotine in 2009 and another five avoid ouster in 2011. But they had no illusions that the city’s lobbying activity was about to evaporate.

“Let’s face it,” said Councilman Ed Reyes, who will get a chance to stay until 2013, not 2009. “There’s a reason why they call it the third house in Sacramento and here in City Hall.” A similar response came from Councilman Jose Huizar, who will likely get to serve until 2019. “There’s always going to be lobbyists because of the First Amendment. Yes, [Big Reform] is going to curtail it somewhat. But they’re still going to be involved.”

What made Big Reform’s victory striking was the incredibly bad word of mouth that had surrounded it for weeks. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, a Superior Court judge, a noisy clutch of gadflies and a passel of editorial writers had dogpiled on the measure, pointing out that it was the council’s naked play for a third term masquerading as ethics reform. Voters responded by giving Big Reform 59 percent of the vote. By comparison, the $1 billion affordable-housing bond, known as Proposition H — which had love bestowed upon it from every corner of the city’s political and media establishment — stalled less than 5 percentage points away from passage.

The housing measure had a warm-and-fuzzy campaign that showed a multiracial mix of Angelenos, some of whom were once homeless, beaming over their newly obtained homes. Big Reform went the down-and-dirty route, tapping into disgust with City Hall while sowing the seeds of future disgust. Guess which campaign prevailed?

The consultants for Big Reform flooded mailboxes with a range of counterintuitive messages: One piece sent in the final days of the campaign showed angry citizens holding picket signs — an image surely culled from the consultants’ standard file of election clip art — and the message “It’s Time for Change!” Well, technically it isn’t. If Prop. R works as its backers intended, council members will stay longer, ensuring very little change.

Big Reform also vowed to bring Los Angeles “honest and accountable city government,” a tall order given the measure’s innocuous ethics provisions. For example, the measure will prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to council members. But since council members are already barred from receiving gifts worth more than $25, voters primarily stanched the flow of fruit baskets and bouquets into the corridors of power. Big Reform will also keep lobbyists off city commissions. Did we mention that the mayor already signed an executive order doing that 17 months ago?

Political consultant John Shallman insisted that such reforms are indeed big, even if they don’t keep lobbyists out of City Hall. And he defended his campaign, saying it is neither deceptive nor cynical. “Look, we get hired to win. That’s what we do,” he said. “People have to understand that in advertising, sometimes with limited resources you have to choose what you’re going to talk about.”

As it turns out, those who want honest and accountable government have taken matters into their own hands. One day before Tuesday’s election, the Los Angeles Unified School District filed an ethics complaint against Villaraigosa and the massive fund-raising apparatus he assembled in his drive to obtain power at L.A. Unified.

Villaraigosa raised $1.1 million, one-fourth of it from powerful Westside developers, for his Mayor’s Committee for Governmental Excellence and Accountability, the political team of campaign consultants, opposition researchers and lawyers that helped him win passage of a bill in Sacramento that gave him new powers at L.A. Unified. The mayor registered his committee as the type that gives money to ballot measures, then spent the special-interest money on a Sacramento lobbying blitz instead, said Fred Woocher, an attorney representing L.A. Unified.

If Villaraigosa wanted to spend money on lobbying, he would have had to do so through his officeholder account — which, under city law, can collect only $75,000 per year, Woocher said. Instead, Villaraigosa blew the lid off those fund-raising limits by raking in six-figure contributions for his ballot-measure campaign, said Woocher, who sent a letter to the Ethics Commission and the Fair Political Practices Commission asking for an investigation.

“This sham has permitted the mayor to accept huge campaign contributions from persons with business before the City of Los Angeles — circumventing the intent of city law to prevent precisely such ‘pay for play politics,’ ” Woocher wrote.

Woocher raised his complaint on October 30 in a legal filing that he submitted to a judge in the case filed against Villaraigosa’s school bill. One day later, the mayor’s committee spent its first funds on behalf of actual ballot measures: $25,000 for Proposition H, the affordable-housing bond, plus another $5,000 for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s infrastructure bond package. The two contributions were the first to go toward a ballot measure since the Villaraigosa committee was formed in February. “We filed our papers on the 30th, and they saw that we had nailed them on the fact that they hadn’t spent a nickel on a ballot measure,” Woocher added. “So they put some chump change into some ballot measures.”

Committee treasurer Stephen Kaufman referred questions to Villaraigosa campaign spokesman Nathan James, who described the ethics letter as a “frivolous complaint based on a fundamental misreading of state law.” “The [school] board should rescind this complaint, reject this tactic, terminate its contract with the firm of Strumwasser & Woocher, and get back to its job of educating kids,” said James in a prepared statement.

In an odd way, the passage of Big Reform was perfectly timed, coming in the week when the Tribune Co. ousted top editor Dean Baquet at the Los Angeles Times, layoffs hit the Daily News and the L.A. Weekly, and a “For Sale” sign was tacked onto the Daily Breeze in Torrance. Newspapers are in big, big trouble, and — from looking at the campaign over Big Reform — they aren’t especially relevant.

Newspapers repeatedly pounced on the measure, blasting its brilliant yet evil campaign. But in the end, such whining doesn’t seem to matter much, said Huizar, a newbie at City Hall, who watched the election results at the Biltmore Hotel. “Your average voter pays more attention to the mailers,” he said.

And so Big Reform’s handlers outdid even the most venal pols, who frequently wait months or even years to break a campaign promise. And a campaign rooted in cynicism is now poised to produce its own cynical offspring.

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