Just when it looks like grassroots politics is dead and buried in Los Angeles, a candidate named Joe Buscaino, who's never run for anything but class president, goes and raises $100,000 for his L.A. City Council bid. Add to that another $100,000 in city matching funds and however much money the police union throws in, and longtime cop Buscaino is starting to seem a serious dark-horse contender.
About a dozen high school kids are packed into Buscaino's San Pedro campaign headquarters. They sit in tiny rooms and call voters from their cell phones. For this, they will earn credit for a community service requirement.
A handmade sign reads: "FAQs: How do you pronounce his last name? BOO-SKY-ee-NO!" The poster goes on to explain Buscaino's positions on abortion, illegal immigration, etc.
The candidate peeks his head in. He's built like a tight end, strong and stocky, with a chipmunk grin, a Bluetooth headset in his ear.
"Can you feel the energy in here?" Buscaino shouts. It's no surprise that he once coached AYSO soccer.
The kids don't answer, directly anyway. "Are you Italian?" an African-American girl asks.
"I sure am," Buscaino says.
On a map, Los Angeles City Council District 15 looks a bit like a ball of yarn that fell off a table: Its oddest feature is its four-block-wide, 8-mile-long strip of neighborhoods dubbed Harbor Gateway, created by city fathers in 1909 to connect L.A. to the deep port in the town of San Pedro, 25 miles from downtown L.A.
Council District 15 mirrors that economic jimmying of geography: A disparate noncommunity, it includes Watts, South Los Angeles, Harbor Gateway, Harbor City, San Pedro, Wilmington and the port. The power is never held by anyone from densely populated Latino and black South L.A. or Watts. The more affluent coastal crowd always holds the seat in CD 15: Bubbly Janice Hahn of San Pedro, who left early for the greener pastures of Congress; before her, Rudy Svorinich, also from San Pedro; before him, Joan Milke Flores, also from San Pedro.
The leading candidates vying in the Nov. 8 special election are noted for their mediocrity and contrast to candidates in recent elections for City Council districts 2, 4 and 12 in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood, where more than a dozen community members new to politics proposed fresh ideas for a troubled city.
Greg Nelson, former general manager of the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, notes: "The whole idea of term limits was to create more turnover, get this collection of citizen politicians. Instead, what you have is this game of musical chairs. The whole process kind of saddens me."
Among the candidates is lifer politician and legislative seat-warmer Warren Furutani, a state assemblyman who nearly got into a fistfight in the Capitol during budget negotiations, and who sat on the LAUSD School Board from 1987 to 1995 — a board of education many reformers remember as resorting to Band-Aids while the schools underwent serious decline.
Also running is nearly forgotten former councilman–turned-lobbyist Svorinich, who made almost no dent during his eight years in City Hall during the 1990s; ultimate City Hall insider Pat McOsker, the immediate former president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles who had to resign in order to get his union's endorsement, and who is among those who insist city government employees are underappreciated and undercompensated; and not one but two former staffers for Hahn, Gordon Teuber and Justin Brimmer.
Rounding out the pack of candidates are Jayme Wilson, a waterfront restaurateur; Rebecca Chambliss, a real estate agent; Candice Graham, the sole candidate from Wilmington to have raised any money; Kambiz Mostofi, who wants a free trade zone; and Frank Pereyda, a middle manager for a paper supply firm.
Is LAPD Officer Joe Buscaino any better? His parents emigrated from Italy to San Pedro in 1968. He's lived here all his life — 37 years — and has served as an officer for the last 14, patrolling the area where he grew up.
"They say once you're in San Pedro, you never leave," he says, letting out a high-pitched cackle.
Buscaino's positions resemble his key opponents', whose views are, in turn, largely indistinguishable. He supports AEG's Farmers Field stadium and the Westside Subway extension "as long as it provides sustainable, good labor-union jobs." He uses tedious phrases such as, "People are fed up with the standard politics as usual."
As an LAPD senior lead officer, he's basically a local politician, working with neighborhood groups, negotiating with factions. He's a City Hall outsider but a San Pedro insider. It seems like everyone knows either him or his wife, Geralyn, a teacher. Some 500 people attended their wedding. When Buscaino cold-called voters, this happened: "Ms. Brady? What grade did you teach? I remember you. Oh my goodness. I never took wood shop, no. I never had you as a teacher, but my friends did."
Doug Epperhart, a member of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, says, "The only one I've seen any real enthusiasm for is Joe. But how does it translate to other parts of the district? I don't care how nice you are, you walk into Watts, and say, 'Hi, I've been a police officer for 15 years,' I don't know how that plays."
Grassroots candidates almost never win in L.A. Voters religiously elect heavily cash-backed City Hall insiders, former legislators or lifelong politicians. Epperhart says Buscaino "brags about not being an insider. Most of us look and say, 'OK, dude, they're gonna kill you.' "
Buscaino drives over to Wilmington's Harbor Park, whose soccer field, wedged between a golf course and a parking lot, looks like it got shipped here from the Third World. It's a dust bowl. At night, swarms of mosquitoes descend. Parents show up for their kids' games armed with bug spray.
"These Wilmington folks," says Buscaino of the working-class portside neighborhood, "they feel such a disconnect. They tell me, 'We're the stepchild of the city of Los Angeles.' "
He boasts that 75 percent of his contributions come from the district. The $103,063 he had collected as of Sept. 24 put him second to Furutani, with McOsker third at $91,004. That doesn't count a hefty $146,566 separate expenditure on McOsker by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), whose leaders hold tremendous sway over the city's powerful Department of Water and Power.
Will the Los Angeles Police Protective League union, which endorsed Buscaino and spent $12,000 on two mailers, spend as heavily on him as IBEW has on McOsker? The police union went big in 2009, spending more than $400,000 on Christine Essel's doomed bid for City Council and $745,000 on Carmen Trutanich's successful run for city attorney.
With 11 candidates, the Nov. 8 election in CD 15 almost certainly will go to a runoff, since no candidate is likely to earn 50 percent plus one vote to win outright. To stay alive, Buscaino needs to be among the top two vote-getters.
The biggest news Buscaino has made was by refusing to attend a "debate" hosted by the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters, which tried to manipulate things by promoting the wide-open race — for which no public polls were conducted — as a three-person election by inviting only Buscaino, McOsker and Furutani.
Buscaino declined the invite, noting there are 11 people in the race. The League, facing bad press for trying to play kingmaker, canceled its event.
"And this is what's wrong with city government," Buscaino says. "Far too many times, you have these small groups who [pretend to] represent the entire city. Why not include everyone in the process?"
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.