Y ou know an endorsement is tepid when it starts, "Citizens should vote, even if they're not wild about the choices they face."
So began the Los Angeles Times' official endorsement of Joe Buscaino, the LAPD officer from San Pedro running for City Council in District 15 against state Assemblyman Warren Furutani. They'll face off on Jan. 17.
The Times' editorial board was frustrated by the lack of specifics when it asked Buscaino and Furutani what they would cut to balance the city's budget. In the end, the Times gave the nod to Buscaino, making it the fourth Los Angeles City Council race in the last year in which the paper went against the establishment's candidate.
In other words, even the establishment — a newspaper that has played a major role in elevating lifer politicians and handpicked establishment candidates to office — is fed up with the connected crowd at City Hall.
And it's not alone.
"What I find disturbing," says Joel Kotkin, an expert on the evolution of cities and a presidential fellow at Chapman University, "is the lack of discourse. Los Angeles did not always have a perfect democracy, but you had arguments.
"Now they're like the Stepford Wives. They're a bunch of zombies."
L.A. Weekly has found that among the City Council's blizzard of 5,223 votes in 2011, the council members voted unanimously 97.5 percent of the time.
Each of these 15 politicians was elected as an establishment candidate with a big campaign chest, and many beat promising newcomers. Among the 15, serious debate was rare in 2011, as it has been for the past decade — a time during which the council neglected L.A.'s famously decaying roads, water system and other infrastructure.
Mimicking politicians in the dying city of Detroit circa the 1980s, the Los Angeles City Council closed all city libraries two days a week in 2010, making L.A. the only major U.S. city to take such a radical fiscal step. Angry L.A. voters overturned the library closures at the polls last March.
The Weekly's findings of a 97.5 percent unanimous voting pattern in 2011 hew closely to a widely discussed 2010 study by the Center for Governmental Studies finding that, of 1,854 votes during seven months in 2009, the City Council voted unanimously 99.3 percent of the time.
In 2011, the City Council had more than 75,000 chances to disagree (15 elected officials multiplied by 5,223 votes).
But the Weekly found just 133 no votes.
Under outgoing City Council president and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, real debate is a rare sound inside council chambers. Garcetti's trademark has been to speak of wanting peace in the "city family."
"Nothing is done on the floor," says former L.A. Times City Editor Bill Boyarsky, who covered government in the 1980s and '90s, when City Hall debate benefited the public — and the city. "The floor is just a travesty, a front. And the public has very little sense of what's going on."
Today, when a real issue is barreling forward and a council member disagrees, he or she may simply call in sick — so as not to break the image of tranquility.
A few council members make a show of discontent, tapping a method perfected by former L.A. Councilman Nate Holden, famed for criticizing his colleagues and calling for more discussion — and winning quotes in the Los Angeles Times. When the vote was finally called, however, Holden often fell in line with the majority.
Now there are more Nate Holdens. Last year's vaudevillian display of civil discourse during the Farmers Field NFL stadium hearings featured Councilman Bill Rosendahl offering token skepticism. Rosendahl was widely quoted in the media as a tough questioner — before adding his assent.
The council is more ideologically homogenous than ever before, thanks to the tightening grip of the L.A. County Democratic Party, led by Eric Bauman, and the city-employee labor unions that pour in money to elect establishment candidates.
Before term limits, politicians would cling to the same seat for 20 or 30 years. Today, a new form of clinging involves city politicians winning office in the state Legislature, then running for City Council again, then higher office again — with perhaps a stop as controller, district attorney or mayor.
"They are people who just love being an elected official," says former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who served from 1987 to 2002. "So it doesn't matter to them what office they're in."
Galanter should know. She is the only nonestablishment outsider — somebody without major political connections — to beat an incumbent on the Los Angeles City Council in the past three decades.
Greg Nelson, former general manager of the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, says, "Holding office becomes an opiate."
In Galanter's day, council members had varied backgrounds and were far more receptive to the public because of it. The outspoken Joel Wachs was a tax attorney. Rabble-rousing Ernani Bernardi was a bandleader. Robert Farrell was a reporter. Hal Bernson ran a clothing store. Gil Lindsay's first job at City Hall was as a janitor.
"I'm not saying they were all great," Kotkin says, "but you had characters who were not just reading from the script."
Today, City Hall is about political lifers. And without the media alerting Angelenos to this trend, voters have continually elected the lifers with their big-money campaign chests. Of 14 sitting City Council members (the seat sought by newcomer Joe Buscaino and political lifer Warren Furutani is vacant), five are former City Hall staffers and five are former state legislators.
"If that's what your life experience is, how are you gonna learn the experiences and concerns of your constituents?" Galanter asks.
Councilman Tom LaBonge was a City Hall staffer for 25 years before grabbing his old boss John Ferraro's seat in 2001. Richard Alarcon has held four offices in 18 years, ping-ponging from City Council to state Senate to state Assembly — where he served just 102 days before running again for the much higher paid L.A. City Council. Alarcon recently moved to another house so he can run for the Legislature — again.
Paul Koretz was a near-lifer on the West Hollywood City Council, then did a forgettable stint in the state Assembly, then moved inside the L.A. city limits — and got heavy establishment backing — to beat promising newcomer David Vahedi.
"I was thinking the other day," Nelson says: "What would they do to earn an income if they weren't an elected official?"
In fact, neither LaBonge nor Koretz has ever worked in the private sector; Alarcon spent a year teaching.
"You would think that having state legislators who've been dealing with bigger problems would broaden the outlook of the council," Boyarsky says.
Instead, "Politicians who go from one elected office to another, they're not looking at the long-range view of what the city needs in terms of finances and infrastructure. They have a real short-term mentality."
Two other politically well-connected insiders are councilmen Jose Huizar, a former elected LAUSD school board member, and Garcetti, son of former District Attorney Gil Garcetti. Councilmen Dennis Zine and Bernard Parks are former LAPD — not wholly an outsider category. Rosendahl is the councilman with the most mixed experience: He's a former political talk show host and cable executive.
This group has stalled for more than nine months on the basic task of appointing a DWP ratepayer advocate to protect consumers, something L.A. voters demanded and approved in March 2011.
Says Galanter: "Other than Ed Reyes and [his push to regreen] the L.A. River, I'm not sure I could identify anything any of them wants to get done."
Today, up to five sitting assemblymen in Sacramento are eyeing lucrative spots on the L.A. City Council, which pays $178,789 annually. Even if Warren Furutani loses to Joe Buscaino on Jan. 17, the lifers intend to angle for every new opening at City Hall.
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