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Better Living Through Electro-Politics

“I like your attitude,” says the young man handing out contributor-information cards at the door of El Rey theater, where mayoral candidate Francis DellaVecchia is throwing his first fund-raising party. “Everyone asks me, ’Why do I have to fill these out? Why do you want to know where I work?‘ You just said, ’Okay.‘ That’s cool.” I look up at his face, and see that he‘s somewhere close to 20, and girl-pretty -- jet-black hair cropped close to his head and gelled to perfection, a beautiful, beaming smile. “I think it’s good that they‘re asking,” I tell him, smiling back. “It means they’re questioning the system. It means they‘re suspicious about someone abusing their privacy.” “Oh yeah,” he nods, and twirls an unlit cigarette between two fingers of his left hand. “That’s true. Good point. Hey, do you have a light?”

Somewhere else in the city on this balmy Wednesday of the summer solstice, the Sherman Oaks Homeowner‘s Association is sponsoring a debate among four of the five “major” declared candidates for mayor of Los Angeles. I picture them gathered under the fluorescent lights and ceiling tiles of some green-walled room, or huddled among the red carpet and fake oak paneling of a hotel banquet hall. I, however, am much more in my element at DellaVecchia’s “.comUNity launch party,” where my first interaction is with an ethereal blonde who realizes midsentence that a friend has slipped her liquid acid. (She is delighted; I‘m a little jealous.) The Sherman Oaks Homeowner’s Association, says the Los Angeles Times, is “a group known for its skepticism about big government,” although standing here on the threshold of El Rey I could laugh out loud at that characterization. DellaVecchia, who calls himself an “unanointed” candidate for mayor, has summoned forces from the fringes of L.A.‘s arts community for a political fund-raiser that resembles nothing so much the event formerly known as a rave.

On a screen above the stage, DellaVecchia appears on video, interviewing citizens about how they spend their days, what they want from a mayor, how they want their worlds to change. The room glows with lights blue, black and laser; the air smells of sage and nag champa; electronica vies for airtime with Brazilian samba. In an azure shirt open at the collar and black jacket, DellaVecchia is dressed only slightly more conservatively than everyone else in the room. When I approach him to say hello, he gives me a big hug. “That’s the first time I‘ve ever been hugged by a political candidate,” I tell him. “Well,” he says, mockingly stentorian, “we’re going for a lot of firsts here tonight.”

If the people in Sherman Oaks are skeptical of big government, most of the people DellaVecchia has drawn to El Rey regard government in general as an alien planet, populated by creatures they must mollify or evade. “One of the things I‘m trying to do by throwing an event like this,” DellaVecchia told me over the phone the day after the fund-raiser, “is to bring the notion that the government should also belong to people who don’t care about government at all, who‘ve let politics happen to them, let it be taken from them. When laws are passed about party ordinances and things that go on in the city, rather than doing something about it, they just go farther away to have their parties. But how far are you going to have to go? And aren’t those laws going to follow you?”

At the same time, DellaVecchia cautions me not to jump to conclusions about his supporters based on what I saw the night before. “We certainly had a lot of people who were in the Moontribe and Burning Man crowds,” he says, invoking both under and overground desert gatherings. “But we also had plenty of people from the more mainstream music scene, and from the small-theater community. And,” he says, “I‘ve received checks and support from people over 50.”

DellaVecchia, who will be 35 by election time (but will still look a boyishly handsome 25), has spent most of the last 16 years in and around L.A.’s theater scene, performing with the Open Fist Theater, and creating performances for local schools. He and his wife, Pauline, rent an apartment in the Fairfax District; for a living, he manages Dawson‘s Book Shop, an antiquarian bookstore on Larchmont Boulevard. He became interested in running for political office about two years ago, when he realized that the new economics of the Internet might allow a grassroots candidate to disseminate a lot of information at relatively little cost.

“I was doing a lot of things on the Internet before there were banners,” he says. “I’ve never lost sight of the fact that you can do a lot more with this fantastic resource than sell product.” He began to see in the new technology a future in public office not only for himself, but for others like him -- interested individuals lacking either the connections or the personal fortune to mount an effective campaign. “I just kept it on the back burner, until it felt like the right time and I‘d figured out what office to run for.”

 

He chose the L.A. mayoral race because “There are so many candidates, it’s feasible I could win,” and because in a citywide office “you don‘t have to go through any party structure.” His platform, such as it is, can be distilled to a single notion: If the public can monitor their government’s behavior at all times, accountability will necessarily follow. “If I‘m elected, and if they ever repair City Hall, there will be a Webcam in my office whenever I’m working,” he says. Citizens will be able to chat live with the mayor at appointed times throughout the day, either by voice or by typing in questions. The gears of DellaVecchia‘s technologically enhanced candidacy have already begun to turn. His Web site, www.WatchTheMayor.com, will soon feature live footage of his campaign activities, including his interviews with people on the streets and buses of Los Angeles.

There is none of the customary campaign brouhaha on this site -- no red, white and blue logos, no broad slogans. Designed by Ladzarus of Element Zero in muted greens and earthy browns, the site is graceful and sophisticated, a digital watercolor with tribal overtones. The interface, engineered by a company called Industrial Street Productions, is not for the faint of bandwidth; any connection skinnier than a 56K modem would choke on its streaming video. I ask DellaVecchia whether relying so heavily on the Internet to reach an audience won’t limit his constituency to a relatively advantaged, advanced few. “It might,” he admits, “but I can‘t afford to send out a message on television.”

Before the El Rey fund-raiser, I had met DellaVecchia once before, at a party thrown by Jason Keehn, who, under the pseudonym “Cinnamon Twist” (his favorite doughnut), stages a monthly event called the Learning Party at various locations around L.A. Past Learning Parties have featured musicians, DJs and speakers such as Burning Man founder Larry Harvey and psychedelic researcher Myron S. Stolaroff. This one happened to be taking place in Hesperia, on the site where architect Nader Khalili has built alternative dwellings of earth and ceramics known as Earth Domes. Keehn is forever agitating within the electronic dance community for a more informed cultural foundation (“I’m trying to make people more conscious of rave culture‘s underlying context,” is how he puts it), and that day DellaVecchia seemed like something else he’d pulled from his bag of tricks. I found the notion of a Webcast campaign novel and entertaining, but didn‘t take DellaVecchia at all seriously.

I’m still not sure I do. It‘s one thing to yearn for the day when someone from this imaginative, digitally literate and rigorously uncynical segment of the population will be dictating public policy; it’s another to actually shoehorn a that person into the tall chair that fits behind the polished oak desk. DellaVecchia says that he‘s “very serious about winning,” which means he’s seriously applying for a job that will require him to show up at baseball games and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, to speak before Rotary Clubs and homeowners‘ associations, to intervene in the event of a citywide disaster. How will DellaVecchia look, in live video feed on his Web site, serving the suddenly earthquake-homeless residents of the Valley a hot breakfast? Had DellaVecchia succeeded 10 years ago, it would have been him instead of Tom Bradley, on the television in late April 1992, advising the citizens of Los Angeles to remain calm in the wake of the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King. It is not an easy image to conjure.

DellaVecchia wants to turn the lens on everything in City Hall, so people can see “just how amok everything has run.” But will the cameras continue rolling while he’s negotiating bids with potential contractors? While he‘s firing someone for embezzlement? And, if so, won’t it all begin to play like Emergency 911 or Cops -- or worse, a public hanging?

“These are very tricky issues,” DellaVecchia acknowledges. “But we need a drastic change from total behind-the-curtain to total open-the-curtain. I don‘t think there’s a middle ground on this one. If a contractor is in my office negotiating a bid, he‘s not negotiating with me, but with the citizens of Los Angeles. And he has to be prepared to tell those citizens what he’s doing.” As for the privacy of the employee being axed, he says, “Whoever it is shouldn‘t have embezzled.”

 

As for the ribbon-cuttings, DellaVecchia admits that “I’d have difficulty pretending I support 90 percent of the pork-barrel projects that go down the road in this city. But maybe it would be nice to have a mayor who, when Habitat for Humanity comes around, builds the frickin‘ house instead of just pounding a nail into the floor.”

“He’s taking himself too seriously,” says a woman in lavender dreadlocks and a sari sitting next to me as we watch DellaVecchia speak at the El Rey. I agree with her, understanding that what we mean is that he is beginning to use the rhetoric of politics. “Do you want decent public transportation?” he shouts. “Do you want honesty and accountability?” There is little response; the crowd is restless, murmuring audibly, waiting for the start of performer Eliza Schneider‘s “Blue Girl” cabaret show, with its jugglers and dancing violinists. “He doesn’t need to sound so official,” says the lavender woman. “He needs to be funny.” I consider the irony that as DellaVecchia starts to seem more like a viable candidate in an establishment sense, he risks losing this constituency and all the pro bono talent and energy that make him a real alternative. After DellaVecchia leaves the stage, a man and a woman dressed like TV evangelists come out to stump on his behalf. “Say ‘I forget!’” they instruct the crowd. “I FORGET!” comes the response. “What‘s your name?” “I FORGET!” “Who is Dick Riordan?” “I FORGET!”

I wonder how many of the people claiming to have forgotten don’t know that Riordan isn‘t running next year. Still, with DellaVecchia in the field, they at least stand a chance of finding out.

Contributions from the El Rey benefit amounted to only enough to break even, less than DellaVecchia had hoped, but more, perhaps, than he would have managed without the considerable talent marshaled -- by a local producer, Richie Goodwin -- on his behalf. And if he makes not a dent in the polls next November, he will still have a legacy: He has brought the effete world of electoral politics to the edge of digital culture.

DellaVecchia hopes his influence will linger in other ways, too. “Even if I don’t win, there‘s no reason the Web site can’t go on as a public video forum. People could shoot things about their own communities -- for instance, if you had a five-minute video about being a reporter at the L.A. Weekly, that could go up. So I‘ve created something good for the city, something that might encourage people to find more ingenious campaign strategies at a grassroots level.”

With luck, other elected officials will respond to the challenge and install Webcams in their offices. “I would like to see people in government turning this technology on themselves,” he says. “But I don’t necessarily think all people in government have to do it. If it happens with a few people, the cumulative effect will be so great that people will have to start behaving.”

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