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Babbling Idols

It was perfectly appropriate that the most recently televised encounter of the major candidates for mayor of Los Angeles was broadcast from the set of American Idol. In this made-for-TV event, complete with an audience warm-up act of jokes about homeless people (ha, ha, ha!), crowd pleasing took precedence over substance. Each candidate took his turn playing Simon Cowell for the others, throwing oh-so-clever slams calculated to distract the viewers. And like the series in which people with varying degrees of talent willingly humiliate themselves for a chance to be a pop star (without, apparently, realizing they are humiliating themselves), the traveling circus that is the mayoral-debate series gives people a chance to gawk and then, when it is over, to turn off the set and do something more useful. Those of us who travel with the circus are part of the act, critiquing the performances and speculating how they will play with the rubes in the cheap seats. Antonio seemed a little — gosh, I don’t know — lackluster? Jim sure came off as defensive! I see that Bob has given up the glasses again — must not have polled well. This particular episode, co-sponsored by the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, started with the Channel 9 KCAL intro, alerting us to the fact that Mayor James Hahn has sagging poll numbers. Why does he have sagging poll numbers? Shush. This is TV. The important thing is that he has sagging poll numbers. Antonio Villaraigosa was reduced to the guy who Hahn beat last time. Bernard Parks is the police chief Hahn fired, Bob Hertzberg is the guy who wants to break up the school district, and Richard Alarcón is some guy from the San Fernando Valley who didn’t want it to be a separate city but did want to be its mayor. “But first they face questions tonight from the only people who matter: citizens!” Memo to KCAL: Here in Los Angeles, there are more than a couple of people who aren’t citizens, and guess what? They matter. You may have to be a citizen to vote for mayor in Los Angeles, but you don’t have to be a citizen to belong to a neighborhood council. That was the whole point of these councils’ being set up with only advisory power — they were open for participation to everyone with a stake in the community. And they’re your co-sponsor this evening. First question: How come in Pico-Union it takes a half-hour for the cops to come, but “in Brentwood, at almost any time of day, there are constant police patrols”? Uh, which one of you guys wants to handle this? Who wants to tell this rep from Pico-Union that Chief William Bratton actually removed patrols from the Pacific Division (where many of the rich folks live) and put them in South L.A., because that’s where the murders are? Alarcón, how about you? “We must provide equal police service to all communities!” Okay, thanks. Too bad for those high-crime areas, I guess. Hertzberg? “What a horrible state of affairs! A half-hour for response time! That’s just horrible!” Sure would be, if it was an emergency call. Over at Rampart their figures show a response time for emergencies of between six and 10 minutes. Still far too long, in my book. A lot of mischief can go down in six minutes. But can we deal with some accurate information here? No. From Hahn, later in the show (yes, it’s a show), we get more on the supposed $100 million trust fund for affordable housing, although we never seem to be told that we were originally expecting $100 million to be spent from this fund each year, and not simply to attain and keep an account balance. And by the way, those figures look to me to be a lot closer to $50 million. From Alarcón, we get this crowd pleaser: “Why is it that America is fighting for Baghdad to have planning authority over their communities, and yet we’re not providing planning authority here in Los Angeles?” A thunderous ovation! I missed the Bush speech about planning authority for Baghdad, but no matter. We have a show to put on. Hertzberg’s response to a claim that construction is already curbed during rush hour boils down to “Go talk to John and Ken on the radio!” From Villaraigosa: “I want to connect that Red Line that stops at Western Avenue and take it all the way to the ocean . . . I want to connect the Green Line to LAX and take it down Lincoln Boulevard where Playa Vista is and connect it to the Exposition Line. I want to . . .” Okay, Antonio, so do I. I want lots of stuff. We all want lots of stuff. Can somebody in this room talk about the choices we have to make as a city? Can we talk about not being able, physically, to spend the same dollar on both police and transportation, or to spend the same dollar both in Chatsworth and Wilmington? Can we talk about the fact that Los Angeles really isn’t a city in the same way that San Francisco is, that we are a collection of communities under a common administrator, that we ought to change that, or rethink what a city is and live with it? Can we talk about what we expect of a mayor? But Bob Hertzberg, explaining the problems with the Department of Water and Power rate increase, tells us that “Ratepayers are subsidizing taxpayers!” Well, I’m stumped. I’ve suddenly discovered that I’ve been subsidizing myself, and I’m pretty angry with myself because of it. Hahn, meanwhile, is complaining that the debate seems like four against one, and Villaraigosa wedges in that “I’m waiting for one against one!” Soon enough, Antonio. But first, more debates. More breathless coverage from news outlets that will redeploy their reporting resources after the election and leave civic Los Angeles alone again for another three and a half years. Until then, who will be the new Idol of the city? My prediction for the voters: You lose.