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Beyond 30-second spots

It’s not that TV spots and campaign mailers are a bad way to inform voters about the real issues facing the city. Well, yes they are. In 30 seconds, or in the case of Richard Alarcón’s spots, 15, a candidate hardly has time to say hello. There is room only for image, complaint and, perhaps, a quick and dirty slam at an opponent. “It’s another cry, another demonstration of how Los Angeles needs to change its campaign-finance process,” Alarcón said after Monday’s debate. His argument is that he couldn’t raise the wads of cash needed to play with the big boys on TV because he doesn’t cater to the corporate interests that bid for lucrative contracts. The argument against big-money domination of campaigns probably is as old as democracy itself. But there is something relatively new under the sun, and it saw the light of day during the current campaign season not because of a newspaper article or a TV spot, but because of a question asked during the first of two debates sponsored by the Alliance of Neighborhood Councils. Joe Vitti of North Hills asked the candidates whether they would support “clean money” — a campaign-finance program now in operation in Arizona and Maine. The system provides 100 percent public financing to willing participants. No strings, no thank-you letters to write, no favors owed, no pay-to-play, no endless hours on the phone pleading for cash. The program was news to plenty of people who tuned in to the February 7 debate, but it also was news to at least one of the candidates. But by the second Alliance-sponsored debate, all five major candidates had briefed themselves and were prepared to commit one way or the another on the issue. But hold that thought. Brady Westwater of the Downtown Neighborhood Council put the candidates on the spot by demanding to know whether they would support a neighborhood council–led commission to audit the budget and all city programs. All five were cautious with their answers; but who had thought of such a commission before? The debates — and there have been well over two dozen of them — have largely been a substance-free affair. A long, live version of the 30-second TV spot. But there have been moments of insight, usually in the form of questions offered by the neighborhood-council members. During three and a half years between campaign seasons, it is easy to forget the problems that policy-makers commit to dealing with on a daily basis. Campaigns can be maddening for those who follow them, but between the grandstanding and personal attacks, they do tend to throw a spotlight on crucial issues that usually lie in the dark of public inattention until they get completely out of hand. Sometimes, even the candidates themselves come up with something worth discussing. Who knew, for example, until Bob Hertzberg began calling for the breakup of the school district and continually raised the issue in debates — and to be fair, Hertzberg has indeed managed to put the argument into a TV spot — that 53 percent of ninth-graders never graduate? Okay, we knew. But — did we really? Fifty-three percent? It’s one thing to ding Hertzberg for calling for the breakup of the district without saying how, and without showing that it is necessarily the best solution to the horrible problem, and without demonstrating how it would change things, but — shhh, just between us — hats off to him for raising the issue. Does Bernard Parks leave most people scratching their heads when he continually mentions the importance of SCAG? Maybe so, but he put it out there, and you could look it up, and see that the Southern California Association of Governments (Bernard, could you please just once explain what SCAG is?) controls regional planning in these parts, and that regional planning holds the key to many of those seemingly insoluble problems — traffic, airport expansion, perhaps even trash dumping. The debates, in fact, could come close at some point to actually sparking a Debate, one about what on earth we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who learned the error of his ways after his encounter with the Christmas spirits and vowed from now on to keep alive the spirit of Christmas all year long, we might well handle the horrors that are the endless nights of candidate debates by keeping alive, for four full years, the discussion that slowly has emerged. It’s good to hope, but we never really found out whether Scrooge became a miser again by Easter, and we don’t have much of a track record of citywide discourse in non-election years. The short-lived TV campaign season, which reaches its apex this weekend, is the first step in closing off the debate. Maybe this time the neighborhood councils will succeed in keeping the conversation going.

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