The line snaked down the sidewalk and snarled traffic for three blocks. It wasn’t another jaded L.A. premiere, it was the late-summer opening of Barack Obama’s Southern California headquarters on Motor Avenue in Palms, and it was drawing the type of crowd typically seen at a concert.
Though there would be no Barack, Michelle or Biden, a throng of more than 1,000 forced organizers to relocate to a parking lot. But still Obama’s coattails spilled out, overtaking a nearby alley.
No wonder two local politicians, seemingly far-removed from the Obama brand, showed up in an attempt to be associated with him: City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo trying to resurrect his political career after personal scandals, and City Councilman Herb Wesson, who has nearly vanished from the news since term limits reduced him from California Speaker to local council member.
“I don’t find it surprising that [Wesson] would be riding the wave of Barack Obama or that he’d be supporting him as a Democrat,” says Derek Cressman, regional director of western states at Common Cause.
“[But] I don’t think of Herb Wesson as having quite the same credentials as a ‘change candidate,’” he adds wryly.
Of the Los Angeles politicians aligning themselves with Obama, a handful stand out, including Wesson, because their core views on the political process differ starkly from those of the Democratic nominee.
Obama has proven to be the most effective presidential candidate ever in raising vast sums of private money in small, and large, increments. But as a senator, Obama was a sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act to mandate full public financing for congressional candidates who first proved themselves viable by raising small contributions. Participating candidates would then swear off private donations.
Though Wesson told L.A. Weekly, “Whatever brings transparency to the system, we would openly and objectively evaluate,” a similar idea at City Hall doesn’t sit well with him.
In fact, public financing puts longtime insiders like Wesson in an uncomfortable position. When a motion proposing full public financing was discussed by the City Council in 2006, Wesson attacked it, archly allowing it to be studied as a “courtesy.”
“Clean money” campaigns are said by proponents to make political office attainable by ordinary citizens who aren’t party insiders and thus don’t have access to rich special-interest groups. “And that changes everything,” says Wayne Williams, of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association.
In 2005, City Council members Eric Garcetti, Wendy Greuel and Bill Rosendahl sponsored a motion proposing “full public financing” or “voter-owned” elections.
Says Greuel, “I came from the perspective, in my first race, of running against the establishment.” She managed to compete, however, because her ties to DreamWorks SKG, where she was employed, gave her access to a relatively wealthy donor pool, and she also ran a strong door-to-door campaign.
She’s in agreement with Garcetti, who says, “I want a system where the average Angeleno has as much access as any Angeleno.”
While several L.A. pols backing Obama say they’re for “change,” many of them cut their teeth in the California Assembly — ground zero training for how to work the fund-raising system. In Sacramento, politicians earn fidelity from their colleagues by raising big money and then sharing it with loyalists who are also running for office.
“It is a rite of passage, the price for entry,” explains Cressman of Common Cause. “The way you ascend to leadership is by raising money” — not by pursuing smart legislation or good budgeting.
“[There’s] not a single statewide politician that’s done it in the Barack Obama way,” states Cressman.
Wesson, for example, was elected to City Council the year after he was forced out of the Legislature by term limits. He strenuously objected to full public financing of elections, and he’s hardly alone among L.A. pols.
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Obama has not held to his own proposed standard, either. He first agreed to, then rejected, public financing for a presidential run now awash in tens of millions in special interest dollars in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars built in small donations.
“We would have preferred that he did [participate in the public-financing system], says Arn Pearson of Common Cause. But he points to the “badly outdated” presidential public-finance system. John McCain chose to utilize the system, but it has limited his potential to raise private funds against Obama.
Pearson says Obama’s choice has no “bearing on [Obama’s] support for public financing in general.” It is a “high priority for us to fix the presidential-financing system in the next congressional session” — and he predicts success in Congress and under a President Obama, if he wins.
To do the same thing here would require the approval of Los Angeles voters. The obstacle is the City Council, which would have to choose to place the public-financing question on the ballot. Whether Wesson and others who think like him will allow it remains to be seen.