MORE

Tit for Tat

LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCILWOMAN Janice Hahn has not exactly been a fan of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s bid for power at the Los Angeles Unified School District. When the mayor gave his State of the City speech in April — one focusing heavily on his plan for L.A. Unified — Hahn responded immediately with a critique, saying any change in the district’s governing structure should be decided by voters.

Only a few weeks later, when the City Council reviewed Villaraigosa’s budget, Hahn again challenged the mayor, voting with six of her colleagues to limit his ability to spend city funds on a municipal takeover of L.A. Unified. The proposal failed on a 7-7 vote, but the message was clear: Nearly half of the council had deep reservations about Villaraigosa’s education initiative. Even in mid-June, Hahn told San Pedro’s Random Lengths newspaper that she didn’t see how the mayor’s plan “translates into accountability.”

Last week, however, Hahn was singing a much different tune, saying she now stands ready to support Villaraigosa’s school bill in Sacramento. “Maybe we ought to give the mayor a shot at this,” declared Hahn, whose brother was defeated by Villaraigosa last year.

So what happened in the intervening four weeks? For one thing, Hahn and at least four of her council colleagues were recently sum­moned for private meetings with the mayor — one-on-one sessions which aides are not allowed to attend. Secondly, Hahn and other council members have been tracking a political issue near to their hearts: getting voters to loosen term limits just enough to allow them to serve a third four-year term.

And therein lies a marriage of convenience being crafted behind the scenes, according to four high-level City Hall sources, who asked for anonymity to avoid possible retaliation by their bosses or other politicians. Council members are determined to keep a popular mayor from speaking out against a November 7 ballot measure that would extend term limits. The mayor, in turn, fervently wants the council to endorse his controversial bill targeting L.A. Unified. So two utterly unconnected policy initiatives — term limits and a change in the structure at L.A. Unified, both of which would transform governance in Los Angeles — are being serendipitously joined in the minds of some top policymakers.

“This is the biggest opportunity for leverage that the mayor has in this four-year cycle, because the council cares about this more than anything else,” said one city official (who, like others familiar with the lobbying effort, requested anonymity). “He can probably ask for quite a lot if he wants.”

Although Villaraigosa has remained publicly silent on the issue of term limits, he privately discussed the proposed ballot measure with several council members, as well as City Controller Laura Chick. In at least one session, the mayor bluntly asked why he should support the council’s bid for a third term when he could get six new and more loyal council members elected in 2009. Villaraigosa also voiced a renewed interest in having “relationships” with council members whom he does not totally trust, according to sources familiar with the conversations.

While Villaraigosa held his private meetings, Councilman Herb Wesson has been serving as an envoy between the mayor and the council, telling council members of the mayor’s interest in uniting the council behind his school plan. Wesson also helped council members connect the dots between term limits and Villaraigosa’s proposed bill reform, said one council aide.

“[Villaraigosa] has not come out and clearly said it, to have plausible deniability,” said the aide. “But everybody knows, because Herb has been clear about it. He’s running around delivering that message.”

Wesson sharply disagreed, saying he is “taking the temperature” of his colleagues, not engaging in horse-trading. “Good policy, in my opinion, would be to alter term limits. And at the end of the day,” he added, “I’m optimistic the mayor will be there. But I don’t see the necessity of tradeoffs. I believe it will be based on the merits, on the policy aspects.”

Villaraigosa said he too sees no connection between his pending position on term limits and his campaign to win passage of his education bill. Instead, the mayor downplayed the notion that he even needs the council to support his bill, which comes up for its next hearing in Sacramento on August 9. “The vote’s going to be in the Legislature, and that’s where I’m focusing my efforts right now,” Villaraigosa said Wednesday.

Hahn said she embraced Villaraigosa’s bill not out of a desire for a third term, but because of frustration with high school dropout rates and an inflexible school board. The councilwoman said Villaraigosa never suggested a deal during their July 17 one-on-one meeting. Asked whether Wesson made such a suggestion, Hahn paused, then responded: “I’m not going to go there.”

THE FIRST TEST OF VILLARAIGOSA’S newfound relationships could come as early as Friday, when the council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee is scheduled to review his bill, which would give him veto power over the hiring of the school superintendent and control over 36 of L.A. Unified’s lowest-performing schools.

A unanimous council vote in favor of the bill would provide a welcome boost to the mayor. Although the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor endorsed his plan, U.S. Rep. Diane Watson issued a letter opposing it this week, joining a list of critics that includes billionaire Eli Broad and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg.

Still, linking term limits to the change at L.A. Unified could pose political risks. If voters see the mayor cutting deals for his school plan, they could conclude that Villaraigosa is no different from former Mayor James Hahn, who was repeatedly accused during the 2005 election of “transactional” decision-making — cutting expedient deals to move his agenda forward. That image of Villaraigosa began to emerge last month, after he struck a late-night deal with teachers unions for overhauling L.A. Unified, disappointing some in the city’s business community.

School-board member Mike Lansing, who opposes Villaraigosa’s bill, voiced dismay that any elected official would even consider a backroom deal that would change the way Los Angeles is governed. Those kinds of transactions, Lansing said, are exactly why voters supported term limits in the first place. “Once again, it’s about what’s best for the politicians, not the kids,” he said. “It’s really kind of sickening.”

Chick had a different take, saying the mayor would be foolish not to use the term-limits issue to his advantage. “An adept politician who wants to get something done in City Hall does not turn away from the type of bargaining chip that the term-limit proposal presents the mayor,” the city controller said. “That’s the name of the game in politics. You ask for support, and you horse-trade for what the other person wants.”

Nevertheless, Chick described the term-limit proposal as deeply flawed, since it only applies to the council, not citywide offices like her own. And Councilman Bill Rosendahl offered a different case against the term-limit measure, saying that council members should not ask for four extra years unless they also send voters a plan for full public financing of campaigns. “Unless we have full campaign-finance reform, this is an incumbent protection act,” he said. “Look what we have next year. Seven incumbents running for reelection. All seven will win.”

Within City Hall, the effort to loosen term limits has been spearheaded by Council President Eric Garcetti, who was elected in 2001, among the council’s first crop of “term-limit babies.” Garcetti is one of six council members who will be forced out by term limits in 2009, while five more will be ousted in 2011. Garcetti put the proposal for extending term limits on the council agenda just last week, but only after the council received a letter from the League of Women Voters and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce asking for term limits to be rolled back.

Behind the scenes, things weren’t quite as spontaneous. Council members had been talking privately with business leaders, lobbyists and pollsters since December about a way to put the term-limits question to voters, reviewing polling data and suggesting that any move to weaken term limits must come from outside the council.

Business leaders first got serious about the issue of term limits last year, after Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, a well-respected City Hall veteran, was termed out of office. Miscikowski was viewed as one of the few council members who not only had a sense of history but actually read the reports presented to the 15-member council. When Miscikowski’s seat was filled by Rosendahl — an opponent of development projects like Playa Vista, the 5,700-home Westside development — business leaders were irritated further.

For civic leaders, the need to overhaul term limits became even more dire after they began interviewing candidates seeking to fill the 40 open seats created this year by term limits in the state Assembly and state Senate. Endorsement boards of labor unions, business groups and other political groups were appalled by the lack of understanding many of the candidates had for policy and the legislative process. A poll completed by the chamber in May signaled that voters might be ready to soften their position on the city’s two-term maximum for legislators.

“Our polling indicates that there’s been enough experience with term limits that people are beginning to ask if we did it right,” said Ron Gastelum, the chamber’s executive director.

By early July, council members were growing increasingly nervous that Garcetti still had not found a way to get term limits on the agenda. Yet they couldn’t publicly ask the chamber and its allies to hurry up without looking like they actually wanted more time in office — which, in fact, they do.

Last week, the council asked City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to craft a term-limit bill that would include “sweeteners” — reform initiatives that might make the measure more palatable to the voters. That meant a handful of reform measures that included a crackdown on fund-raising by lobbyists and increased reporting on political phone calls.

Still, some wonder how far the council will go to get the mayor to support a third four-year term. One council member, who refused to be named, argued that the council’s upcoming vote on school reform may have little to do with schools at all. “[The vote] is being driven by: Are you with the mayor or against the mayor, and how can he accomplish your agenda or your interests?” the council member said. “I hope that people take positions based on the merits and not on political agendas.”


Sponsor Content