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What the Democrats Need To Know About Los Angeles

Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov (top) and Anne Fishbein ,

I. L.A. 1960

Forty years ago, when the Democrats assembled here to nominate John F. Kennedy, Los Angeles was a city on the verge of enormous change.

Republican Norris Poulson was mayor, a position for which he’d been drafted seven years earlier by a group of powerful local businessmen known as the Committee of 25 — but only after its chairman had assured Poulson that the job would come with a chauffered limousine. By 1960, however, the Committee — a formal but unofficial group of banking, insurance, aircraft and law-firm capos who controlled local politics at least partly to maintain the property values of their downtown headquarters — was already starting to look like a relic. L.A. long had been the whitest and most Protestant of America’s major cities, but World War II had changed all that, spurring a mass influx of Jews and blacks that was still going strong. In the year the Democrats came to town, though, the Committee was still all white, largely Protestant and, quite unlike the city, entirely Republican. Studio heads and other show-biz types — the Committee’s genteel way of designating Jews — were unceremoniously excluded. The savings-and-loan magnates and homebuilding execs who were busily transforming orange groves into the greatest expanse of single-family homes the world had ever seen — they weren’t welcome either, and for much the same reason. Too many of them were Jews, and, worse, some even gave big money to such up-and-coming Democrats as Jesse Unruh and Alan Cranston. By 1960, the city was outgrowing the Committee’s capacity to control it, as one look at the huge, multiracial crowd that filled the Coliseum to hear JFK’s acceptance speech made eminently clear.

The city had grown in one other crucial way as well: By 1960, Los Angeles had become the very model of middle-class paradise. Other large cities prospered in the decades after the war, of course, but they were aging, congested and home to ever-larger ghettos. Los Angeles, by contrast, was just being built; it sprawled; and for a time it almost seemed that every man had his castle, every castle its back yard, every back yard its barbecue. With both middle- and working-class incomes rising rapidly, the city was an egalitarian boomtown, its own distinct version of a New Deal metropolis.

The giant aircraft and auto factories that ringed the city were entirely unionized, and the largest of L.A.’s housing tracts went up around those plants. As had been the case in Henry Ford’s and Walter Reuther’s Detroit, the combination of high-end manufacturing and unions yielded a working class that could afford its own homes — and, on occasion, its own backyard pools. Confident about their economic condition and prodded by the state’s visionary Democratic governor, Pat Brown, Angelenos supported and benefited from a wave of public investment that soon produced the best school and transportation systems in the land. And foreign visitors who came to America to observe the first majority middle class in the history of the world were invariably directed to L.A., where entertainment and science and a burgeoning youth culture came together to make something new under the smoggy sun.

It’s been four decades since the Democrats ventured here, to find the kind of city Jack Kennedy might well have had in mind when he observed that a rising tide lifts all boats. So, a warning to any delegates who were last here in 1960: You won’t recognize the place. The city that once epitomized the shared prosperity of the postwar era now epitomizes the stunning inequality of America today. Through good times and bad, Los Angeles has kept its role as a leading indicator for the nation.

The return of the Democrats to L.A., then, is an occasion to take stock of what Los Angeles has been, of what it is today, of what it may become. It’s a tale of rise and fall and, in a sudden Act III twist, the most unexpected kind of rebirth. For Los Angeles is well on its way to crafting — of all things! — a new urban progressivism, focused on the plight of the working poor. If the Democrats here to nominate Al Gore look closely, they’ll see a city becoming a latter-day version of the New York of 1900: a vast settlement house for immigrants, and a proving ground for a renascent American left.

II. L.A. 2000

In some of its fundamentals, of course, the city should still be recognizable to a veteran of the ’60 convention. The mayor is still (or rather, again) a Republican. The city’s entertainment, science and youth culture still, for better and worse, help shape the world. Yet another constant of Los Angeles life is the LAPD: In The Making of the President 1960 Theodore White, describing the airport security as Kennedy arrived for the convention, called the Los Angeles police “among the most efficient, if the most cruel, in the nation.” Today — well, you know about today.

 

But the California dreamin’ of the ’60s has given way to a more vexing reality. The New Deal city of 1960, where the middle-class majority puttered and futzed in the back yard every weekend, is long gone. Over the past several decades, not the bottom but the middle has fallen out of the L.A. economy.

The number both of rich and poor living in L.A. has exploded over the last decade, while the middle class has dwindled. In the course of the 1990s, the total population of L.A. County — home today to nearly 10 million people — grew by 8.5 percent. The number of poor people in the county grew by 64 percent — an increase of 898,000, as if Los Angeles had annexed a city slightly larger than San Francisco, all of it poor. The notion of a common, defining Los Angeles lifestyle or experience has become preposterous: The economic, cultural and racial divides are too vast.

Since 1980, Los Angeles has de-industrialized twice. In the recession of the early ’80s, all but one of L.A.’s auto and tire plants were shuttered. Ten years later, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, local aerospace lost well over half its jobs. Hundreds of thousands of skilled and assembly-line workers, of engineers and scientists, went looking for comparably paid jobs — and failed to find them. Many of them moved away: The forthcoming census is likely to show that between 1 million and 2 million whites left California in the ’90s, most for the Pacific Northwest or the desert and mountain states. This is one reason why California is a lot less Republican than it used to be (and Nevada and Idaho are somewhat more so). Indeed, the three L.A.-area House districts that the Democrats could pick up this November were home to the region’s — and the nation’s — greatest concentrations of aerospace plants and employees.

The other culprit in the case of the vanishing middle was the great in-migration from south of the border — a vast influx of desperate workers and refugees whom local employers were quick to exploit, driving down wage rates for the city’s already struggling working class. Industry after industry capitalized on this new labor force. In the mid-’80s, to take just one example, the city’s building-service industry signed a contract with the largely African-American union of janitors at a basic wage rate of $7.32 an hour. Then a wave of immigrants from Central American nations, driven north by U.S.-supported civil wars, flooded into town. Within the year, the unionized janitors were gone, replaced by immigrants working at minimum-wage rates — then $3.35 an hour, just 44 percent of the unionized rate.

Within a few years, Los Angeles became the American capital of the working poor — home to the nouvelle sweatshop, the off-the-books factory, a vast nonunion construction industry, and more housekeepers, gardeners, car washers and nannies than could be found in any other city. Nor were the new poor entirely immigrants: Wages have declined in most of the occupations into which Latinos, native-born as well as immigrant, have been ghettoized. In fact, by 1989, the average income of U.S.-born Mexican-American males, as a percentage of the average income of U.S.-born white males, was lower than it had been in 1959. The American dream, in reverse.

So the New Deal city of 1960 has become the two-tiered city of 2000. A study planned to be released this month by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy documents this transformation with rows of mournful numbers:

• In the course of the 1990s — a decade in which unemployment in L.A. County fell from a high of 9.8 percent to a current low of under 6 percent — the percentage of Angelenos living beneath the study’s closely calculated Needs-Based Poverty Level rose from 36 to 43. In the late ’90s, 4,084,000 county residents (out of a total of just under 10,000,000) were poor.

• Just over a million Angelenos are working poor — an increase of 277,000 since 1990. Overall employment in L.A. increased by 2.3 percent during the ’90s; the number of working poor has grown by 34.3 percent.

• Seventy-three percent of the working poor are Latino.

• The working poor are chiefly those in their prime earning years. While the number of working poor between 16 and 25 declined slightly during the ’90s, the number of those between 36 and 50 soared.

 

• Thirty percent of L.A. County workers and 59 percent of the working poor have no health insurance.

At the same time, L.A. has become home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of wealth, and not just in the entertainment industry. Commercial real estate is booming; high-tech is flourishing; and in just the past two years, dot-com baby millionaires have conquered the world without ever once leaving the Westside.

Presented with the challenge of serving a two-tiered city, L.A.’s public institutions have consistently failed. The school district, where enrollment has been steadily rising for decades, has built no new high schools and just one middle school in the past 25 years. Over the next five years, if no new high school is built — and none is currently in the works — all district high schools will have to go to year-round sessions, and even then, an estimated 22,000 students will be without seats. With more than 3,000,000 Angelenos lacking any health insurance, the county health system has avoided bankruptcy only because the feds have repeatedly bailed it out. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is currently under a federal court order to buy more buses because the city’s (almost entirely non-white) working poor are jammed together on their daily cross-town rides. The LAPD, reeling from revelations that its anti-gang units were a gang unto themselves, is trying to cut a deal to avoid a federal civil rights lawsuit that could put a judge in control of the department’s hitherto glacial efforts at police reform. Politically, if not financially, the city is on the edge of receivership.

Never one to work through channels, comfortable only behind closed doors, Mayor Richard Riordan has made his own end run around the government he ostensibly heads by creating a New Age version of the Committee of 25. This time around, however, the committeemen include Jews and Democrats, so long as they’re super-rich, among them such heavyweights as Eli Broad and Ron Burkle — the guys who brought the Democratic National Convention to L.A. Thus far, Riordan has enlisted them in a number of private-sector projects and one very public one: funding his (ultimately successful) slate of candidates for the school board. Where Richie Daley had the political moxie to take over the Chicago school board, Dick Riordan had the financial clout to take over L.A.’s.

On the central question confronting Los Angeles, however, Riordan has largely been a bust. The City Council passed a pioneering living-wage ordinance over his veto; he’s effectively denied that the city has a crisis of affordable housing, though the rate of homeownership in L.A. is lower than that in any other major city, except New York, and the number of Angelenos living, quite illegally, in garages exceeds 100,000. And yet, during this spring’s epochal janitors’ strike, Riordan publicly championed and privately pushed the janitors’ cause.

Nor was Riordan alone in his about-face on the janitors. Time and again, as the strikers marched through the city, blocking traffic, they engendered reactions that were all but unimaginable: motorists getting out of their cars, not to vent their anger but to cheer the janitors on; attorneys coming down to the sidewalks to show their support; and, as the janitors marched through Beverly Hills, people darting into the street to hand the janitors cash. (Spontaneous redistribution, something never before noted in the recorded history of Los Angeles.) In their successful campaign to win a living wage, the janitors — 98 percent of them immigrants, most from Central America — provided the city with something that no one else had been able to come up with: a vision as to how to begin closing the economic chasm that divides the city, and a vehicle to achieve it. The janitors engendered not only a sense of sympathy in the public but a sense of relief: At last, someone was doing something about what the city had become.

III. And coming soon to your town: the L.A. model

The janitors’ strike was important precisely because it wasn’t unheralded or totally exceptional, because it didn’t arise in a vacuum. Over the past several years, Los Angeles–area progressives, both within and outside the unions, have addressed themselves to the problems of poverty-wage work through a series of innovative organizing drives, living-wage campaigns, workplace actions and community organizing. In the process, they’ve managed to create the most important new force in L.A. politics that the city has seen in decades: the Latino-labor alliance. In the process, they’ve set the standard and created a model for progressives in other cities struggling with the conundrum of how best to champion, organize and mobilize the new immigrant workforce.

Since 1996, when Miguel Contreras took the helm at the long-somnolent County Federation of Labor, the L.A. union movement has become the most dynamic and strategically savvy in the nation, in part by doing what New York’s garment unions did nearly a century ago: rallying and representing the city’s immigrant poor, and not only in the workplace. With the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees in the vanguard, labor has won innovative contracts (for instance, protecting the jobs of workers deported by the INS), sponsored the country’s most creative and powerful living-wage movement, funded massive naturalization and registration campaigns, and conducted an immigrant-amnesty rally earlier this summer that drew 20,000 people to the Sports Arena. In 1999, the SEIU organized 74,000 home health-care workers, half of them immigrants — the largest single organizing victory since the United Auto Workers organized Ford in 1941. Within Latino L.A., and outside it as well, labor in general and the janitors in particular have acquired the moral authority of the United Farm Workers of yore, and amassed more political clout than the UFW ever wielded. In spirit, if not in numbers, L.A. has become the hottest union town in the country.

 

L.A. labor has also done more to dispel the myth of the Latino conservative than any other force in the country. For years, conservatives had argued that because of their cultural traditionalism, Latinos were ripe for Republican picking, and certainly far to the right of African-Americans. The Republicans were half-right and all wrong. Latinos are indeed cultural conservatives, as their votes against the medical marijuana initiative and for the ban on gay marriage attest. But on a series of labor-backed California ballot measures dealing with economic equity — the 1996 initiative to raise the minimum wage, every state and local school bond, and the union-busting Proposition 226 in 1998 — they have been the most left-leaning constituency in the state, consistently supporting the progressive position by a greater margin than blacks. In rejecting Prop. 226 by a 75-to-25-percent margin (a higher percentage of “againsts” than that of union household voters), they’ve also shown themselves to be the most loyal union supporters in the state.

By earning the allegiance of immigrant and Latino voters, moreover, the County Fed has become the powerhouse of L.A. politics — winning 16 of the 17 contested district elections in which it has intervened during Contreras’ tenure, returning the state Assembly to Democratic rule in 1996, and boosting Gray Davis’ historic margin of victory in 1998. For their part, since 1996 L.A. Latino voters have almost always sided with the candidates backed by the County Fed over those supported by the local Latino political establishment, which is at once more centrist in economics and more nationalist in inclination than the Fed and the candidates it supports. In two contests in this year’s March primary, the Fed ran campaigns that persuaded a majority of Latino immigrants to vote for two non-Latino progressive candidates (one white, one black) over their Latino opponents. It’s not yet clear whether L.A. Latinos can transcend the city’s racial politics to become the linchpin of a multiracial, class-based, citywide coalition, but their deepening alliance with L.A.’s labor movement suggests it is a real possibility.

The first opportunity to test this thesis may come next year, when Assembly Speaker Emeritus Antonio Villaraigosa — a onetime union organizer who boasts a long record of involvement with and assistance to nearly every progressive group and constituency in town — runs for mayor. The only way Villaraigosa can possibly prevail is to construct the 2001 equivalent of the cross-town coalition that put Tom Bradley in the mayor’s office in 1973. Where Bradley could count on thousands of Democratic activists, however, and a durable black-Jewish alliance, Villaraigosa must rely on the new-model labor movement and the many far-flung activist groups that are grappling with the dilemmas endemic to a two-tiered metropolis.

Strange though it may sound to longtime Angelenos, Los Angeles today has become a mecca for the unionists, activists, planners and scholars of America’s emerging economic-justice movements — much as New York from 1900 to 1930 drew social workers, radicals and reformers to study and learn from the workplace protections, the social legislation and the culture of multi-ethnic unionism that that city had pioneered. Moreover, the experiments conducted in cities such as these often have far broader applications. Franklin Roosevelt was able to draw on the “New York model” when he became president. A distinct “L.A. model” for rebuilding the middle class may likewise guide reformers when the next progressive era rolls around.

The Los Angeles in which the Democrats nominated John Kennedy was a surprisingly homogeneous city — largely white, middle-class and seemingly suburban — that offered the world a model lifestyle. Today, the city is too diverse and divided to claim any one lifestyle as its own; our suburbs are old and congested; the affluent have retreated to the hills, while the working class have occupied the flatlands. But listen carefully to the undertones here; feel the tectonic shifts. Outside Staples Center, beyond the delegates’ hotels, the American future is being born.


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