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Your City Council (Not) at Work

Illustrations by Chandler WoodStanding room only at Rancho Cienega Park, and although it’s outdoors on a sun-streaked Saturday, it feels like Sunday morning in church. Not one of those quiet churches; something more like First AME. The men are wearing dark suits and ties, the women are wearing their Sunday hats, but they’re dancing, shouting, cheering for Martin Ludlow. They’re playing Marvin Gaye on the PA system: “What’s Goin’ On?” Tom Bradley’s widow is here to give Ludlow the oath of office. Half the City Council is here. Half the Board of Supervisors is here. Mayor Jim Hahn is here, and even his clunky speech can’t deaden the electricity in the air. No one even minds when Hahn calls the councilman-elect “Martin Lother,” maybe some kind of subconscious hybrid of “Ludlow” and “Martin Luther King.” “Martin Luther Ludlow?” Hahn offers as he jokes about his gaffe. The crowd approves, but is impatient to get on to the main event. And here it comes. Ludlow takes the oath and then grabs the mike, and the crowd unleashes itself in that special manner reserved for rock stars, preachers and new politicians. People jump and cheer as Ludlow, formerly a field staffer for civil rights and labor causes, now a self-described general of the troops, promises to curb gang violence, to block new fast-food drive-thrus, to encourage responsible development, “to protect our communities, fight to improve our neighborhoods, and fight to save the innocent lives of the children we are raising here in the 10th District.” After this June 2003 Saturday — no, even before this day, back to the night a month earlier when Ludlow’s campaign headquarters rocked with excitement as every new return showed him rolling to victory in a hard-fought runoff with a City Hall staffer — there came predictions. Predictable predictions. Journalists, cheering progressive activists, wary suburban homeowners and fretting business leaders came to an agreement on what was going to happen next. City Hall was about to take a sharp left turn. Ludlow’s election was the capper. With labor organizer and ACLU leader–turned–state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa already elected to the council without a runoff two months earlier, Ludlow filled out a four-man social-justice core with council sophomores Eric Garcetti and Ed Reyes that could be expected to move forward aggressively with legislation aimed at dethroning San Francisco as the nation’s most progressive city. Past councils with superstars of the left like Jackie Goldberg and Mark Ridley-Thomas got the ball rolling with the landmark living-wage law, guaranteeing that city contractors lift their employee pay and benefits to basic levels. But that was just a start. Now the real work would begin. “Progressivism has reached a critical mass in city government,” a trio of policymakers and academics wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “We’ve called this our ‘motion-made-and-seconded’ campaign,” said Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras, referring to the election of Villaraigosa and Ludlow and making it clear that he had some legislative initiatives in mind. “Charisma comes to the City Council,” wrote Los Angeles magazine. “Labor is back,” said the L.A. Weekly. Some reporters and editorialists, and some of the new members themselves, saw a new-age City Council made up, for the first time, of a majority of ethnic minorities. A new day was at hand. Now, after two years of the supposedly progressive Los Angeles City Council, there is — what? Community-impact studies, a cornerstone of a social-justice movement to give labor and neighbors a say in major development, failed first in the Community Redevelopment Agency, then in the City Council. A proposed ban on grocery-selling big-box superstores turned into an ordinance that simply requires the Wal-Marts of the world to jump through a few extra hoops — but only in certain parts of town. Inclusionary zoning — a mandate that builders include affordable units — has been debated forever but seems perpetually a day, or maybe a week or a month, away from a vote. Housing is still beyond the reach of average wage earners, while many apartments remain unsafe and substandard. Schools are a failed warehouse system for the city’s youth. Cops in a reformed, enlightened Los Angeles Police Department still beat and shoot to death black men and boys in South L.A., and innocent children still are murdered in the crossfire of gang warfare. So what happened? Where is the progressive legislation? Why is there no motion to second? Why are progressives split on the city’s leadership? Why is this City Council, far from being the most charismatic in years, so downright — well — boring? “Oh, so you’ve noticed,” said an aide from an earlier council who now works for a labor union. “Not much going on there, is there? A lot of talk. Not much walk.” As Villaraigosa enters the final stretch in his second mayoral run against Hahn, thinkers, activists and pols offer a variety of reasons for this council’s failing to live up to its progressive billing. They basically boil down to blame (we were distracted by the recall of Gray Davis and the presidential election); inexperience (in other words, cut us some slack, it hasn’t even been two years yet); crippling power (we got a front-row seat in the Hahn administration but were stymied by our own new alliance); and error (we never claimed this council was going to be all that progressive). One more argument — success: This council has been a progressive powerhouse, but quietly. And one loaded, compound question: What is the progressive agenda for Los Angeles anyway, who carries it, and is it really the best approach for the city’s poor and disenfranchised, let alone the suburbanites and middle-class homeowners who do much of the voting and the taxpaying?

 

Four years ago, hundreds of organizers, activists and academics met at Occidental College, and out of it came a set of new marching orders for the left. The Progressive Los Angeles Network (PLAN) list was broad. The city should create a $100 million housing trust fund, with the money to be spent on enticing developers to build affordable housing and on other housing programs. There should be mandatory inclusionary zoning. New citywide planning goals, emphasizing human-scale transit and recreation. Expanded bus service. Some recommendations were surprising. More farmers markets, for example. More community gardens. Instant-runoff voting. A local minimum wage. The agenda forms the final chapter of The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City by Occidental professors Peter Dreier, Robert Gottlieb, Regina M. Freer and Mark Vallianatos — part of the brain trust that thinks through the progressive vision for Los Angeles that grassroots activists and elected policymakers put into action. At readings and book signings earlier this year, Dreier touted the progressive heritage that remains unknown to most Angelenos. If he were on the City Council now, Dreier told a gathering at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, the first thing he would do would be to change the name of the Department of Water and Power headquarters from the John Ferraro Building to the Fred Wheeler Building, in recognition of the union worker who campaigned for a public power system in Los Angeles. Asked to name his second move, Dreier said it would be a Los Angeles city or regional minimum wage. “It’s really the next step in moving the city forward,” he said. “The business community will tell you it won’t work. But I’m reminded of what Tom Hayden once said: ‘The radicalism of one generation is the common sense of the next.’ ” Ludlow acknowledges that the progressive spirit that was so ballyhooed in 2003 may have gotten sidelined for a while. “I think we’re now at that moment where we, as a powerful bloc of Democrats and a powerful bloc of progressives and liberals, need to put some focus on the moment,” Ludlow said recently. “Now that we do have a very persuasive figure and a very big personality in the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee [in Howard Dean], the moment is here. But first we’re going to have to brace ourselves for a mayoral fight over the next couple of months and what that will mean to L.A.’s agenda.” That’s great. But wasn’t there a focus on the moment back in June 2003? Ah, the late 1990s. Now, that was a city council. They shouted, insulted each other, cried on the council floor and whispered nasty things about each other to the press. One member — Mike Hernandez — was arrested for drug possession and was sent to rehab. They were at each other’s throats — until you brought up the name of Mayor Richard Riordan. Then they really went berserk. Riordan merely laughed off the council, and famously excluded members from his news conferences (his aides once slammed the door shut on tiny Rita Walters’ arm as she was trying to wedge her way in). The council — a majority of it, anyway — hated the mayor. But they still got Riordan, a Republican businessman, to sign off on some remarkably liberal legislation. Jackie Goldberg wrote and engineered the passage of the city’s domestic-partnership law and the 1997 living-wage ordinance. Mark Ridley-Thomas reinvented local participation with his 8th District Empowerment Congress and got the living-wage ball rolling with his worker-retention ordinance. Mike Feuer led the council drive to ban manufacture of assault weapons and Saturday night specials. Ruth Galanter was branded a sellout by some because of her support for a compromise re-creating wetlands near the mouth of Ballona Creek but permitting the construction of Playa Vista. But Galanter stuck to her guns and continued to press forward with prosaic but landmark environmental laws, like a mandate for low-flush toilets. Then council president John Ferraro died; Goldberg and Ridley-Thomas left early to grab Assembly seats; Feuer, who could have stuck around, ran for city attorney and lost; Joel Wachs left midterm, after three decades, to take an arts post in New York; Richard Alatorre saw the law-enforcement writing on the wall and passed on a final term (and spent a few months under house arrest); and term limits did the rest. The pro-business moderates were gone, but so were the progressives. Amid all the noise and scandal and squabbling, it had been a council that got stuff done. Even the people who often seemed to have no time for each other argued through their issues enough that they came to a consensus. It’s forgotten now, but cranky Valley Republican Hal Bernson seconded one of Goldberg’s key living-wage motions. In 2001, with Riordan gone, with a new mayor-empowering charter on the books, and with City Hall once again reopened after several years of quake rehab, a new council took over. They got along great. They loved the new mayor, Jim Hahn, whose own sister was on the council. That first day back in the chambers, there were hugs, tears, applause, and general relief that order could be restored. They named their meeting room for Ferraro, they filled potholes, they managed the budget. They produced — nothing. Miguel Contreras said as much during the 2003 campaign season, though he would not comment for this story. “Under the last City Council,” Contreras said at a Villaraigosa-for-council campaign stop, “with Jackie Goldberg and Richard Alatorre and Mark Ridley-Thomas, we passed legislation like the worker-retention ordinance, the living-wage ordinance, responsible-contractors ordinance. In the last year, in this City Council, we had zero type of progressive legislation.” So now, with term limits eliminating the stragglers, it was time for Reyes, Garcetti, Villaraigosa and Ludlow to pick up the progressive and activist mantle. Unfortunately, this council, too, gets along great. Or at least the council members are polite to each other and do a pretty good job of covering up their personal quarrels. As for accomplishments, council president Alex Padilla and others point to hard work on the budget. Not bad, of course, but the city budget is a given. Approving it is the only thing the City Council actually has to do, and if it doesn’t, well, the budget is deemed approved without it. Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel pushed through business-tax reform. A crucial step forward for a city in which a company would sometimes have to hire a team of accountants and lawyers just to figure out what category to file in and what form to fill out. Good stuff, especially since no council or mayor before them could seem to pull it off despite three solid decades of trying. But hardly part of the progressive agenda. Garcetti and others proudly and properly point to Proposition O, the clean-water initiative to upgrade the storm-drain system, limit pollutant runoff into the ocean and create new neighborhood parks. Again, really good stuff — but all the council did was draft the measure, in response to a lawsuit, by the way, and send it to the voters for approval. Voters approved — so shouldn’t they really be the ones to get the credit? The most contentious question that came before the council in 2003 had to do with burglar alarms, or more precisely, whether to take a recent story in the Los Angeles Times on unequal deployment of homicide detectives around the city as an emergency and reopen the debate on whether officers should? ?stop responding to burglar alarms after the second false alarm. But it was really about the city, and the ultimate question of the haves versus the have-nots. It was about whether well-to-do homeowners, many of them in the Valley, should have to give up a geographically equal share of policing to poorer and more crime-ridden parts of town. It was really the secession debate all over again, and it got hot. Angry recriminations shot from one side of the council horseshoe to the other, with some name calling. This most boring of city councils was suddenly interesting. The council members were about to fight. And then they backed down. It was as if they saw their anger, were afraid of it, and agreed never to face it again. Past councils have gone through the same thing, on seemingly inane questions like whether to ban gas-powered leaf blowers. That issue was really about social class. About haves versus have-nots. But the leaf-blower discussion went forward, a vote was taken, there were winners and there were losers, and the issue was resolved. The police-deployment issue was avoided, and it was left to Chief William Bratton to decide to move patrols from wealthier neighborhoods to high-crime areas. This council turned to questions like whether to ban lap dancing, or beach smoking, or cell phones in cars. On these issues there was again disagreement, but no actual anger. That didn’t reappear until the council once again was faced with the public-safety question, earlier this year, this time in the form of a proposal to put a new sales tax on the ballot to pay for more cops. There was resolution — of a sort. A majority of the council voted to go ahead, but a supermajority was needed, and the matter fell short. The anger was diverted into arguments over the role of mayoral politics. In this atmosphere, Ludlow has discovered that a council freshman can’t exactly take the chamber by storm, even as part of a progressive coalition with Villaraigosa. He’s had trouble keeping staff, and trouble making his presence felt at City Hall. In his district, which includes Crenshaw and the area at the foot of the Baldwin Hills known as “the jungle,” anti-violence efforts like midnight basketball have helped curb gang crime, but killings still plague the district. He’s having trouble getting his footing. “He thinks very grandly, but nothing ever gets done,” said a supporter who now works for a labor union. “There’s not a lot of follow-though. He’s not working with the speaker of the Assembly anymore. He can’t run off to the scene every time there’s a shooting.” One example of Ludlow’s grand thinking is a new ad hoc committee on urban violence, which the councilman says will address the causes of gang crime and consolidate city services to combat it. There have been several well-attended and well-received meetings, but the same can be said for Ed Reyes’ committee meetings on inclusionary zoning that after two years have yet to send a council motion to the floor. Ludlow said it would be easier to move an agenda after everybody puts their heads together and figures out what to do. They haven’t done it so far, he said, because they’ve been distracted. “There have been some things that have thrown us off, quite frankly,” he said. “The recall election threw everybody off, at a time when we should have been digging in and planning with a Democratic governor, with progressive electeds having a major sort of coming together to lay out an eight-week or 10-week program.” That was in the fall of 2003. And then? “And then, immediately after that, we find ourselves being inundated with a major effort to put a Democrat in the White House,” Ludlow said. “And I think for a lot of us we had major personalities pulling at our attention. A Gephardt. A Dean. A Kucinich. These are big, larger-than-life figures. And Kerry. That began to really just pound the streets of Los Angeles. And I think that threw us off of our mark.” And then, he said, came the Schwarzenegger agenda and some major losses for progressives. And then a change of state Assembly speaker — a win for former County Fed activist Fabian Nuñez. “It’s a disappointment,” Ludlow acknowledged. “The factors are major factors, but I think, like a good football coach, or even a good war strategy, you’ve got to keep your eyes on the prize, and those excuses should not stand much longer.” So if the progressive bloc on the City Council hasn’t been able to get its act together because of the recall, the new governor, and the presidential election, what will finally put everything in place? Ludlow puts his faith in a familiar figure. Villaraigosa. “I think that with Villaraigosa as mayor and Howard Dean as DNC chair, we could find leaders that have the coalescing capacity to just lend their names and their presence to those of us who still view ourselves as organizers, to help bring people together around some figureheads.” Progressive thinkers and activists almost always name Villaraigosa as their model elected official. His 2001 campaign for mayor riveted much of the city and brought with it a new Latino-labor-left coalition that sought to rethink and remake Los Angeles. Contreras’ County Fed was galvanized by the Villaraigosa campaign, but the well-organized city-employee unions went with the tried-and-true Jim Hahn. So did the moderate-to-conservative San Fernando Valley, and the African-American communities in South L.A. The Villaraigosa crusade fell short. On the council, though, Villaraigosa took some time to get his bearings. It’s not that he didn’t get a front-row seat. Hahn put both him and Ludlow on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a major policymaking board that played to their strengths. But, perhaps wisely, he spent much of his time building his staff and working on constituent services. He also insists that the council has changed its priorities over the last two years. “But there is also a maturity that comes with understanding there are many factors to balance in addressing the pressing needs of the city,” he said. “I was elected by constituents who wanted to see a hands-on councilman do the small things as well as the big things.” The apex of his council career came with the bus strike. That was the episode, he said later, that made him question Hahn’s fitness to lead the city. “There wasn’t the leadership there,” Villaraigosa said. “I started hearing from people in my district that they wanted someone who could lead this city.” After that, depending on your point of view, Villaraigosa staked an independent course, or geared himself exclusively toward his second mayoral run. The prospect excited some labor leaders and progressives but left others in the lurch. Hahn and labor had a rapprochement of sorts during the 2002 fight against Valley secession. After it was over, he put Contreras on the Airport Commission and Madeline Janis-Aparicio, leader of the former Living Wage Coalition, now called the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), on the board of the Community Redevelopment Agency. With Contreras and Janis-Aparicio on board, Hahn embarked on a plan to complete one of Richard Riordan’s many unfinished projects — modernization of Los Angeles International Airport, known everywhere as LAX. Unlike Riordan’s expansion plan, Hahn’s proposal was to cap growth while making controversial changes that he claimed would enhance security and at the same time fix outdated facilities. A key component of the plan was a community-benefits agreement (CBA), modeled on one fashioned by LAANE for the construction of Staples Center and, before that, for the Hollywood and Highland complex. But this one — the $500 million CBA for LAX — was huge. It provided something for almost everyone in the progressive spectrum. For labor, there were new-worker training programs and hundreds of new construction jobs. For environmentalists, new clean-burning airport trucks and studies on the health effects of jet noise, exhaust and traffic. For constituents who lived near the airport, new soundproofing. But Villaraigoisa —- the model progressive elected official — opposed the plan. He said it was because the security provisions made no sense, and that the entire project was an $11 billion boondoggle. “I just think there weren’t nearly enough community benefits with that kind of expansion,” said Villaraigosa, who also opposed the project on security and other grounds. The council was unanimous in support, except for Villaraigosa, Bernard Parks — who was also challenging Hahn for mayor — and Jack Weiss, an outspoken Hahn opponent and Villaraigosa supporter. Take it any way you wished — they were standing up for principle, despite what it would cost them in labor support, or they were making a brazen political calculation. But it was clear what labor thought. When Villaraigosa spoke on the council floor against the LAX plan, unionists in the audience booed. It was one of the few times that Villaraigosa and Ludlow wound up on opposite sides of an issue. They also did it on a Playa Vista vote, when Ludlow joined the rest of the council in approving construction of a Phase II project next to the Ballona Wetlands, to the cheers of construction workers, while Villaraigosa stood alone against the project, to the cheers of environmentalists. And they did it on Hahn’s bid for a half-cent sales-tax measure on the May ballot to pay for police officers. Ludlow joined the majority of the council in favor of the measure, while Villaraigosa joined with Weiss, the federal prosecutor, plus the three cops (and both of the Republicans) on the council — retired patrolman Dennis Zine, former chief Bernard Parks and reserve officer Greig Smith. “I think it was a mayor’s-race vote,” said Janis-Aparicio, who sees in community-benefit agreements the model that points the way to more environmentally sound communities, living-wage jobs, and amenities like parks and youth centers. The disagreements on those few votes underscores the crux of the problem in following the progressive agenda. There isn’t a single way to go. At Playa Vista, living wage jobs were put up against environmental protection, the promise of affordable housing against the prospect of a deepening transit nightmare. There is no party caucus that determines which way to go. There is no, in Ludlow’s words, big-tent meeting to lay everything on the table. Even the Occidental College thinkers acknowledge that the progressive agenda, if there is such a thing, may be amorphous and transitory, bringing together ? 29 ?27 as it does such disparate sets of worldviews as environmentalism, affordable housing, worker rights and livable neighborhoods. They can’t all coexist peaceably, and in fact often are at odds. All they have in common is a basis in a desire for social justice, as opposed to a market economy. And the record of Villaraigosa — the hero of progressivism in Los Angeles — shows how easily the agenda can be trumped by mayoral politics. Still, according to Occidental’s Dreier, progressivism has some common goals, and he said this council actually has been pretty good in achieving them. “I don’t have a litmus test,” he said. But name me three other big cities that have passed a big-box ordinance, an anti-sweatshop ordinance, a housing trust fund.” He noted that cities have only so much power to affect the lives of their people, given the financial and regulatory authority of county, state and federal governments. But within those limits, there is plenty. Perhaps too much, according to Joel Kotkin, co-author of “Recapturing the Dream: A Winning Strategy for the L.A. Region,” a report issued in January — in the thick of the first round of the mayoral election. Kotkin calls himself a “progressive in the traditional sense — that is, endorsing a strong role for public infrastructure and supporting private-sector growth as the means for upward mobility.” “My sense is that progressivism as defined today is basically a remedial program,” Kotkin said. “It creates no real wealth and may even reduce opportunities for working-class mobility.” Kotkin’s contrarian views are represented on this “progressive” City Council, most directly in the political philosophy of former police chief Bernard Parks. Parks is the council’s leading voice against extending rent control, against curbs on Wal-Mart and other superstores, and against mandatory inclusionary zoning, all of which he says will keep areas like his 8th Council District in South L.A. from ever catching up with the rest of the city. It’s worth noting that the same district sent Mark Ridley-Thomas to the council in the 1990s. The point is not that intelligent people who agree that the city’s most forlorn neighborhoods and residents need help may disagree on the proper policy. It is, instead, that voters in City Council races don’t usually make a conscious decision to change policy direction. They generally go with someone they like or trust or, usually, both. That puts the lie to all those arguments that the council’s changing ethnic blocs signal a new policy direction. The “majority of minorities,” for example, includes Eric Garcetti, a Jewish kid from the Valley — but also, in fact, a Silver Lake Latino. What does that tell you about his policy views? Nothing. Jews, from the Westside and the West Valley, once were expected to form part of a liberal core on the council. But how would you categorize the council’s Jewish members today if they include in their number downtown’s Jan Perry, who is also African American? How much did the council’s policy orientation change with the creation of a new Latino district in the Valley, if it was filled by Villaraigosa antagonist Tony Cardenas? “This is a council where people are moving on the agendas that are important to them,” Cardenas said. “I think the predictions [about a progressive council] were kind of broad. I always expected the facts to come out kind of different.” Perry, for example, author of a council motion condemning the Patriot Act, and primary champion of organizing security officers in downtown office towers, sports progressive credentials on those issues. But she gets poor marks from living-wage advocates. What about Janice Hahn? Janis-Aparicio said the mayor’s sister belongs in the top tier of progressive council members (Garcetti, Reyes, Villaraigosa and Ludlow) because of her passionate support of workers and communities. “She is a warrior,” Janis-Aparicio said. “She has surprised us so much. She doesn’t wait for us to ask for anything. She is the first to step up and talk about the issues of life for the [average] person.” So is everyone a progressive? Garcetti said Greig Smith has to be included when the issue is environmentalism. Wendy Greuel, the “pothole queen” whose constituent service orientation is one of the reasons Joel Kotkin said he stays in Los Angeles, is generally considered part of the council’s liberal core. In the end, progressivism might have become a label without meaning. Just like everyone in City Hall knows that Smith and Zine are Republicans, but they also know that doesn’t mean anything. Unlike in Congress or in Sacramento, where votes are often along party lines, there are no political parties in city government. There is no progressive ticket. As for a progressive coalition, able to push things through the council, Garcetti is not accepting defeat. He looked back at the record and said he was surprised at how much actually got done. Not big things like the living wage. But important things, like expansion of the equal-benefits ordinance, or creation of a land trust. “Now, who’s doing it, how are we doing these coalitions, are we doing it publicly or are we doing it quietly? I mean, a lot of them are little quiet victories,” Garcetti said. “Because I think that’s one way to slip them through. Not a lot of people are interested in building public-policy coalitions at the elected official level.” He argues that the old council, the council of Jackie Goldberg and Mark Ridley-Thomas, was not really so different. “It developed a culture over more time,” he said. “It was more interesting. This council is more cordial and less collegial. We don’t have as long a history with each other. We’re a nicer bunch of people. Either we’re a nicer bunch of people or, more cynically, we haven’t developed the long rivalries.”


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