In some instances, our endorsement is accompanied by this insignia, which notes our choice is the lesser evil, or just one of life’s gloomier compromises.
MAYOR — ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA
Antonio VillaraigosaPhoto by Gregory Bojorquez
The Los Angeles that goes to the polls to elect a new mayor on April 10 is an utterly different city than the Los Angeles that elected Richard Riordan in 1993, or Tom Bradley in 1973, or Sam Yorty in 1961, or Norris Poulson in 1953.
In all those earlier years, L.A. could stake a plausible claim to being the epicenter of the American Dream. Amid the postwar prosperity that created the world’s first majority middle class, L.A. was the place with the most homes going up and the most cars cruising the boulevards, the most upward mobility and outward mobility.
Over the last 15 years, and the past decade in particular, this perpetual-motion dream machine has largely shuddered to a halt — or, bewilderingly, actually been thrown into reverse. America’s number-one middle-class metropolis has become instead its number-one two-tiered city. Not the bottom but the middle fell out of the economy during the past decade; middle-income Angelenos moved away in huge numbers when aerospace closed up shop; their places have been taken by millions of immigrants who work in a booming low-wage economy. During the ’90s, as the overall population of L.A. County grew by 8.5 percent, the number of poor people grew by 64 percent — almost 900,000 new residents living under the poverty line, as if we’d annexed a city slightly larger than San Francisco, all of it poor. In the new Los Angeles, two out of every five children grow up in poverty, 17 percent of us live in overcrowded homes and apartments, 15 percent of us in substandard homes and apartments. This at a time when unemployment is at a 30-year low, when the mid-’90s blues are a dim memory, when L.A. is “back.”
This division of Los Angeles into two cities, one soaring, one struggling, one largely white, one largely not, is the fundamental problem that underlies, exacerbates and connects most of our discrete social ills: the lack of affordable housing, the condition of our schools, the inaccessibility of health care, the culture of our cops. It hangs over L.A. like smog on a summer’s day — and, like smog in the 1950s (before the advent of modern environmentalism), everyone knows it’s there and hardly anyone knows what to do about it.
In 2001, the question of how to make Los Angeles a better city is at bottom a question of how to rebuild our middle class, lessen these polarities, kick-start our rusty dream machine. By that standard, and by most other ones we can think of, there’s really only one choice for mayor among this year’s candidates: former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa.
By no means are Villaraigosa’s rivals a dismal bunch. By the historic standards of L.A. politics, this is an actually pretty decent field.
Steve Soboroff enters the race as the last in a series of outgoing Mayor Richard Riordan’s wonder boys. At various times during his term in office, Riordan would come to rely upon some public-spirited outsider who could get things done, quick and dirty if necessary, no matter what the rules and regs. In Soboroff, Riordan found a kindred spirit, a deal maker like himself. Soboroff has made his fortune by finding sites for stores such as Circuit City and Office Depot, by brokering and investing in shopping centers across town and, eventually, across the West. Riordan brought him into government to be president of both the Recreation and Parks Commission and the Proposition BB Oversight Commission, which monitors the school district’s performance in spending bond money on new and improved facilities. Most of the time, he’s performed these tasks thoughtfully and conscientiously, though in one instance he ended up taking a site the school district wanted and — back in his day job — brokering its sale to a car dealer. In time, Soboroff became a closer for the city, at Riordan’s behest putting together the Alameda Corridor project and the deal to build Staples Center. Staples wasn’t much of a model of open governance, however; it took considerable public outcry for the city to stipulate exactly how much the deal would cost the taxpayers.
Like Riordan, Soboroff is a Republican; like Riordan, he is opposed to many of the reforms the city most badly needs. He’s the one candidate who opposes the LAPD’s consent decree with the federal government, charging that it undermines police morale and distracts the department from more important things. (At his worst, he sounds like the candidate of order, never mind the law.) He ducks all questions about the city’s living-wage policy. While he’s greened a large number of school yards from his post at Rec and Parks, he’s certainly the most development-friendly candidate in the pack. He’s shown himself open to listening to just about every group in town, but his policies are those of the developer elite, the low-wage employer sector and the LAPD old guard. Just what L.A. doesn’t need.
California State Controller Kathleen Connell is the green-eyeshade candidate in the field, who pledges to use her experience as the state’s chief financial officer to audit the bejesus out of every L.A. governmental agency. She is this election’s business Democrat: socially liberal, fiscally conservative, the single mom with six securities licenses.
If elected, Connell would be returning to City Hall after a 15-year absence. While still in her 20s, she went to work for Tom Bradley early in his administration; she basically put together the city’s housing program in the late 1970s. Today, she supports the demands of housing activists for the creation of an affordable-housing trust fund — but she’s resolutely opposed to funding it through a fee on major developers, just as she’s reluctant to require employers who receive city assistance to pay their workers a living wage. She’s concerned such provisions would prove onerous to small business — so concerned, apparently, that she doesn’t seem the least bit eager to apply them even to megalarge businesses. Her plans for creating good new jobs in fields like biomedical research are commendable, and, like most candidates, she’s committed to extending and improving after-school programs throughout the LAUSD. But for L.A.’s actual, existing low-wage and largely Latino working class, she has little to offer.
With her promises of performance audits hither and yon, Connell often sounds like she’s running for city controller rather than mayor. Her experience as a public servant is considerable but as a political leader functioning in the public spotlight, she’s still a novice. For all her years in public positions, she’s more of a tabula rasa than any of the other candidates. We suspect the city could do a lot worse than have her as mayor. We’re confident it could also do better.
Like Connell, veteran City Councilman Joel Wachs is a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. Unlike Connell, his tabula is as un-rasa as they come: Now in his 30th year on the council, Wachs has always had a knack for the hot issue, even for getting on local TV newscasts. In the late ’70s, he was the father of the city’s rent-control ordinance. Ten years ago, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, he was, alas, a leading force on the council for reinstating Daryl Gates as chief (hard to say if he was pandering to his conservative district or, worse, actually believed that Gates should stay). Four years ago, he was a key swing vote in favor of the city’s living-wage ordinance. And two years ago, he was the scourge of the Staples deal — raking city officials (including Soboroff) over the coals for giving hundreds of millions of dollars to some of the richest developers on the planet.
Wachs’ opposition to such developer subsidies has won him the support of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, but not only them: He’s on the mark when he argues that subsidies for stadiums, office buildings and the like seldom produce the benefits that their developers promise. In recent years, he sounds, if anything, ultraleft on the question of whether such developers should be required to pay a living wage in return for their subsidies. Just pass an ordinance, says Wachs. Don’t make it a condition of one deal; make it a requirement for all deals.
Problem is, this excellent idea is one that Wachs has never presented to his council colleagues. Problem is, that’s par for the course. After the cameras turn away, Wachs has trouble in the follow-through department. For a decade now, he has been the council’s chief proponent of neighborhood councils, and he gets some of the credit for the provisions in the new city charter that mandate their establishment. Over that decade, however, his council colleague Mark Ridley-Thomas has put together a dandy Empowerment Congress in his own district, and other members have experimented with proto-councils here and there. Wachs has done nothing. He is a formidable critic and gadfly and publicist of causes, but nothing in his record suggests he’d be much of a builder, or even an administrator. His fiscal conservatism also aligned him with Mayor Riordan against the bus drivers during last year’s MTA strike, and while we don’t doubt there are efficiencies to be realized at the MTA and throughout city government, we don’t think they include booting city workers from L.A.’s already too-small middle class.
Wachs would be an intelligent, socially enlightened, arts-friendly and generally entertaining mayor. While he’d be entertaining us, however, we’re not sure who’d be running City Hall.
James Kenneth Hahn has been a citywide official for 20 years now — he was elected controller in 1981 and city attorney, which position he still holds, in 1985 — and yet, to much of the city, he’s still best known as Kenny Hahn’s son. The late, legendary county supervisor served four full decades on the Board of Supes, and Jim Hahn still dwells, apparently comfortably, in his shadow.
His tenure as city attorney has been notably low-key. He has instigated a number of civil suits against gangs, and joined a number of civil suits against gun and tobacco manufacturers. Though he’s served opposite several D.A.s who had active environmental-crime units, Hahn’s office has tended not to go after questionable environmental practices; he’s been MIA on issues like Playa Vista and the L.A. River restoration. His most notable sin of omission has been his failure to notify the LAPD when its officers were sued for misconduct. His most notable attempt to rectify this was his drafting of the city’s consent decree with the federal government to achieve police reform — a task he undertook, and completed, over the opposition of Mayor Riordan.
Hahn is the one candidate who gives LAPD Chief Parks the benefit of the doubt on the police-reform issue, calling the chief “fearless in rooting out police corruption.” Hahn’s chief base in this election is the African-American community, much of which still supports the chief, and Hahn hasn’t strayed from the community line. Otherwise, he’s a down-the-line Democratic moderate — supported the janitors’ strike and the living-wage ordinance, supports the affordable-housing trust fund but remains reluctant to ask major developers to pay for it. No candidate can claim the support of more old-time L.A. power brokers — from Warren Christopher, Mickey Kantor and Ted Stein to onetime Riordan consigliere Bill Wardlaw, whose centrist politics and incessant calculation guide the Hahn campaign today, even as they are likely to guide a Hahn administration, should ä such a thing come to pass, tomorrow. The lobbyists and deal makers of the ancien régime back Hahn, attorney George Kieffer recently noted, because he will “not surprise them with his viewpoint or behavior.” In a Hahn City Hall, the operatives of L.A.’s permanent government — pro-developer, pro–building trades and determined to smash all grassroots attempts to derail the deals of the civic elite — renew their lease on power. Be still, our beating hearts.
Xavier Becerra is an accomplished liberal congressman from a district just north and east of downtown, who does not seem ready — in terms of programs or politics — to run for mayor. Outside his congressional district and a circle of Latino activists and leaders, Becerra remains substantially unknown not just to L.A. voters but to L.A.’s political elite. In his eight years in Congress, he has not really gotten himself around town, nor does he command the resources now to pop up on our television screens with anything near the frequency required to be a serious candidate for mayor.
Becerra’s head seems stuck in Congress, too. He has a keen understanding of many of L.A.’s problems, but the solutions he suggests tend to require congressional and presidential approval. His solution to the housing crisis is to get tax credits written into the Bush tax bill. A course of less resistance might be a developer fee right here in L.A., but that’s not a course Becerra seems inclined to chart. When he discusses what ails the city, he comes back repeatedly to its failure to get as much as it could from D.C.; Sacramento County, he points out, pulls down $6 in federal funding for every one that L.A. obtains. But for his first-term support for NAFTA, Becerra’s amassed a sterling liberal record on the Hill, most especially on questions of immigrants rights — but it’s the Hill he looks to for solutions, and the Hill that he knows how to work. Los Angeles and Becerra remain mysteries to each other, and the mystery of why he’s running — unless it’s to derail the candidacy of his onetime friend Antonio Villaraigosa — is the deepest mystery of all.
The candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa, by contrast, represents the political expression of the most notable and successful attempts of recent years to solve the city’s most intractable problems right here in L.A., rather than hope that Gray Davis or George W. will ride to our rescue. In his candidacy, the campaigns for economic and environmental justice, for a living wage and civilian review of the police have joined together to put their mark on the city — much as the local civil rights coalition of the ’60s and ’70s only consolidated its power when Tom Bradley was elected mayor.
If elected, Villaraigosa would be, hands down, the most progressive mayor in the history of the city — just as he was the most progressive Assembly speaker in the history of the state. This onetime president of the ACLU of Southern California has championed a civilian review board, protection for whistle blowers, and other key elements of any successful police-reform effort, for the past quarter-century. (He is also the only candidate to have condemned as wrong the LAPD’s fatal shooting of the homeless, middle-aged, diminuitive Margaret Mitchell; astonishingly, the other candidates all decline to do so.) This onetime community organizer who worked with the legendary Bert Corona in East L.A. knows that neighborhood councils will only take shape in historically underorganized working-class communities if the city provides the organizers to make it happen. In this particular, Villaraigosa is the only candidate who is committed to moving L.A.’s experiment in neighborhood democracy from the rhetorical to the real. That commitment is also clear in his efforts to stop the development of Playa Vista and abate the noise at Van Nuys Airport; it’s why a number of conservative Valley homeowner leaders support him despite his manifestly progressive politics.
In all the campaigns of recent years to bring or keep Los Angeles workers out of poverty, Villaraigosa has taken a leading role. He prompted management to come to the table during last year’s epochal janitors strike and got the state legislation enacted that enabled the city’s 74,000 home-care workers to unionize. Indeed, it’s the breakthroughs he achieved during his two-year, term-limited speakership that have made him the clear choice of virtually every L.A. progressive institution — the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, NOW, the Democratic Party, the Stonewall Democratic Club . . . the list goes on and on. Not since Jesse Unruh teamed with Pat Brown has an Assembly speaker run up an equivalent string of successes.
During his first year as speaker — alternately opposing, pushing and prodding then-Governor Pete Wilson — Villaraigosa steered to enactment the Healthy Families Program, which extended health coverage to children in families earning up to 250 percent of the poverty level. In the wake of welfare reform that cut legal immigrants off from all federal assistance, he assured that in California those immigrants would be eligible for unemployment insurance, Medi-Cal and SSI. He won approval for a $9 billion school-construction bond measure, and created a $500 million state fund for low-income housing. After Gray Davis became governor, he authored a $2.1 billion bond measure for parks, fully half that money earmarked for urban parks, nearly $100 million of which will go to restoring the L.A. River.
Villaraigosa’s legislative leadership was also notable for his success in reaching out to Republicans. Despite his avowedly liberal politics, GOP leaders credit him with restoring a sense of comity and fairness long missing from Sacramento. This is one key reason his supporters in the mayor’s race include such megabucks centrists as Eli Broad and Ron Burkle. For them, Villaraigosa is a ä pragmatic progressive who personifies the future of the city and has a proven record of finding common ground across the city’s often treacherous lines of race. In the mid-’80s, Villaraigosa co-chaired, with Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Black-Latino Roundtable to develop common agendas for communities increasingly at odds. Two years ago, he defended from charges of anti-Latino bigotry school-board members who voted to remove Ruben Zacarias as school superintendent; his utter antipathy to playing the race card is a keystone of his career.
The former speaker’s career has its share of questionable judgment calls and outright mistakes. The state education bond measure he crafted could have been tilted even more toward urban districts, though Villaraigosa did have to deal with suburban Republicans to get it through the Capitol. His involvement in the campaign to win a pardon for drug dealer Carlos Vignali — a campaign that seems to have swept up half the pols on the Eastside — was a classic case of an elected official accommodating a powerful backer who merited no such accommodation.
These lapses, though, are the exception to the rule. What’s more distinctive about Villaraigosa is his commitment to nonracial progressivism. He supports mandating major employers who receive city assistance to pay living wages and provide health insurance to their employees. He favors requiring big-time developers to set aside funds for affordable housing and to include such housing in their residential projects. As Villaraigosa sees it, businesses that receive city funds should also pledge not to oppose the efforts of their employees to join or form unions. In this city that’s home to the nation’s most dynamic union movement, Villaraigosa, a onetime union organizer himself, views unions as the surest and quickest way to upgrade low-wage service-sector jobs to decent-paying jobs. He has vowed to be “a union mayor” in this, the capital of low-wage work.
In a sense, what sets Villaraigosa’s campaign apart from those of his rivals is that he is really posing a variant of Hillel’s first question: If we are not for ourselves, who shall be for us? By tradition, it’s governments in D.C. or Sacramento that are responsible for health care, labor relations, housing policy, fair wages and the like. Listen to Villaraigosa’s tradition-bound competitors, and you’ll hear that that’s where this responsibility should remain. L.A. may have more working poor, more medically uninsured, more people crammed into homes and apartments, than any other major American city, they say, but these are problems the city itself cannot address.
Of course, these are problems the federal government doesn’t want to address, or they wouldn’t have reached the magnitude they have. As a former Assembly speaker, Villaraigosa is acutely aware of what a city can and cannot do, and of what’s better done in distant capitals. He knows Richard Riordan has fluffed the chance to secure federal and state funds for housing, for instance; and he knows, as do his fellow candidates, how to access those funds. But he also knows that, at times, solutions must begin at home, that a local experiment can produce good results — witness our living-wage ordinance — and in time prod a state or a nation to follow suit.
When Villaraigosa talks about funding our own affordable housing, then, or expanding the scope of the living wage and promoting the rights of our workers to organize, he’s actually harking back to the last time a great American city felt compelled to strike out by itself in this matter. In the early years of the last century, New York — home, as L.A. is now, to a huge wave of immigrants; home, as L.A. is now, to poverty, sweatshops and overcrowding — passed the first laws banning child labor, setting workplace conditions and establishing minimum wages. Widely derided at the time, these measures later became the basis for much of the New Deal.
Antonio Villaraigosa understands that capital is more mobile now than it was then. But he also understands that a sweatshop is a sweatshop, that a slum is a slum, and that it is no less incumbent upon L.A. now than it was upon New York then to do its utmost to help its residents live decent, fulfilling lives. His victory would mean that the wave of immigrants who’ve settled here — and throughout the nation — over the past two decades finally have a champion in a position of power. It would mean that neighborhoods of all ethnicities, routinely ignored by the downtown elites, finally have a small-d democrat advancing their cause. It would mean that, a scant seven years after Proposition 187, Los Angeles has renewed the commitment to inclusion it demonstrated 28 years ago when it first elected Tom Bradley. And it could make Los Angeles the place where the elements of the next New Deal are tested and perfected. In the slough of despond that is George W. Bush’s America, Los Angeles under Antonio Villaraigosa could become something it has seldom if ever been before — a beacon of hope to the nation.
CITY ATTORNEY — MIKE FEUER
Mike FeuerCandidate photos by Debra DiPaolo
Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer is not simply the best qualified candidate for city attorney in this year’s election. So far as we can figure, he’s the best qualified candidate for city attorney in the city’s history.
A Harvard Law grad, Feuer first made a name for himself running the Bet Tzedek Legal Services Agency, where he supervised a staff of 53 and the activities of more than 500 volunteer attorneys. Under his leadership, Bet Tzedek established itself as the number-one nemesis of L.A.’s slumlords and one of the city’s most effective advocates for low-income tenants and patients.
In 1995, he was elected to succeed Zev Yaroslavsky as the council member from the 5th District. In that capacity he’s consistently been the most intelligent voice in council deliberations and the member most devoted to cleaning up government. Feuer was the one council member to lead the charge for charter reform; he authored the charter amendment that strengthened the city’s Ethics Commission, and heads up the drive to ban contributions from lobbyists. He’s been the council’s chief proponent of gun-control measures, writing the nation’s first law to restrict handgun purchases to one a month, and just last week authoring a new ordinance banning the sale of small handguns. He also is responsible for greatly expanding the number of seniors serviced by the city’s Meals on Wheels program.
As city attorney, Feuer pledges to create teams of staff attorneys who’d work regularly with neighborhood councils, and to establish a series of community courts to deal with graffiti and vandalism offenses. Asked in our editorial-board interview whether there was anything the City Attorney’s Office could do about sweatshops, Feuer immediately rattled off the statutes that would allow the city to intervene in an area that traditionally has been the jurisdiction (neglected, to be sure) of the state and federal governments. His record of support for police reform long antedates the department’s Rampart follies.
Feuer’s chief opponent, Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo, has led a storybook life: going from East L.A.’s Franklin High to Harvard, the Canadian Football League, Columbia Law, and O’Melveny & Myers, where he developed an intellectual-property speciality. One of the original crew at Rebuild L.A., he went to work for Mayor Riordan in 1994, creating the mayor’s L.A. Business Team and eventually serving as deputy mayor for economic development. Delgadillo points to thousands of jobs his office has helped create, but critics at the Living Wage Coalition and elsewhere contend that he’s paid insufficient attention to making sure those jobs offer decent pay and benefits. (Delgadillo says his focus has been on “family wage” jobs, but that this has been a “soft target” rather than a mandate.)
In classic Riordan fashion, Delgadillo has made schools ä the centerpiece of his campaign, though he has surprisingly few concrete things to say about schools except that he’ll aggressively prosecute any violations occurring in and around them. He doesn’t place much emphasis on the civil side of the city attorney’s practice — the environmental, workplace, housing and other areas of non-criminal law where the office could make a real difference. Finally, his list of political mentors — Warren Christopher, Peter Ueberroth, Dan Garcia, Henry Cisneros and, of course, our mayor — bespeak a closeness to the city’s power elite which may not be exactly what the city needs in this watchdog position.
Delgadillo does have a compelling story to tell — but it’s Feuer who will create a City Attorney’s Office that will be one of the nation’s very best in protecting consumers, tenants, seniors, the environment and in matters of campaign-finance and police practices. We believe Mike Feuer will be a great city attorney.
CONTROLLER — LAURA CHICK
Rick Tuttle — for the past 16 years the city’s controller and one of its finest public servants — is term-limited out of office, at the very moment when the new city charter has given his office the authority to conduct performance audits of city agencies. Even without that authority, Tuttle’s more than made his mark on city government — most notably, as the one city official who investigated both the dubious relationship between Mayor Bradley (his friend) and a local bank in the waning days of Bradley’s tenure, and the questionable deal Mayor Riordan’s Airport Commission chief cut with Friend-of-Bill Webb Hubbell in an apparent attempt to curry favor with the Clinton administration. What’s needed most in the controller’s job, Tuttle says, is “an independence of spirit” — a willingness to follow the money even when no one else in City Hall wants to pry into the deal.
And largely because she has that independence of spirit in abundance, we are supporting outgoing City Councilwoman Laura Chick to be Tuttle’s successor.
In her eight years representing her politically centrist West Valley district on the council, Chick has championed greater civilian oversight of the LAPD (in particular, fighting to strengthen the department’s inspector general well before Rampart came to light) and supported the living-wage ordinance — in short, taken positions that a more cautious member might have shunned. As chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, she repeatedly stood up to the mayor and his fuglemen, questioning the adequacy of the LAPD’s training programs and asserting the council’s right to oversee not just the LAPD’s budget but its policy as well. In matters fiscal, she created a system for evaluating city contractors, and demonstrated her commitment to open government by authoring the legislation mandating online filings of candidates’ financial statements. Chick has been around long enough to know where the bodies are buried, and has lost none of her zeal to dig them up.
Her chief opponent, Laurette Healey, has been a notably successful chief financial officer and president of several entertainment-related businesses, including the joint-venture operation of the Home Shopping Network. She’s also been active in fund-raising for breast cancer research and in promoting anti-hate-crimes legislation. Initially, she had planned to run for the school board, but Mayor Riordan offered his support if she ran for controller instead. (Laura Chick was not the mayor’s favorite council member.) We don’t doubt that Healey would be a conscientious controller, but she lacks Chick’s knowledge of all the nooks and crannies where city officials and contractors can hide their more questionable dealings. Besides, if there’s one city official you don’t want beholden to a powerful patron — as Healey is to Riordan — it’s the controller. “If you’re doing your job here,” says Tuttle, “you’re offending the people at the top of the city’s power centers.” Laura Chick, who brings the right combination of smarts and moxie to this position, has already shown she can do just that, and we support her enthusiastically.