Joel Wachs‘ announcement that he’d retire from the Los Angeles City Council in October did more than tell us that we‘re losing the city’s senior career politician. It also proclaimed the end of city elected office as a lifetime option.
This, of course, was the voters‘ choice nine years ago — way back when, on a crescendo of resentment toward the people we’d been electing to represent us, term limits suddenly became the rage. Ironically, it was Wachs himself, of all the council members, who first warned his fellow members that this was a bullet none of them could dodge. He, in fact, saw passed a slightly milder version of the limits than had otherwise been proposed: a version that would have let Wachs go on serving another two years from this point — had he chosen to.
Wachs chose not to. And who can blame him? ”He was a good man, an honest man,“ said Chris Hewitt, the 94-year-old Studio City activist who first urged Wachs to run for the council in 1971. ”Now it‘s time for him to do something else.“
That Wachs would lose his mayoral bid this year was somehow overdetermined. When Wachs last ran for mayor, in 1993 — the year that belonged to Richard Riordan — he sounded like he had a vision of the city entire. This year, he seemed to be running more on the concerns of his own, posh, Valley council district. For this reason, perhaps, his campaign had — particularly coming from the council’s most genial member — an unexpectedly cranky tone. Alone of the major contenders, Wachs long delayed hiring an outside campaign consultant — an oversight that, of and by itself, seemed guaranteed to put him in fourth place.
Of course, there was also the question of whether Wachs, as one of the region‘s most experienced politicians, long accustomed to playing his own hand, would or could have taken anyone else’s campaign advice. One would-be adviser recalls suggesting that Wachs concern himself with downtown renewal. Wachs visibly shuddered and asked what most Los Angeles voters could possibly care about the city‘s heartland; the councilman was, perhaps unconsciously, disregarding the city’s four poorest council districts, which cluster around and depend on the city‘s core. Wachs just seemed not to get it that many Angelenos have far more pressing needs than neighborhood councils and passed-along stadium costs — more pressing even than school kibitzing. Even Wachs’ excellent stand on police abuses didn‘t, by itself, mean enough to the most abuse-afflicted populations for them to vote for him.
After the April primary brought him his third mayoral defeat, there was little left for Wachs to return to. When the late John Ferraro resumed his councilar tasks after his 1985 defeat by Tom Bradley, he was nearly the same age Wachs is now. But minus term limits, Ferraro had the best part of his elected life ahead of him — including his last 14 years as council president. Wachs was always something of an outsider, even in the pre-term-limit years. After this election, he would have been stranded even further beyond the majority-newcomer circle. While he carries immense experience, it’s not at all certain that the newcomers would have listened to Wachs, because that is usually the way it is with massed neophytes. And because so much of Wachs‘ experience is the sort that can only be learned, not taught. Two weeks ago, though, Joel Wachs leapt over the wall of his 30-year career and found another calling. This calling had, in reality, been appealing to him for many years. He’s now to be the head of a New York–based Andy Warhol arts foundation. In a way, this moving toward a new profession (and, literally, to New York) represents more of a de-closeting of our Joel Wachs than his openly declaring his gay sexuality did, early last year.
For Wachs has been, all these years, a very serious connoisseur and collector of the visual arts, particularly painting. It‘s not to be forgotten that his long-running chairmanship of the city’s cultural-affairs committee was a very good one for this city, artistically speaking. It should also not be forgotten that Wachs‘ council office is hung with Lichtenstein originals and other fine pictures. And it’s not to be forgotten that Wachs has always received copious campaign contributions from the California artistic community — many members of which know him better as an art collector than as a councilman. What Wachs has really done is to move into a far larger constituency than he‘s ever had before.
”You’ll be seeing a lot more of this,“ said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, speaking of the barely pre-boomer generation, of which she, Wachs and I happen to be members. ”We could, in theory, retire, but we‘re not really ready to.“
If those hovering on either side of 60 may entertain the option of retirement, imagine what it will be like to be termed out of the council in your early 30s, as Alex Padilla will be in seven years. If you think politicians are too preoccupied with getting re-elected, just wait and see how obsessed they’re going to be about moving up and out of those short-term seats they‘ve just struggled to attain. Of course, the primary objective will remain higher office, which could mean even shorter stays on the council: ”Nobody else’s elections have any correspondence with ours,“ Galanter points out, and would-be Congress or Assembly members are not likely to wait until they‘ve been retired (read: forgotten) for two years before running for higher office. This situation will leave an ever more pressing need for midterm special council elections, as the heavy absence in the 13th District of now-Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg has already shown. And it will, in all likelihood, impair the council member’s ability to grow relationships with constituents. You wonder if one of the long-term effects of term limits won‘t be to increase the importance of those nascent neighborhood councils — at the expense of the council member’s influence.
Funny to think how far back this all goes, the ideal of the part-time or short-term nonprofessional politician. It‘s there in the earliest thinking that led to American democracy — the Junius letters, for instance. Odd it seems in the 21st century that, in state and local government, we’ve reverted to the core assumption of 18th-century political idealists: that every self-respecting (formerly, male) citizen should, like that ideal Roman republican Cincinnatus, have a plow to return to after triumphantly and briefly serving government, and a little farm to plow as well. Indeed, land-owning agricultural independence — both for the early Romans and for most of our Founding Fathers — was a prerequisite of voting citizenship. Lifetimes in politics were for those effete, ruling-class British oppressors. Decent people had better things to do with their lives. Like farm.
In modern-day reality, though, few of us can fall back on homegrown corn and beans to sustain us between jobs. Most of us don‘t even own our homes. Yet here we are, stuck with the working assumption that an ambitious citizen can and should blithely forsake a career as a teacher, realtor, electrician or lawyer for the good of local humanity — and then pick up where he or she left off eight years later. We shall see.
The Animal Front
A few weeks ago, this column mentioned the so-far-unsuccessful effort by Torrance activists to abandon county animal-control services and create that city’s own department of animal regulation. I also noted an increasing aversion among other south-county cities for the county‘s program, which county officials have vowed to improve.
Last week, Hawthorne’s City Council voted to reject the county service and create its own animal-reg department — even though this will reportedly cost the city an additional $175,000 a year. As the Daily Breeze‘s Ian Gregor noted May 31:
”Their ultimate goal, Hawthorne officials said, is to band together with other South Bay cities to create a larger local animal-control program. The hefty cost of the Hawthorne-run program was not an issue for council members and residents who have complained for years that county animal-control workers take a long time to respond to calls about stray or dangerous dogs and sometimes euthanize pets by mistake.“