Had things gone a bit differently, Herb Wesson might have been a comedian. In fact, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy shortly after moving to Los Angeles.
“I wasn't a very good one,” he says with a laugh.
As a politician, Wesson is known as a lighthearted, entertaining glad-hander, capable of making a deal with almost anyone, if perhaps not exactly a man at the center of debates about government transparency and fiscal responsibility.
A short man (made to look all the shorter when seated next to towering Councilman Bill Rosendahl), Wesson is as charming as he is quirky. As a member of the California state Assembly, he was photographed pantomime swan-kicking (à la Karate Kid) a Chinese monk in the crotch. As a Los Angeles city councilman, every Friday (just before or after the City Council famously blows two or three hours awarding medieval parchment–sized certificates to various citizens), Wesson, in his own version of avoiding the heavy lifting and playing to the crowd, implores citizens to adopt a dog or cat, and he helpfully brings the pets to council chambers.
“If you would ever love to have a companion that will always be there for you when you need it, I can't think of a better one than this 3-year-old Chihuahua mix,” he said a couple weeks ago, without irony. In his arms he held the dog, Jackie O., who was wearing what appeared to be a purple life preserver.
“If you were to put somebody at the steering wheel of the Titanic, Herb would be the perfect person,” says Ron Kaye, activist and former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News. “He'd be cracking jokes. The whole bridge would be entertained.”
Last Wednesday, the City Council voted unanimously, as it does so often, to hand over the powerful City Council presidency to Wesson.
As council president, like a mini speaker of the Assembly, Wesson will have the power to reward fellow council members with choice appointments to influential City Council committees — such as Planning and Land Use Management— or to stick fellow council members on backwater committees like Government Affairs.
He'll also have sway as the man who runs the City Council meetings, as did the risk-averse outgoing president, Eric Garcetti, who has held the post for nearly six years.
Garcetti's era saw little substantive debate. A think tank found that the 15 council members voted unanimously on 99.993 percent of their decisions in 2009, with the two most dissenting members voting no just four or five times — out of 1,854 votes.
In his acceptance speech, Wesson said repeatedly, “This is not about me. It's about we.” But the “we” Wesson referred to was not “we the people” but “we the council.”
His speech lavished praise upon his colleagues for having triumphed over adversity (everyone told Paul Koretz he'd never get elected to the Westside's District 5, Mitchell Englander's ancestors survived the Holocaust, etc.).
Wesson promised not to hog the spotlight or take credit for the council's achievements, such as they are.
Much has been made of the fact that black council members Bernard Parks, who was “sick,” and Jan Perry, who had been “excused,” did not attend Wesson's speech. Both, more likely than not, oppose the ascension of Wesson, who is also black.
“What we have to do is figure out a way to reinvent this city, deal with our financial crisis yet still provide the services that the people in this city expect,” Wesson said after the vote, as hundreds of well-wishers and constituents filed into a hallway for a monstrous buffet that included a 40-pound roasted pig.
In 1998, Wesson was elected to the state Assembly, and four years later his colleagues chose him as California speaker, though not through any political talents of his own. An unofficial rule, created after Willie Brown's 15-year run as speaker came to an end, held that the speaker must hail from the L.A. area and the job must rotate between black and Latino politicians. The sole exception to that has been Bob Hertzberg.
But by 2002, there were only so many black Assembly members left. Wesson had been in Sacramento for four years, and thus it was his turn.
Wesson's short, mostly forgettable tenure as speaker, from 2002 to 2004, came at a time when the cracks in the state government's fiscal façade broke wide open. In 2003, angry voters recalled Gov. Gray Davis in the wake of rolling brownouts from a statewide energy crisis — and after Davis signed a budget that created a $25 billion deficit and called for tax increases.
Though personally well-liked, Wesson was not a much-admired speaker.
On the day Davis was set to unveil $10 billion in proposed budget cuts in 2002, Wesson was at a three-day conference in Maui hosted by the prison guards' union — which had just given $15,000 to his re-election campaign. The next year, Wesson was caught paying a Republican ex-legislator $8,000 a month for advice on “rodeo and racetrack” issues. When a public outcry arose, the ex-legislator said he was advising Wesson on farming.
Uninterested in policy or debates, Wesson smiled and jested his way through the disastrous fiscal crises of 2003 and '04, leaving the mess for subsequent speakers.
If Davis is miffed that he got recalled while Wesson survived, he betrays no sign of resentment now, calling him “a consummate bridge builder.”
Los Angeles voters didn't blame Wesson, either, electing him to the City Council in 2005. “Herb has the experience of steering the ship into the iceberg and surviving,” Kaye says.
By 2005, the Legislature had become a launching pad for better-paying and more powerful elected offices — like the Los Angeles City Council.
The state Assembly jobs paid $110,880 in 2005 (a citizen commission in 2009 cut the salaries to $95,291) plus a generous daily per diem. But thanks to an obscure city law, Los Angeles City Council salaries had ballooned to $150,000 in 2005 (automatic raises have since boosted members' pay to $178,789) — and came with far cushier public benefits, including eight free cars and free gasoline for every council member.
Add to that the council's larger staffs (18 to 25 personal aides), more power and a shorter commute to First and Spring, and a job in the Legislature begins to look like a crappy summer internship.
Before, says Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton, “People in Sacramento would look down on L.A. politics. … Now it's looking more and more like going to the Assembly is a way station to a council seat.”
In fact, Wesson is about to mimic his old role as a sort of mini-speaker, presiding over an increasingly accurate copy of a miniature California Legislature, transported in the flesh from Sacramento to downtown L.A.
It's a curious choice for Los Angeles voters, to transfer state legislators — a group so derided that they enjoy only a 19 percent approval rating — to the L.A. City Council. Today five former Assembly members sit on the City Council, all male Democrats: Paul Krekorian, Paul Koretz, Tony Cardenas, Richard Alarcon and Wesson. Assemblyman Warren Furutani, who is trying to beat LAPD cop Joe Buscaino (the top vote getter in a recent primary) for the seat in Council District 15, could potentially become the sixth. On top of that, assemblymen Gil Cedillo, Felipe Fuentes (see L.A. Weekly, “The Worst Legislator in California“) and Mike Davis are all hoping to win council seats in 2013, and Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield is considering a run.
If they all won, nine of 15 council members would be from the Legislature, a healthy — or, one might say, unhealthy — majority.
“These are the people who are responsible for bankrupting the state of California, for failing to live up to any of their responsibilities,” Kaye says.
“In Sacramento, the focus isn't on serving the public, it's on serving the party” system, says Greg Nelson, former general manager of the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
While Sacramento is characterized by partisan gridlock, City Hall is characterized by unending conviviality — and the City Council's increasingly criticized Garcetti-era unanimous voting on issues large and small.
The unanimity stems partly from the fact that the L.A. electorate and the City Council itself are so overwhelmingly Democratic. But the lack of debate is also the new culture of the City Council.
Under Garcetti, who became obsessed with presenting a united front and keeping disagreements private, serious debate (which occurred in the days of firebrands like councilmen Ernani Bernardi and Joel Wachs) is rare. That's why Parks and Perry preferred to stay home rather than voice objections. That's why Wesson's speech was mostly about his fellow council members and not, say, challenges facing the city.
Wesson secured the presidency by doing what he does best: making deals.
Almost every council member stands to benefit from Wesson's rise: Garcetti will get Wesson's endorsement in the 2013 mayoral race, in which the field of candidates will include Controller Wendy Greuel, Wesson antagonist Perry, multimillionaire Austin Beutner and radio show host Kevin James. Ed Reyes, meanwhile, will become council president pro tem, replacing Perry. And Tom LaBonge will become assistant president pro tem, replacing Dennis Zine, who will get Wesson's endorsement for controller against two intriguing outsiders, Cary Brazeman and Ron Galperin. And so on.
Additionally, the head of the City Council's redistricting committee is none other than Andrew Westall, a top aide to Wesson. Westall can attempt to dispense favors that affect future council district boundaries — and thus affect various political futures at City Hall.
City Hall's elaborate system of musical chairs and backroom dealmaking leaves some cold, including one council staffer, who says of Wesson's ascent to the presidency: “It's whatever benefits them. The deal doesn't make sense for constituents, but it makes sense for Herb.”
Some critics of the 15-member City Council's oversight of L.A. — a place of cracking sidewalks, bursting antique water pipes and endless fee hikes — place part of the blame on ex–state legislators, busily building their own piece of Sacramento, right inside Los Angeles City Hall.
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