It's pretty hard to get anyone's attention these days, what with Donald Trump and all his nonsense. Especially if you're a mere citywide initiative, like Measure S, and you're going on the ballot in March along with some guy named Garcetti and another guy named Koretz and absolutely no one named Trump. Your best bet, as a savvy political operation, is to compare the other side to Trump.
And that's just what both supporters and opponents of Measure S are doing.
"L.A.'s Biggest Developers Are Trump Backers," a recent press release from the Yes on S campaign trumpeted. "Trump Money Fuels Trump-Like Tower at 8150 Sunset," another rang out. And so on.
Meanwhile, a press release from the No side retorted: "Measure S’s release announcing their 8150 Sunset protest called them 'Trump-like Towers' — but their campaign is supported by Trump’s highest-profile Los Angeles supporter, former mayor Richard Riordan. Their campaign has been Trump redux, stoking fears of 21st-century Los Angeles, fomenting rage without offering solutions, and evoking nostalgia for a distant past of suburban living that is unsustainable in today’s diverse metropolis."
Who's to know who's Trump and who isn't Trump in this crazy, fact-less void of a world?
Democrats vs. Democrats
Part of the confusion here is that both sides are Democrats. Measure S, which aims to curb large-scale development by limiting the ways in which new construction projects can be exempted from zoning laws, is being funded, almost entirely, by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The nonprofit may be controversial, but it's not conservative. Its president, Michael Weinstein, is a longtime LGBT activist who grew up taking part in left-wing protests.
Many of Measure S's supporters are on the left, too, including a number of neighborhood activists, tenants-rights groups and environmental attorneys.
Most Measure S opponents also are liberal — Mayor Eric Garcetti, for example, City Council president Herb Wesson, L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. You could think of the Measure S divide as similar to the Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton fight. The Measure S campaign has populist overtones, taking aim at rich people and economic development. Measure S opponents are more likely to think that economic development is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Measure S supporters have claimed that L.A.'s biggest developers are Trump backers. It's true that Trump's two big L.A. donors are both developers – Tom Barrack and Geoff Palmer — but they have not taken a stand on Measure S. Construction firm Crescent Heights has given more than $1 million to the No on S campaign but not one dollar to Trump. Also, it just so happens that Crescent Heights is building a couple of apartment buildings on top of where the Hollywood Palladium is — and directly across the street from Measure S mastermind Michael Weinstein's office.
Meanwhile, Measure S supporter (and former L.A. mayor) Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, initially said he would never back Trump and called the outsider candidate "crazy." He changed his tune after Trump became the nominee. That said, Riordan is a minor player in the Measure S fight, and he generally endorses candidates and measures that are opposed by City Hall.
Who's Got Fewer Alternative Facts?
Implicit in the accusation of being Trump-like is that the accused is dishonest, a purveyor of alternative facts. This being a campaign, both sides have been stretching the truth. Measure S opponents, for example, paid for a study that said the initiative would cost the L.A. economy 24,000 jobs and $3.8 billion in the first two years alone. Then they tried to pass the study off as independent.
Measure S backers also have been making some pretty farfetched claims. The campaign's Twitter account has, a number of times, tweeted photos of homeless encampments and said, "Measure S will rein in this reckless overdevelopment while encouraging more affordable housing."
That's a strange statement, especially considering that every nonprofit affordable-housing developer opposes Measure S. When asked how Measure S could discourage development overall while encouraging the development of affordable housing (and thereby reduce homelessness), the campaign's new spokesperson, Ileana Wachtel, responded via email: "exemptions for 100% affordable housing during the [two-year] timeout [on certain large developments]."
While it's true that Measure S would place a two-year moratorium on the vast majority of mega-developments — and that a 100-percent affordable-housing developments would be exempt from part of that moratorium — it's unlikely that developers would opt to instead build affordable housing, which is not very profitable.
They're more likely to build projects that work around Measure S's restrictions, or simply invest their money elsewhere and not build for two years.
Who's Really Going to Make L.A. Great Again?
Both sides think they can make Los Angeles great. Opponents of Measure S are urbanists. They see a new, denser, walkable, transit-friendly Los Angeles finally emerging and are worried that Measure S will halt that transformation.
Measure S backers — who call themselves the Coalition to Preserve L.A. — want to make L.A. great
again. That is, they want to bring back the halcyon days of single-family neighborhoods and free-flowing traffic. In the words of L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, the initiative is "an expression of mourning for an L.A. that is already dead, a city of single-family subdivisions, highway construction, discriminatory zoning and free parking that worked (to the degree that it ever did) only as long as the region continued to sprawl voraciously at the edges."
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The Measure S campaign is, like the Trump campaign, steeped in nostalgia. But the comparison ends right about there. There is no xenophobia, or rancor, or coarseness. If anything, the Measure S campaign harkens back to the populism of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Both campaigns love to talk about how the other side is backed by "billionaires."
The two problems Measure S purports to solve are the high cost of buying and renting a home, and traffic. But experts say that the only way to decrease home prices is to either have fewer people or more homes. The only way to have less traffic is to have fewer people or fewer cars on the road (or build underground freeways). Measure S will do none of these things.
The opponents of Measure S offer a very different vision — taller buildings, more apartment units, more trains. It's a vision that both Mayor Eric Garcetti and his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, have fought for. And it's a vision that caused a backlash, now embodied by Measure S.
At a Tuesday press conference presenting his opposition to Measure S, Garcetti mentioned protests against "backward-looking policies." When asked by a Los Angeles Times reporter if he was comparing Measure S to Donald Trump, the mayor was quick to say, "No — I said in this moment in time, I think we all feel steps backward. This would be a step backward."