|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
When it came time for him to speak, Patricio Palacios got up and, in halting English, talked about his political involvements in Mexico, where he had been an early member of the opposition PRD party; about coming to L.A., where he’d worked his way up from food-service worker to restaurant manager; about his political baptism here, campaigning against Proposition 187; and about how he’d become active in Coalition L.A. It was important, he said, for immigrants to take responsibility for their adopted country. “We want above all,” he concluded, “to improve this place.”
Al Foster told of returning to South-Central from 15 years in Africa to find an inner city in decline. He spoke of his efforts to organize tenants across racial lines, and how Coalition L.A. was a natural extension of the work he’d been engaged in for years.
So they all stood up in this West Adams storefront last Saturday and told their stories — African-American, white, Korean and Latino activists, relating how they had come to be candidates for the board of Coalition L.A.’s 10th District Neighborhood Assembly (DNA). There was no great suspense to the election — the coalition had pre-selected 15 of its precinct leaders for the DNA board, just as it had some months earlier designated Madison Shockley, a pastor at the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, as its candidate for City Council against longtime incumbent Nate Holden. But when they were done, and when they had formally ratified Shockley as their candidate, Altagracia Perez, an Episcopal priest who’d somehow managed to cajole participants to get through their agenda in the appointed time, asked them to step back and reflect on what they’d achieved. “I want you to have a sense of this moment in history,” she said. “A year ago, we didn’t know one another. Today, we have entered into a covenant, one with another. Today, we’ve changed politics in Los Angeles.”
Well, maybe. If there’s one council district in the city where activists could once have justly made that claim, it’s the 10th. There, 36 years ago, a coalition of black and white liberals elected Tom Bradley — L.A.’s first elected black councilman. A decade later, the cross-racial coalition that had incubated in the 10th put Bradley in the mayor’s office.
Today, a new coalition of 10th District progressives is trying, in the words of Steve Cancian, Shockley’s campaign manager, “to create the contemporary version of the Bradley coalition of ’63.” Like their forebears, they’ve got their work cut out for them. The 10th at century’s end is a typical L.A. multiracial stew — a historically majority black district that is majority black no more (though 70 percent of its electorate is still African-American). Latinos now outnumber blacks in the district, which also encompasses parts of Koreatown. The challenge before Coalition L.A. is to persuade liberal black voters that their future lies in coalition with like-minded segments of these other groups — not in the kind of ethnocentric fortress that incumbent Holden seeks to erect.
That would seem challenge enough for any group, but Coalition L.A. is determined to do more. The making-of-history that Altagracia Perez alluded to wasn’t the formation of a cross-racial alliance, but the reassertion of democratic accountability. The DNA comprises 55 precinct leaders from across the council district, and at this, their first meeting, they set priorities for the 10th, which Shockley pledged to pursue if elected. Their plan is to meet in assembly every three months, to set further priorities — and, if Shockley is elected, to hold him accountable to those priorities. The model here is part the 8th District Empowerment Congress of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. It is also part old Mayor Daley’s Chicago, but with the machine turned on its head, with policy mandates bubbling up from the wards, rather than imposed from the top. “We know how politics and government and development work in America today,” Perez told the assembly. “We want a vehicle where people can set the agenda.”
A vehicle, say the Holden people, which is a sham.
Holden’s fuglemen dropped by the assembly, too. One young campaign staffer, who asked that his name not be used, said he’d once been close to some of the DNA’s black leaders, but “Now, everyone’s talking about moving away from identity politics” — a change in the weather which, he said, didn’t augur well for African-American constituents. When Shockley spoke about the pervasiveness of poverty-level jobs in L.A. today, concluding that “the function of government is to promote the general welfare,” the middle-aged Holden-backer seated on my right muttered, “Sounds like communism to me.”
“My concern is, who is Coalition L.A.?” 10th District resident Carol Segal asked me two days after the DNA meeting, which she too had attended. “There were people there who looked like people working on their Ph.D.s. There were organizers there, too. Red lights go on when you see people out there doing these kinds of things. Who’s really behind it all?”
Segal’s alarm had been so great that on the Friday before the assembly, she had convened a press conference of a group called Concerned Residents of the 10th District, to denounce the DNA. But who’s really behind the Concerned Residents seems a good deal murkier, and deliberately so, than who’s behind the DNA. Asked to name the other people participating in her press conference, Segal demurred. “There were a number of us who saw this” announcement of the DNA and shared her alarm, she said — though with the exception of two people she identified by first names only, she didn’t know their names.
Asked if it had really been Holden’s operatives who set up her press conference, Segal allowed as how she knows Holden and people in his office, but insisted, “I had no contacts with them on my Friday event.” Indeed, the event seemed to have jelled from the purest ether. “Somebody faxed me the particular information on the Coalition L.A. meeting. I don’t know who. There was no phone number on the fax.”
Still, for 10th District residents concerned that the DNA will be dominated by ideologues and apparatchiks, Saturday’s meeting may at least partly allay their fears. It’s true that members were asked to choose among three proposals as their top priority for the next three to six months, and that they were, indeed, the kind of proposals that might originate at a conclave of progressive organizers — though, in fact, they reflected the results of a survey of district residents. The options before the group were helping tenants of slum housing to secure more inspections; working with the Living Wage Coalition to expand the scope of the living-wage ordinance to workers in facilities financed by the Community Redevelopment Agency; and organizing within local schools and PTAs to demand more funding for after-school programs in the district. The ideologues and apparatchiks — and the county workers and cooks — mulled it over and went for the apple-pie option: after-school programs. Thus was the mask ripped off the 10th District soviet — and out popped merely the world’s most diverse New England town meeting.
With the effective death of political parties and neighborhood-based political clubs, America is besieged by candidates from nowhere — self-starters, entrepreneurs, answerable to no one but their donors, accountable for commitments made in private even as their constituents lack any organization that could extract, much less enforce, a public commitment. That’s a void that Coalition L.A. hopes to fill this year in the 10th — and in years to come in other districts across town. Indeed, with half the City Council and the mayor termed out of office two years from now, the coalition model offers the clearest alternative to the next wave of big-money politicos and anointed council staffers that is poised to break over L.A. in the elections of 2001.
But first, Shockley has to win his uphill battle against Holden, who’s as canny on the campaign trail as he is ineffectual on the council. It hasn’t always been easy going. “Some black leaders have felt — since there’s a term-limit on Nate in four years but not one for school-board members — that the course of least resistance would be to take out Barbara [Boudreaux, a school-board member whose district and politics overlap Holden’s] with Genethia [Hayes, a progressive, more in the Shockley mold, who’s running against Boudreaux] this time around, and take a pass on the council,” one longtime community activist observed. “But if Madison knocks Nate into a runoff, folks will take that seriously — real seriously.”
That is, the democratic-neighborhood model has to prove itself at the ballot box. Which makes the April 13 council primary in the 10th a referendum not just on candidates, or even ideologies, but on the kind of democracy we really want.