The funniest line in the City Council chambers last week was delivered by Councilman Dennis Zine in the midst of the debate over putting a sales-tax hike on the May 17 ballot to pay for more police officers.

“This is not about the mayor’s race,” Zine said.

No, of course not.

It was just a coincidence that Mayor James Hahn pulled out all the stops in his belated and failed effort to get a “safer city” measure on the same May 17 ballot in which he (he hopes) will be in a re-election runoff. Just happenstance that his challengers Antonio Villaraigosa and Bernard Parks worked hard to keep the tax off the ballot. Just beside the point that Villaraigosa had campaign staff circulating through the council chamber during the debate, or that the firefighter’s union president, Pat McOsker — brother of Hahn’s chief of staff, Tim McOsker — testified so passionately for it.

Of course it was about the mayor’s race, and about the election for City Council president that will come in July, and about council President Alex Padilla’s quest to hold Villaraigosa and Parks, and the two votes they represent, in suspended animation until one or both of them are dropped from the mayoral contest after the March 8 primary.

The police tax was first Sheriff Lee Baca’s idea, but his petition drive ran out of steam. This City Council unanimously moved forward with a backup plan to cover just the city, in case the county Board of Supervisors didn’t bail out Baca. That’s how bad they needed money for cops, and how unified they were in their drive to get it. But they weren’t ready to make unpopular choices, like closing libraries or slowing the pace of street paving.

Villaraigosa dug into the huge account that he created as Assembly speaker, and that he rolled over into an abortive run for the state Senate in 2002, and shelled out $500,000 to back the county tax. Was that all about the mayor’s race? It sure didn’t hurt that he was already running and that his commercials for Measure A, the countywide half-cent sales-tax ballot measure in November, featured him. He still, by the way, has more than $200,000 left in his state account, which is automatically rolled over to the 2006 Senate race.

“You’re right,” Villaraigosa declared on the council floor. “It is about mayoral politics. It is about four years of failed leadership in this city. Four years of Mr. Hahn unwilling and unable to get the 1,000 new cops we need.”

“Antonio, you can keep your crappy speeches for the candidates’ debate,” Councilwoman Janice Hahn responded. It was one of those times — and in the case of the mayor’s sister they do seem to come up fairly often — when you wanted to tell her “shut up” and “nice job” at the same time.

Something weird was afoot, after all, when the three police officers on the council sided with the Youth Justice Coalition and the Bus Riders’ Union to keep the police tax off the ballot, when Padilla and Tony Cardenas — and Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow — wound up on different sides of the vote.

But why such a mess in the first place? The substance of Villaraigosa’s critique is correct. Hahn hasn’t come up with the cops and finally has admitted that he can’t do it, just as Mayor Richard Riordan couldn’t do it, without raising taxes. Hahn’s political ineptitude is partially to blame, but so is this council’s refusal, at budget time, to back the mayor’s plans to consolidate or eliminate city departments and use the savings for police.

That’s all changed now, Padilla said. The council has seen the light, and is ready to cut.

Bratton practically laughed at the notion Friday, knowing that the city is facing a $300 million structural deficit. Will the council then bite the bullet and agree to close libraries and stop paving streets to finally grow the LAPD?

Sure it will.

LA Weekly