Like going to the pool without sunblock, going to the polls with a hurried and controversial ballot measure can get you burned. While it is too early to say for sure, the March 3 municipal election left the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa red-faced over an apparently failed bid to enact the largest solar project in U.S. history.
By the morning of March 4, solar Measure B — a plan to drape 1,500 acres of silicon panels across the city’s roofs at a cost of $1.3 billion to $3.6 billion — appeared to have lost by more than a thousand votes.
Perhaps even worse for Villaraigosa was his less-than-rousing re-election to office, in which he raised $3 million yet earned just 55.5 percent of the vote against a field of woefully underfunded candidates whom few Los Angeles voters had ever heard of.
Susan H. Pinkus, former director of the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Poll, says that the lack of exit interviews on Tuesday leaves analysts speculating as to what went so wrong for Villaraigosa. But it is clear “that the mayor has some problems with the voters if he lost 45 percent of the election to unknowns. The voters are sending a message to the mayor. However, since it was such a low turnout, many of his supporters came out to give him the win.”
Moreover, Pinkus adds, “When he first was elected he was extremely popular, but with the economic and budget problems confronting the city (and the state), voters are not happy.”
Villaraigosa is considering a run for governor in 2010, and, as L.A. Weekly has previously reported, he has spent much of his time as mayor focused on appearances at photo ops and other press-oriented events. Statewide polls have shown him trailing Attorney General Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in a mock gubernatorial election, and Villaraigosa still suffers high negatives following an affair that ruined his marriage.
His re-election on March 3 was supposed to create a political boost for him. His huge campaign war chest frightened off any big-name rivals for mayor, leaving him a largely clear field for a re-election romp. As the Weekly learned last month, solar Measure B was rushed onto the March 3 ballot to burnish Villaraigosa’s image with voters around California.
The mayor’s use of the city ballot to promote his statewide image will have backfired if Measure B is ultimately declared a loser by city election officials now counting the remaining 46,000 ballots. Longtime Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick, who ran a campaign for Nick Patsaouras — decisively beaten on Tuesday by City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel for city controller — says the potential loss on Measure B is a blow to Villaraigosa’s ambitions.
“He is trying to build up a record that he can take to Democratic primary voters” if he runs for governor in 2010 against Brown and Newsom, Carrick says. “Obviously Villaraigosa wanted to say ‘L.A. is the greenest city in America,’ and [Measure] B was part of that message. To some degree, this has got to be a big disappointment to him.”
City Council President Eric Garcetti and most of the City Council backed Measure B. But they got hammered in media coverage, particularly in the Los Angeles Times and the Weekly, once it became clear that the council had rushed the 25-page proposal onto the ballot at Villaraigosa’s behest without knowing what its fine print contained or how much it would cost residents.
Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University presidential fellow in urban futures and a critic of the direction in which Villaraigosa is taking Los Angeles, says he was eager to get home from Houston on Tuesday so he could vote against the mayor and Measure B. “The fact that Villaraigosa got only 55 percent against any real opposition and Measure B failed is the most positive thing in L.A. politics,” says a charged-up Kotkin. “It is just spectacular. There is still life in the old lady.”
“Yes on B” spent over $1 million on TV time, airing sophisticated ads depicting the measure as a job creator for minority men and women installing solar panels. Mailboxes across the city were crammed with expensive mailers explaining the virtues of giving the solar-installation work largely to city workers at the Department of Water and Power, rather than opening up the work to the area’s burgeoning private-sector solar businesses.
Voters interviewed at polling places on Tuesday said that while they strongly back solar energy, the plan didn’t sit right. “Just because the idea sounds reasonable, it doesn’t mean the ballot measure is,” said playwright Jonathan Dorf after voting in Hollywood. Dorf said that he had seen the TV ads and glossy mailers, but learned more from local media.
At a polling station north of Hollywood Boulevard on La Brea Avenue, Wayne Kurtz had a more pointed reason for voting against the solar plan. Kurtz said he didn’t like the fact that the massive DWP utility couldn’t say, within a billion dollars or so, how much the project would cost. “It’s like walking into a restaurant and giving them carte blanche,” says Kurtz.
Judith Dobin and Negar Emani-Khoi, two neighbors who had walked to the same polling station, also voted no. “We voted no because it would keep all the money in one place,” Dobin said, alluding to fine print written by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which essentially cut private-sector workers out of an expected windfall of installation work.
At five polling stations in and around Hollywood, nine out of 12 voters who spoke to the Weekly said they voted against Measure B. On Sierra Bonita Avenue, USC student Yetta Howard, wearing a T-shirt depicting former President George W. Bush blowing his brains out with a gun, said she voted for the measure largely on the basis of a Democratic voting guide she received. “Yes for greener,” she said. “It is good to spend for greener.”
Mabel Richardson, who lives in South Central Los Angeles, said she had voted for the measure in the hope that some residents of South Central would get hired as installers. “I saw that they had both men and women working on putting in those solar panels,” Richardson said, describing Measure B’s TV ads. “If it gets more jobs, I’ll vote for it.”
With Los Angeles suffering from high unemployment, the split views over a ballot measure sold as a job creator suggest that anti–Measure B bloggers and gadflies made significant inroads against the high-level multimillion-dollar campaign.
One blogger who helped to lead the fight, and who eventually publicly debated IBEW Local 18 manager Brian D’Arcy, is former Daily News editor Ron Kaye. Kaye slammed the plan and its murky genesis at www.ronkayela.com, then debated D’Arcy at a town-hall event on the Westside packed with IBEW’s city workers. Kaye shouted at D’Arcy, “You know what this is? This is nothing but a power grab for you!” D’Arcy shot back: “This is about creating jobs! Something you, Ron Kaye, don’t want to do!”
D’Arcy got big whoops from the stacked audience that night, but now the whoops have been subdued. The Los Angeles city election division says it is working to count final ballots, and will have official results in several days.
If Measure B ultimately loses, its City Hall supporters are expected to begin pushing ahead anyway, but this time without seeking the voters’ backing. That effort at City Hall is expected to face a fight, especially if the costs are still open-ended and private-sector solar workers are still cut out.
At 5:32 a.m. on March 4, veteran journalist Kaye uploaded a victory post on his site. He wrote that the apparent defeat of Measure B was a “miracle” that sent a clear message: “The political machine has crashed and the people are taking back the city.”
—Jill Stewart contributed to this report