For the first time in my life, like 84% of Los Angeles registered voters, I failed to cast a ballot in last week’s election. It was a primary to select front-running mayoral candidates and city council members, a city attorney, controller, community college trustees and a tax proposition – stuff that should really matter. The four men and a woman – the “five little kings” of the county Board of Supervisors – who really run LA’s nine-million-person megalopolis – were not on the ballot. Supervisors who used to rule in perpetuity now are term-limited to “only” three consecutive four year terms.
Although LA politics are notoriously distant, confusing, confused and impenetrable except to lobbyists, this recent election was stratospherically off the boredom chart with a record-setting 16% turnout.
George Orwell taught us that the obfuscation of language was not accidental but usually constructed to hide an ugly reality. The dullness of LA politics is due to a number of factors but really exists to conceal and befuddle the reality of who is screwing whom in whose interest. Sometimes I think even Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe would have a hard time finding where the body is buried.
For starters we’re so spread out – from desert to mountains to sea – that LA is encircled by 29 small townships you’ve never heard of, like Vernon, Cudahy and Bell, of legendary corruption. These small suburbs of our giant suburb are often controlled by ethnic (increasingly Latino) machines whose efficiency at robbing their constituents is equaled only by their resistence to reform.
Our powerless mayor, Antonio Villagorsa, the city’s first Spanish-speaking head since 1848 when a Mexico-ruled LA was just a dusty, hyper-violent cow town, is now term-limited out, hence the so-called contest. Antonio has great teeth, fine skin, is a friend of labor (sometimes) and unusually skilled at suffocating scandal. (Like breaking up his family for an affair with a TV reporter.)
Unlike Chicago or New York, the mayor here is a clouteless figurehead. It’s partly because a nation-city like LA, with its four million population in a county of almost ten million, is by history and law “non partisan”, that is we don’t have a big city’s go-to party mechanism. In Chicago, my home town, we all knew how to get something done: you sold your vote to a precinct captain who passed it along to an alderman and so on up a trail of corruption to the mayor’s office. In the process we got robbed blind but also shared a civic sense that in a perverse way we counted for something.
What’s wrong with us in LA? For example, scandal (for tabloid minds like mine) at least has a virtue of drawing public attention to political actors. Take New York’s mayor Guiliani who, having ended an affair with one City Hall employee, then launched another with his next lover who was provided with a city-paid police escort. His wife actress-journalist Donna Hanover had to learn about her husband’s sex life only when the mayor sprang a surprise press conference announcing their separation. Tacky, tacky. (She got her revenge by guest-starring in the “Vagina Dialogues”.)
Way to go, New York!
The peculiar brand of LA anti-politics is fixed, almost petrified, in our history. From the 19th century on real estate, water and “development” were the keys. Land booms with plenty of cheap space seduced waves of footloose Americans to come and build, build, build homes, the dream of owning even a shack with a dime-sized lawn. Thus, home ownership, and its prerogatives, is almost the biggest deal in town. Home-owner associations, traditionally anxious to keep out racial ethnics, wield real, negative neighborhood power. Mine is called Tract 7260 and exists to stop over-building; in our case soulless mile-high skyscrapers overlooking our lovely single-family Spanish-style homes; we rarely win a battle against Godzilla developers.
Stolen water we know about from Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown set in the Los Angeles I first came to in the 1940s when the real power was brazenly visible in only three places: a “Committee of 25” downtown conservative white businessmen; the real-estate grabbing ultra-reactionary Los Angeles Times; and a semi-militarized racist police force.
Life moves on. With the end of the Cold War vital aerospace and war-implements factories left or went out of business. As the tax base shrank, the old business elite died off or fled, to be replaced by ravenous modern developers. These fire-breathing builder-magnates are like Rick Caruso, who wants to make LA look like his hugely successful malls, and a carpetbagger corporation called AEG, whose reclusive, anti-gay, creationist chairman Philip Anschutz refuses to live in LA, but is fanatically bent on making this once-industrial city into a vast, Blade Runner-type sports and entertainment complex. (AEG already owns the Lakers and Clippers basketball, Kings hockey and LA Galaxy soccer teams as well as twisting political arms to build, with tax breaks, a new downtown sports-and-events stadium Farmers Field.)
Sadly, but inevitably, job-hungry unions – once and still a progressive force – are impatient to see all this development happen. The rise of LA unionism is an inspiring story. For decades, the LATimes, owned by venomously anti-labor General Otis Harrison (who rode around with a cannon mounted on his car), helped create a worker-unfriendly “open shop” climate. World War 2’s war factories brought in unions – for white (and a few black) workers. Latinos were ignored by labor officials.
But some time in the 1990s immigration from Mexico and Central America became a flood. Many of these impoverished exiles had union and/or political experience in their violent home countries. LA, changing from an industrial to a service economy employing the lowest-wage, found ready workers among Latinos, many of them illegal and, theoretically, too scared of the police or La Migra (deportation cops) to organize themselves.
But led by the lowest of the low, “Justice for Janitors” exploded on the scene to organize powerful unions of the underpaid and overworked. (See Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses.)
Today, service unions, mainly Latino and African American health care and public sector employees, provide the bulk of foot soldiers and door knockers for their candidates of choice. Our sole female mayoral candidate, former Republican Wendy Gruel, has major union backing while her “liberal” opponent, Gil Garcetti, scion of an LA political dynasty, sometimes sounds like an old-fashioned union baiter. See, it gets complicated.
And what about the rest of us locked out of this power scene? Last year I phoned and wrote my council member Paul Koretz, who I voted for on a “come and talk to me any time” platform, half a dozen times with no response. Yet he serves on a 15-member council that is the highest paid in the nation. at $178,000 each per annum plus loads of aides and free gas for free cars. It’s enough to make me into a “gadfly”, one of those wacky wonderful mouth-running cranks who take up city council time while our expensive, elected reps nod off.
We deserve better but, for the moment, can’t bother to get ourselves out of bed to fight the diffuse, unconcentrated, deliberately dull power.
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. His latest book, Hemingway Lives!, will be published this spring by OR Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org