June 7, 2001
A City of No Rules
This week's stunning election results marked not so much the end of political regime, but the beginning of a new one. After decades of politics dominated by racial and ideological coalitions, the city's new politics reflect a growing diversity not only between groups but among them.
Think of this. The son of a prominent liberal icon gets elected mayor by putting together a base of older African Americans, conservative Anglos, Asians and centrist Jews. He beats a former radical labor organizer from the Eastside, who has more endorsements than Michael Jordan, including those of the powerful business leaders in town and the outgoing Republican mayor.
If you think this is logical, you don't understand Los Angeles. The new politics of Los Angeles is not the politics of ethnic or even ideological coherence, but of ever-shifting alliances between and within increasingly fragmented groups.
In the new Los Angeles, contrary to the best wishes of "progressive" ideologues and the profound fears of conservatives, nothing, like the much ballyhooed prospect of a Latin-labor-progressive coalition, stays current very long. All the nostalgic talk of bringing back the relative certainties of the oft-cited "Bradley coalition" -- this time substituting Latinos for African Americans in alliance with the Jews -- needs to be brought up to the attic and left there.
Leaders and endorsements mean little in this world. Joel Wachs and Richard Riordan backed Antonio Villaraigosa, but their electoral base went overwhelmingly for James Hahn. Latino councilpeople supported Hahn, yet their supporters backed Villaraigosa. The leading daily, The Los Angeles Times, supported Villaraigosa, but their readers pressed the lever for Hahn. As Bob Dylan once said, don't follow leaders. Angelenos increasingly don't.
This is true for virtually all the components of Los Angeles politics. African Americans, for example, do not vote as part of a liberal "rainbow coalition" so widely celebrated by the likes of Jesse Jackson. Seeing themselves as a super-minority, lost between a growing Latino ascendancy and still-dominant whites, they opted this year to ally themselves with the more conservative white voters in order to preserve some of their own power.
Yet when it comes to state or national elections, African Americans can be relied upon to be the most left-leaning political bloc around, far more than Jews or even Latinos. As with everything increasingly, it all depends on the circumstances.
Latinos also follow the rules about no rules. They did vote overwhelmingly for their compadre, Villaraigosa, but they also helped put a centrist, pro-business Latino, Rocky Delgadillo, over the top for city attorney against Jewish liberal Mike Feuer. And now with Villaraigosa diminished, their leading political figures are all centrist-oriented "post-Chicanos" who opposed Villaraigosa, notably Councilmembers Nick Pacheco and Alex Padilla, as well as the suddenly prominent Delgadillo.
With the largely Jewish liberal concocted "Latino labor" dream diminished, Latinos are likely to follow a more diverse political course. Infighting between them will intensify further as they achieve an ever-growing share of the electorate. Pro-union activists will battle those more closely aligned to business and neighborhoods; "progressives" will lock horns with those who support more traditional Catholic values; recent immigrants and younger Latinos will contest older generations who have been here for decades.
Like Latinos, the Jews, arguably the second most influential bloc in the city, are also increasingly fragmented. Today there is, in essence, no "Jewish vote" anymore, as existed in the Bradley years. Instead there exists a deeply divided electorate, roughly equally split between a predominately Ashkenazic, educated, affluent, Westside-oriented "liberal" wing; and a more conservative, increasingly Sephardic and Russian grouping, many of whom live in the Valley.
Where these Jews go in future L.A. elections is hard to tell. Take the issue of secession. Most prominent elite Jews, like Eli Broad and the leading Westside liberal intelligentsia, will no doubt close ranks with the "high church" Catholics, led by outgoing Mayor Riordan and Cardinal Mahoney, in opposing secession. Yet, out in the Valley, many of the secessionist leaders -- Richard Katz, Jeff Brain, Richard Close -- are themselves Jews.
The secessionist insider's choice for mayor of the new city? Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, a resident of Sherman Oaks and former roommate of Villaraigosa.
To many this new politics of fragmentation is both bewildering and disconcerting. It's got to be unsettling to leaders who suddenly find that the troops are as likely as not to go into the other guys' trench as follow their banner. Reporters will find themselves unable to discern "trends" -- or as quickly as they discover them, they will find out that they are no longer relevant.
Yet to me, as an Angeleno, this is the perfect paradigm for a city of the digital age. As we access the Internet as well as we live in our neighborhoods, we process experience and information we ourselves customize. No one -- not the Times, the LA Weekly, CNN, or even The Jewish Journal -- can set a dominant tone. Everyone's humming their own tune. We can be Jews, business people, bicycle enthusiasts and libertarians; and those other identities may have more influence on how we vote than our ethnicity.
Advocates of ethnic identity politics -- Latino, African American or Jewish -- won't like this new politics. But ultimately it's the only way we can exist as a polyglot city that is not so much multiracial as postracial. We are getting all mixed up -- my 6-year-old sings in Spanish even if she doesn't know what the words mean -- and so the only politics that makes sense is one that is constantly in flux and often beyond easy categorization.