February 17, 2005
At your next dinner party, here's a surefire way to bring the sparkling conversation to a dead stop. In the midst of all the banter about the Oscars and Westside real estate prices and Michael Jackson, chime in with, "So, what do you think of the mayoral race?"
Go ahead. Ask it. Within five minutes, you'll see tumbleweeds blowing through your living room.
There is a political junkie class in the city for whom the mayoral race has been the issue over the past few months. But beyond that group and their co-dependents in the media, the level of interest in who will be the next leader of the largest city in the most populous state in the world's most powerful nation is close to nil.
"I don't really care," said a friend of mine tied in with the entertainment industry, "and I don't know anyone who does." He paused for a moment. "Why is that?"
The Los Angeles Times editorialized on this question a few weeks back, but the Times and the other media is part of the problem, with our largely predictable, dutiful and resolutely plain coverage. This is a race that has to be sold to voters -- why it's important, what's at stake, who stands to win and lose --and most coverage doesn't appeal beyond the public access news chat set.
Here at The Journal, we've run several insightful columns and had some solid initial coverage. But have we done enough to goose potential voters?
Many in the media blame the candidates themselves. All the candidates are Democrats, all are decent, safe men, nary a grandstander, bully or bigmouth among them. They have their 20-point traffic plans and 30-page crime plans, but they seem strangely detached from the here and now. They haven't jumped on the volatile issues of the day -- the shooting of 13-year-old Devon Brown by an LAPD officer after Williams stole a car, the closure of King/Drew Medical Center -- and staked out a controversial or challenging position. Can you imagine a New York City's mayoral race that doesn't involve the words controversial, volatile or challenging?
The last multicandidate election to spark widespread interest in Los Angeles was the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. Even the local television news covered it. The Deaniacs, the Kerryites, the Clarkettes -- people in this town were passionate, Brentwood was thick with fundraisers and policy papers on early childhood education and universal health care actually circulated alongside weekend grosses.
With only three weeks to go to Election Day, how can we recapture the kind of democratic magic that only Iraqi Shiites and Kurds have known since?
I have two strategies. To all in the entertainment industry who plunged headlong into the presidential primary but think civic politics is beneath you, I suggest thinking of the current field of five men as midseason replacements for last summer's cast.
In the role of Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, we have Mayor James Hahn. Quiet, no great shakes on the stump, but a solid vote getter with down-the-middle policies. Bernard Parks, city councilman and former police chief, is Connecticut's Sen. Joe Lieberman. A bit dull on camera, but very engaging and direct in person, and no pushover to traditional Democratic interest groups. City Councilman Richard Alarcman is Howard Dean, the new Democratic Party Chair. He gets in some good zingers in the debates, maybe appears a bit too left for some, but in governing has been much more pragmatic. As Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, there's his former Los Angeles campaign chair, City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. The putative front-runner, the party pick, Villaraigosa has 1,000 times more charisma than Kerry but, well, they've both lost the big one once. That leaves Gen. Wesley Clark for former assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg -- not a terrible fit. Both pragmatic Democrats with solid Republican affiliations, both a bit tentative about joining the race, though they each warmed up to the challenge after a while, though Hertzberg hugs more people in a day than Clark probably has all last year.
Does that help? The comparisons are crude, as many analogies -- especially tongue-in-cheek ones -- must be. But at least they help provide a hook for those who otherwise couldn't tell Alarcman from the Alamo. Anyway, take heart, this time a Democrat will definitely win -- how often can you say that these days?
As our columnist Raphael Sonenshein has pointed out, although Jews represent just 6 percent of the population, we make up 18 percent of the voters in municipal elections. The statistics are even more skewed for donations and activism among individual Jews. So although we might need less encouragement than other voters, the apathy is still there, and that's a shame. Crime, traffic, failing schools, economic development, poor air and dirty water -- these are issues that affect all of us every hour of every day. They are the stuff of City Hall, and who sits there does matter.
We've just completed the last of our in-house sit-downs with each of the major candidates, and we'll publish the fruits of those interviews in our March 4 issue. (The election is March 8.)
In the meantime, take time to do your own research, seek out and get to know something about these men. Because whether Los Angeles thrives or declines depends in no small part on the person who leads it.
In his soon-to-be-published book, "The City: A Global History" (Random House), Journal columnist Joel Kotkin writes that the world's great cities have survived marauders, sieges and all manners of disasters. For these cities, even utter destruction was not final. But what the citizens of every great city must have is a "peculiar and strong attachment, sentiments that separate one specific place from others." In the end, Kotkin writes, cities are held together, "by a consciousness that unites their people in a shared identity."
I myself am looking at these candidates to see who best engenders and conveys that sense of common purpose, of shared greatness. I want a mayor who stands for what Kotkin calls, "the powerful moral vision that holds cities together."
If he also supports a subway to the Westside, that would be nice, too.