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Can Bob Hertzberg Save L.A.?

The speaker emeritus of the Assembly says boroughs are the answer.


by Joel Kotkin

July 11, 2002 | 8:00 pm

On a drizzly morning, with the city just opening its eyes, Bob Hertzberg is sitting at Solley's Delicatessen in Sherman Oaks. Even before having his coffee, he seems animated, even agitated, by his great new project: how to save Los Angeles.

To Hertzberg, speaker emeritus of the state Assembly, saving Los Angeles is not what the new civic patriots opposing Valley secession will be telling us over the next months. It's not about maintaining a dysfunctional system at all costs -- one whose greatest beneficiaries are city bureaucrats, well-connected developers and a political class whose living depends on keeping things just the way they are. It's not about how, if the Valley secedes, those of us who live there will no longer be able to identify with the Lakers or the Dodgers, enjoy the Hollywood Bowl or have dim sum in Chinatown.

Hertzberg's vision goes to the heart of politics, to where people live and how they interact with government. As I worked with him on his borough plan, I could see he was looking not only for a "political fix" to a problem, but also a way to re-energize a failing political culture. By dividing the city into nine smaller boroughs, each with considerable powers of self-government, he is trying to bring accountability and accessibility to a city regime that long ago forgot about average citizens, most particularly in the middle-class warrens of the San Fernando Valley.

This is not what the current string-pullers and current Mayor James Hahn, want to see. They like the status quo, it provides for expensive council races -- manna for consultants, unions and big developer donors -- in huge districts that often have about as much coherence as a George Bush (pick either one) monologue. To preserve the municipal monstrosity, they are willing to use any kind of tactic -- from race-mongering to suggesting the lights will go out -- to "save" the city that they feed upon.

This is what most weighs on the mind of Hertzberg.

"What is the point of stopping secession by scaring people to death?" Hertzberg asks over his salami and eggs. "It's good for the campaign consultants, but it is going to leave a city divided. It will be like World War II."

Hertzberg spells out his disaster scenario: Hahn, backed by unions and the insider culture, uses his vastly superior resources to get out a message that secession is, as the mayor says, "a harebrained scheme" that will raise taxes, hurt the poor and create a whole new layer of politicians. The fact that other cities have such systems -- such as New York -- will be used to raise the specter of "Eastern" corrupt politics.

In Hertzberg's worst-case scenario, the Valley's now overwhelming support for secession erodes, but it still passes by 55 percent or more. But the rest of the city -- scared that its cash cow is about to wander off the ranch -- forces the recalcitrant Valley to stay. A new mayor and council elected by the Valley become, in essence, what Hertzberg calls " a government in exile." Hahn and his consultants get their win, but at a terrible price.

"Secession may not win, but it won't go away," explains David Abel, a key Hertzberg adviser, civic activist and publisher. "What the Hahn people don't understand is there's a city that's hurting. On what graveyard do they hope to build the new L.A.? Yet, that's what we face unless Bob saves the day."

Hertzberg's emergence as the erstwhile architect of Los Angeles' salvation reflects his unique upbringing, and his decidedly secular, but very much Jewish, roots. His father, Harrison, was the son of rag dealers who fled the pogroms at the turn of the last century. He trained as an engineer at the University of Wisconsin, served in the military and then went to law school at Harvard.

This scholarly bent -- accompanied by left-wing politics -- shaped Hertzberg. The Constitution, he notes, was, in some sense, "the family business." Religious Judaism was not part of the picture. Hertzberg, for example, was not bar mitzvahed, even though he was raised in "a Jewish culture."

Yet as he grew into a man, went to school at Redlands and then gained a law degree at Hastings, Hertzberg's latent Jewishness seemed to emerge. Today, his two sons from his previous marriage are at Stephen S. Wise Temple. He now counts Abraham Joshua Heschel, along with his father and the great constitutionalists, as major influences.

"I think in terms of structures that can work," Hertzberg suggests. "My view of the world is it's good to make things that help people. I want to make an alternative that brings people closer to government and feel more in control of things. To bring back a sense of place."

This highly practical view, however, also masks a kind of messianic passion, something that makes him push proposals, like boroughs, that seem unlikely to make it through the usual political process. Journalists describe the bear-hugging pol as "hyperactive," but Hertzberg is more self-deprecating. "I'm kind of a nut," he says, with a kind of perverse pride. "That's who I am."

Yet Hertzberg also is very much a postmodern Angeleno, who understands that coping with the diversity of the city is part of making the place work. He cut his teeth politically not in the Berman-Waxman machine, but working for the United Farm Workers and for Eastside firebrand Gloria Molina. His second wife, Cynthia Telles, is a Mexican American who teaches at the UCLA School of Medicine. Her son, also from a previous marriage, is being raised Catholic.

He is also a good politician, in the sense of getting other politicians to back him. His personal talents helped him become speaker in 2000. He worked assiduously to craft legislation. Some complain, however, that Hertzberg was less than effective as a speaker; certainly in term-limits time, no one has come close to the legislative power of the late Jesse Unruh or Willie Brown. But Hertzberg used the system well, and to the benefit of the Valley constituents who elected him -- something that few Valley councilmen have done in recent years.

Compromise, he reminds me over and over, is what politics is about; something you need as a legislator and even more as speaker. Weighing the interests of various groups and individuals, like the Constitution does on a broader scale, the boroughs proposal reflects that notion completely. It allows for even small sections of the city -- borough districts would be as small as 80,000 -- to express themselves and elect genuine, part-time "citizen politicians." Koreatown, Pico-Robertson-Fairfax, Watts, San Pedro, all the wondrous neighborhoods of this city, get a chance to elect someone from around the neighborhood.

But key issues of citywide interest, the airport, the Department of Water and Power and the like, would be controlled by a council of borough presidents. The mayor would retain his expanded powers granted by the slightly reformed new City Charter.

If Hertzberg is to be faulted, it is in coming out too late with the program. With $1 million in campaign funds in his kitty, Hertzberg could have financed a signature-gathering campaign that would have allowed him to place the measure on the ballot without council approval. Working on a short timetable, he did a brilliant job of marshaling support from academics like state Librarian Kevin Starr, New York urban expert Fred Siegel and political scientist Eric Schockman. He also rallied sympathy from the top media -- from the fervently anti-secession Los Angeles Times to the pro-breakup Daily News, and even a mild endorsement from LA Weekly's Harold Meyerson, the social democratic rabbi of the rational left in Los Angeles.

But, unfortunately, prestige and rationality don't often count for much in politics. Hertzberg's real struggle is against his own caste, the city's political animals. It's an uphill fight to convince a bunch of committed pols --the best paid city council in the nation and due for yet another raise -- to change the way it, and its backers, do business. There are reasons for them to be, as the Roman author Seneca put it, "resolute in their madness."

Hertzberg knows that the reasons to kill boroughs, from the perverse values of petty politics, are understandable. Alex Padilla, the council president from the Northeast Valley, does not want to abandon a system that serves his political controllers, even if it does precious little for his hard-pressed district. Jack Weiss, who perhaps should know better, doesn't feel the oppression of the city since his largely Westside 5th District does relatively well under the current system. In addition, the loss of the Valley would leave the posh Westside virtually the only large affluent pocket in the city. With the Valley no longer available for ransacking, the Westside may find itself more a target for downtown's redistributionist urges.

The others, for the most part, will do as their masters -- powerful developers, union bosses, political consultants -- tell them. They will concoct "patriotic" reasons, or find fault in some detail of the plan, but basically it's against their narrow interests. A better, more responsive city is not on the agenda for most of the council, anymore than it is for the small group of insiders who animate the otherwise-lifeless mayor.

For these reasons, it seems the die against boroughs seems already cast, although Hertzberg is likely to press on until the end of July, when the plan must be put on the ballot by the council. If it fails the feared scenario -- the anti-secessionists "winning ugly" as he puts it -- will then unfold, with the attendant tragic consequences of even greater alienation and internecine conflict.

But even under this likely scenario, Hertzberg is not likely to let go of the borough plan. Even as he takes a hiatus for two or three years from elective office, he is likely to bring the idea up again, perhaps as a grass-roots ballot initiative. As he sees it, the divided outcome of a secession vote makes even more critical the launch of another, new Valley-led effort to restructure the city.

"I am not about to give up," he says. "Ideas never die. I think this is the future whether it's today or tomorrow."


Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University and at the Milken Institute. He is the author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape" (Random House, $12.95) and can be reached at joelkotkin@newgeography.com .

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