June 26, 2008
Bill Boyarsky: Calculating the value of Villaraigosa’s trip
Web extra video: Mayor, in Israel, lauds green tech and security cooperation initiatives
The Mayor, in Israel, lauds green tech and security cooperation initiatives
It would be easy for me to beat up on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for his junket to Israel. After all, when I was a reporter, I covered two of our most traveled mayors, Tom Bradley and Sam Yorty.
While I never went along on a Bradley- or Yorty-era trip, I learned much about them from a friend. He was a Harbor Department official who ran the junkets in the old days and baby-sat the junketeers. He entertained me with stories of big shot Angelenos luxuriously shopping and eating their way through many countries. He spent much of his time chasing down the travelers' lost luggage and misplaced purchases.
Naturally, just as the Villaraigosa crew are probably doing, the Yorty and Bradley ambassadors claimed they worked themselves to exhaustion.
Villaraigosa brought along a sizable entourage. It included City Councilmembers Wendy Greuel, Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine, along with 16 other city officials, including airport, harbor and water and power commissioners.
Their expenses were paid from a mysterious and apparently inexhaustible treasury known as water and power, airport and park funds. City Hall people always insist that travel expenses from these funds cost taxpayers nothing, but I have never understood why. Others, including top Jewish community leaders, paid their own way.
The stated purpose of the Villaraigosa trip was to pick up airport security tips from Israeli experts. This could have been accomplished by a couple of deputy police chiefs.
The mayor also met briefly with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. I wonder if Olmert, beset by a criminal investigation of his financial affairs, as well as mounting political opposition, was depressed by the mayoral gift -- a Lakers jersey, Los Angeles' new symbol of defeat.
Villaraigosa also met with President Shimon Peres, Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The latter meeting brought back my memories of the Yorty years. When "Traveling Sam" was mayor, everyone joked that Los Angeles was the only city with its own foreign policy.
Despite the jokes, I do think the trips have a certain value. Much of the value is symbolic. One criticism of Villaraigosa's predecessor, Jim Hahn, was that he didn't understand the importance of symbolism, that he was too desk bound, too reluctant to make the grand gestures important in a sprawling city of many diverse communities.
These gestures are part of the mayor's job, and Jews are part of the process. Well more than a half-million Jews live here, including, according to a 1997 Jewish Federation study, 14,000 born in Israel. (That number expands and contracts radically depending upon who's counting, however.)
It's important for a mayor to seek common ground with Los Angeles' Jews. Villaraigosa has worked hard at this, attending more religious services than many Jews do and visiting many Jewish groups.
It's good politics. Jews are a major part of the Villaraigosa constituency. When he lost to Hahn in the pair's first election contest, Villaraigosa did not run as strongly as he hoped in the Jewish community, especially in the San Fernando Valley.
It took time for the Latino politician to overcome the anti-Latino bias that exists in some segregated, provincial neighborhoods, especially at a time when illegal immigration from Mexico was becoming a big political issue. Eventually, Villaraigosa became more popular in the Jewish community, whose support he will need again in his re-election campaign and if he runs for governor.
Beyond politics, it's important for the mayor to immerse himself in all of the city's communities. He must understand them, because he is often the final arbiter of disputes that reach City Hall. When something goes wrong in a neighborhood, the mayor has to get there in a hurry and act as a peacemaker and symbol of City Hall concern.
Hanging out with Mexican officials or those from Japan, China and Taiwan can only help. When inevitable conflicts occur between Jews and others, the mayor's trip to Israel will help him as a mediator.
Obviously, I am ambivalent. I enjoy making fun of the trips. But I can see their value. My ambivalence showed when I talked about the touring mayor on Warren Olney's "Which Way L.A." When the KCRW-FM show was over, I thought I'd been too wishy-washy in my comments. There was something about this particular trip I didn't like, but I wasn't quick or sharp enough to express it on Olney's show.
Too late for radio, I finally figured out what it was.
I was offended that the mayor journeyed to Israel with such a huge entourage, many of them powerful and well connected. I love Israel and appreciate Villaraigosa's interest and support. But when he went there, he was isolated amid a crowd of influential admirers in his municipal cocoon, surrounded by the same influential admirers who have a lot of clout in our unresponsive City Hall.
As I said, symbolism is an important part of the mayor's job. Connections with Israel are important, but Villaraigosa should also put his charisma to work at something of direct and immediate concern to Los Angeles.
Back in Los Angeles, among his many targets, Villaraigosa has talked a good game of education, but his attention wandered after he was roughed up by various public school leaders. He should return to the public schools, once his No. 1 priority, and campaign relentlessly for their improvement.
Remember, Mayor, public education, as well as Israel, is a Jewish issue.
The mayor and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Hulda discuss river revitalization. Photo courtesy the Mayor's Office
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.