They're Off!

Councilmember Jan Perry wants to be the mayor of Los Angeles. So does Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, mega-developer Rick Caruso, City Council President Eric Garcetti, City Controller Wendy Greuel, state Senator Alex Padilla, and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy. And so do businessman Y. J. Draiman and radio personality Kevin James.

A horserace has begun that will run in slow motion until the survivors, sprinting through the final weeks, reach an exhausted finish on election day in 2013. If one of them is very lucky and gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the winner will claim a "mandate for change" and the start of a "new vision for all of Los Angeles." Expect "jobs," "neighborhoods," "transparency," "middle class," and "challenges" - the verbal tics of the political mind on autopilot - to be scattered through the victory speech.

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The new mayor probably won't mention "City Hall's poisonous culture," "neighborhood councils," "reform of city government," or "employee union influence." What will be missing - what has been missing for the past decade - is a sustained, thoughtful, and historically grounded dialog with Angeleños about the changing nature of governance in their city.

Among other things, the reform charter of 1999 sought to reframe relationships between city officials and community stakeholders. The new charter imagined a collaborative process that would fundamentally change how the city and its residents participate in the political culture of Los Angeles. The charter included - but did not spell out - the means by which residents would engage in transforming city government into their image.

I cheered the election of Mayor Villaraigosa in 2005, seeing his win as part of the city's triumphant diversity, but I worried about the political culture of the state legislature from which he came. It couldn't prepare him to manage the degree of change underway in Los Angeles. Shortly after his election, I wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

Angeleños . . . want to make something recognizable out of the politics of dissimulation that governed their city for so many decades. The problem is what that something will be. Villaraigosa has said that he intends to be the mayor of a denser city, a greener city, a transit-oriented city, a middle-class city, a working-class city, a politically progressive city, a business-oriented city, and a city where the mayor is in control of the educational system. . . There's a refigured narrative of Los Angeles somewhere in there, but it's hard to discern how the story will turn out.

The story so far hasn't turned out as well as it might have. Villaraigosa seems unaware that political life in Los Angeles is undergoing a revolution of expectations. He never grasped that the reform charter could be used to make a new kind of politics. If he had, it would have been his monumental legacy to the city.

Villaraigosa won his races, but never the prize. As a result, the system at City Hall has frustrated every hope for replacing the blind mask that is city government in Los Angeles with a human face.

The competitors for 2013 are lining up at the gate. They're aiming to win, but do they know what that should mean?

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by flickr user Paolo Camera. It is used under a >Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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