The Door That Shuts Out 'Citizen Politicians' in Los Angeles

Californians must love government, they have so much of it: 58 county boards, at least 1,100 school districts, more than 450 cities, and even more governments in the form of several hundred special districts. Californians must love those who govern, too: They re-elect incumbents and elect so many familiar office holders to new positions.

There ought to be a revolving door at the entrance to the state house, in city halls, and outside the county and school district boardrooms.

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According to Alex Matthews and John Howard, writing for Capitol Weekly, well over half of California's 120 state legislators come from city councils and school boards. Other legislators are former staff members of assembly and senate members termed out of office.

A lot of them have returned to Los Angeles, where the revolving door at City Hall fairly whirls.

Former city council member Ruth Galanter, writing in The Planning Report, laments that legislative recycling has made the Los Angeles City Council blatantly "incestuous." Thanks to state and city term limits, she argues, the council today has no "long-time veterans (and) 9 former holders of another elected office (8 in the state legislature and one at the School Board), 4 who succeeded their bosses, and 2 quasi-outsiders who are both former members of LAPD."

According to Councilman Paul Koretz (a state assemblyman from 2000 to 2006), the result is a disaster of unintended consequences. Term limits were "sold as a way to get citizen politicians" into public office, Koretz to the Los Angeles Times last month. "What it's done in reality is almost eliminate them."

It's not just that the revolving door is blocked by career politicians leaving for Sacramento or coming back to City Hall, Koretz's "citizen politicians" are priced out of the competition for office. Contributions flow to candidates already known to lobbyists and funders. So-called "independent expenditure" campaign groups put nearly a million dollars behind recycled legislators in recent city council elections.

Those groups, notes County Supervisor (and former city council member) Zev Yaroslavsky, "have made it very daunting and intimidating for community-based candidates to run." Crusaders, activists, and community organizers -- which Galanter and Yaroslavsky once were -- have little chance to come out ahead in a field of quasi-incumbents.

Once elected, recycled legislators don't bring much to city council meetings. Nothing about business as usual at the state house is like a city council. Legislators look at problems in the abstract, often adopting "one size fits all" policies. Loyalty to the leadership always beats common sense.

Assembly Member Marie Waldron (R-Escondido) found that "in state government, unless you're on the committee that saw that bill before it gets to the floor, once it hits the floor you can't change it. And you're having to vote on something that could be tweaked to be better and you can't."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- former assemblyman and speaker -- never fully understood the local political culture and quickly grew bored with it. City Council President Herb Wesson -- another former Assembly speaker -- runs the City Council today as if he were still in Sacramento and his colleagues still meek executors of the speaker's will.

City Council meetings are, as a result, dull convocations given to lengthy ceremonial presentations and unanimous votes with little debate, even on contentious issues that ought to inspire a robust conversation about the city its residents want to have.

That's not the way it's done in Sacramento, and now not the way it's done at City Hall, where recycling has a new meaning and where the revolving door spins and spins, shutting out "citizen politicians."

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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