City, Limits

After a year-long bombardment of campaigns, primaries, elections and runoffs, Inglewood finally settled on a mayor this week: James Butts.

In the annals of stories about Southern California's small towns, this one doesn't really rate. The big headlines in the last year have gone to Bell and Vernon, two cities with governments so outrageously shady, they should have been reality shows (that could still happen). Plus the storyline of a fat cat, Boss Tweed-type like former Bell city manager Robert Rizzo bilking innocent, largely immigrant working-class citizens who rose up to overthrow him and his minions is tailor-made for Hollywood. Stay tuned.

But Inglewood's saga didn't look nearly as sexy. On the surface, the flurry of electoral activity in the last year was less about drama than about following civic procedure: last January, after pleading guilty to conflict-of-interest charges stemming from inappropriate use of taxpayer money, mayor Roosevelt Dorn abruptly resigned. The special election to fill his post would have been fairly routine, except that Dorn's term was up in November. That meant that Inglewood voters had to cycle through a crowded primary, a runoff that finally produced a mayor in August--Daniel Tabor--then another election in November, capped by another runoff earlier this month in which Butts edged out Tabor by less than a thousand votes. That sounds like a real competition, but it's more of a reflection of the pitiful voter turnout in the end--about 7,000 in a city with a population of roughly 115,000.

But I have to say, the voter exhaustion was real. We had a gubnatorial elections and congressional midterms. And in 2010, the ongoing effects of the recession--foreclosures, a shrinking tax base, a budget deficit climbing toward $20 million--simply felt like bigger concerns than who would occupy the top spot at city hall. Meanwhile, Tabor and Butts slugged it out in a race that came down to the two muddiest pieces of campaign literature I've seen in a while, and in Inglewood that's saying something. Tabor stridently accused his rival of carpetbagging, living in a tool shed that he claims as a legitimate Inglewood address; Butts blasted Tabor for hiring an ex-felon to serve on his staff and for being investigated himself for making a questionable campaign-related phone call. The photo on that last flier was of black pair of hands gripping the bars of a prison cell. I know it's all politics, but using the familiar specter of black crime to negatively sway a primarily black electorate struck me as especially distasteful.

Of course, the real merits--or demerits--of the candidates themselves got lost in all this, as did the urgent need of a new direction for a city that's never lived up to its potential. Tabor is a native son and veteran pol in Inglewood, Butts is a new face in that regard. In the midst of the din they both preached change, if not exactly hope. I'll be looking to Mayor Butts in the next four years to get Inglewood ready for its closeup.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The photo used in this post is by Flickr user jericl cat. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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