Getting from Supervisor to Mayor

Zev Yaroslavsky

Term limits have churned through the political life of California for the past 20 years, dissolving much of the human infrastructure on which all levels of government had come to depend.

Given your tolerance of elected officials, that's a very good thing or very bad indeed.

The unsettling power of term limits came relatively late to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. But they've finally begun to rattle the board, setting up shock waves that will ripple throughout L.A. politics.

Since the 1980s, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, then a city council member, has been considered a possible candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, but his decision to pull out of the 1989 race left many of his supporters wondering if he lacked the resolution to campaign outside his usual base. Later, Yaroslavsky's election to the Board of Supervisors (in 1994, before term limits) put him among politicians who made endurance in office a badge of honor.

Yaroslavsky would be, it was assumed, supervisor until the time came for him to hand down the seat to a chosen successor. But he continued to encourage speculation that he would run for mayor . . . sometime.

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Term limits have ended this coy fan dance. Yaroslavsky will be termed out of his county office in 2014. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will be termed out of his city job in 2013. Yaroslavsky's long and successful political career - he's held elected office since 1975 - likely ends there . . . or it takes a sharp turn into the unknown if he chooses to run for mayor.

Yaroslavsky's story - the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a leader in the fight to rescue other Russian Jews from the USSR - resonated profoundly with voters and donors in the districts that elected him. He kept close to this base, doing the kind of neighborhood-by-neighborhood work that creates name recognition among independents and loyalty among supporters.

But the city's story of itself is far more complicated than Yaroslavsky's. His mostly middle-class, mostly Anglo base, it is argued, may be hard to retain if Yaroslavsky shifts gears to appeal to the majority of city residents who are neither Anglo nor economically secure. But recruiting minority voters may be even harder because of Yaroslavsky's reluctance to expand Latino representation on the Board of Supervisors.

The Westside-Eastside cultural gap and the county's divisive ethnic issues are big in the current punditry about Yaroslavsky's decision to run. But I find just as interesting the chasm between his experience as a county supervisor and what the mayor of Los Angeles must be today.

We've already seen that the skills to become Speaker of the state Assembly - the post Mayor Villaraigosa held - offered nothing to guide Villaraigosa through his two terms. The contrasts between supervisor and mayor are just as great. The habits of the five-member board - how coalitions are made and how power is divvied up - have little to do with the system at city hall.

Just as problematic, Yaroslavsky's twenty years as a city council member ended well before the reform of the city charter in 1999. Its new realities eluded Mayor Hahn's administration, despite Hahn's 24 years holding citywide elective office.

The crowded field of actual and potential candidates for mayor, so far, doesn't seem to understand that power in Los Angeles - and in city hall - is slowly (too slowly) being refigured. My sources tell me that Yaroslavsky will run, but will he - or any of the candidates - know what their city has become?

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 on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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

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