Charisma Comes to the City Council

Los Angeles
August, 2003

Friday at 10 a.m. is proclamation hour under the marble arches inside the John Ferraro Council Chamber at City Hall. It's when ordinary citizens of Los Angeles put on clean clothes and travel downtown to be congratulated for some unselfish deed or act of civic merit. They wait their turn on hard pews, then stroll forward to be feted by a council member. This explains why on a recent Friday, the honorable Tom LaBonge is extolling the beauty of a picture taken by the sheepish Department of Water and Power worker at his side and congratulating him on behalf of the entire Fourth District.

Two minutes later the photographer bends to the microphone, says thank you, then leads his proud family away. Before LaBonge concludes his honor roll, he shakes a half dozen more hands and refers, with unfeigned exuberance, to "the great Cahuenga Pass!" Next up, Janice Hahn, the mayor's sister, introduces a stalwart of her harbor district who phones in daily to report on dumped trash or abandoned cars. And so on. The routine fills most of an hour.

This is council culture as it has been pretty much forever, heavy on just plain folks and light on splash. What counts is delivering for your district and -- let's be honest -- for the friends who helped get you here. Having the streets swept, the potholes filled, and the hookers arrested and securing lucrative contracts for your homies are what keep you in office -- even if it won't make you famous or more electable. Grander aspirations are a poor fit for this job. One mayor in the past 70 years came from the council, and that was Tom Bradley. Among current citywide officeholders, only Controller Laura Chick has endured the ritual of Friday-morning proclamations.

Heh heh. On July 1 it all began to change. That's when the last of the relics from the era before term limits -- Hal Bernson (24 years), and Ruth Galanter and Nate Holden (16 each) -- left, and the council's new wave took over. Students of political theater should enjoy watching as the class of 2003 gives the chamber a jolt, raising its level of ambition, experience, and charisma, and in a couple of cases, boasting citywide recognition that rivals Mayor Jim Hahn's.

How the newcomers will conduct themselves remains to be seen. They still have to pay attention to neighborhood gripes. Making a splash, however, shouldn't be a problem. That's not good news for Hahn.

First there is Bernard Parks. The former police chief, who took his seat in March, is revered by African Americans in the South Los Angeles Eighth District and liked elsewhere. Armed with the charm and confident bearing of a man who has worn a uniform for much of his life, Parks pokes his head above the fog of anonymity that obscures most council members. He also knows how city hall operates well enough that the delicious irony of the role reversal isn't lost on him. Just a year ago he was being discarded by Hahn, publicly repudiated after one term as chief. Now Hahn could use his vote. Heh heh.

From the Valley comes Tony Cardenas, less well known but no slouch at the game of governing. His last stop was the chairmanship of the state assembly's budget committee, a juicy post in the Democratic leadership in Sacramento. That experience helps Cardenas stand out among the community activists and longtime city hall staffers who occupy many of the council's 15 chairs.

Of course, the rookie who has created the biggest buzz is Antonio Villaraigosa, the man who lost the mayor's race to Hahn in 2001 and before that was the powerful speaker of the assembly. The question being examined in countless e-mails and over coffee in the second-floor City Hall cafe is how Villaraigosa will take to the local local life of attending chamber of commerce lunches and calming constituents upset about a barking dog or the taste of their tap water.

There's no question of talent or dedication -- Villaraigosa insists that he is focused on serving the 14th District, a swath of the Eastside that takes in Boyle Heights, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, and a sliver of downtown. But he also sounds like someone who intends to engage the mayor on citywide issues like crime, police reform, and how best to create jobs. His supporters don't expect anything less.

Villaraigosa has embraced the activist path ever since he got into politics through union organizing and his appointment to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board by county supervisor Gloria Molina. With her backing, he defied the reigning speaker, Willie Brown, and Eastside power player Richard Polanco and ran for the assembly. Two years later Villaraigosa was the Democrats' majority floor leader, and two years after that he was speaker himself, a liberal who was able to win friends even among the Republicans.

In the mayoral race, Republican incumbent Richard Riordan endorsed Villaraigosa. So did billionaire Eli Broad, as well as Governor Gray Davis and most of the other top elected Democrats. After he led the primary field it looked as if Villaraigosa, with establishment backing, would be the city's first Latino elected mayor since the 19th century. Before the general election, however, Hahn -- also a Democrat -- picked up the support of prominent San Fernando Valley moderates and conservatives. He aired ads attacking Villaraigosa for signing a clemency request on behalf of drug dealer Carlos Vignali, the son of a friend.

Hahn won with 54 percent, the edge provided almost entirely by the West Valley and by black voters in South Los Angeles loyal to his family since his father, legendary supervisor Kenneth Hahn, represented the area.

The rivals have taken separate forks, although they cooperated in last year's campaign to defeat Valley secession. Villaraigosa taught policy at UCLA, sat as a visiting fellow at USC, and raised his national profile by speaking at Harvard and Berkeley and giving the Democrats' official rebuttal to President Bush's weekly radio address one Saturday. Now 50, he still turns heads with his stylish dark suits and open smile.

Meanwhile, the taller but drabber Hahn had the mixed blessing of occupying the mayor's office. He started okay, but for most of his first two years he has lurched from one crisis to another. The decision not to reappoint Parks as chief cost Hahn bundles of the goodwill passed on from his father and nurtured through his years as city controller and city attorney. The 53-year-old mayor regained some momentum by replacing Parks not with a safe choice from within the department but with the brash and immediately popular Bill Bratton -- despite the former New York police commissioner's reputation for trying to outshine his old boss, Rudy Giuliani.

Then Hahn ran into the secession whipsaw. His leadership of the fight to keep Los Angeles intact earned mostly lukewarm reviews; at one point Broad convened a summit to urge the mayor to get his act together. Hahn prevailed on Election Day, but his arguments did not prove persuasive among his backers in the Valley, where a slight majority declared they wanted to leave the city.

Now Hahn must contend with his two nemeses -- Villaraigosa and Parks -- right where he doesn't need them: sitting in judgment on the city council. In a piece in California Journal, political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe called Hahn the clear loser of this year's city elections even though he didn't appear on the ballot. He already had a shakier hand than most of his predecessors, despite inheriting changes to the city charter designed to enhance a mayor's power.

"You don't have a lot of people on the council who owe the mayor anything," says Jeffe, senior scholar at USC's School of Policy Planning and Development. Council president Alex Padilla, one of Hahn's most reliable allies, has been edging away. Even Janice Hahn, elected the same year as her brother, keeps her distance on some issues.

The mayor's vulnerability was never more obvious than last spring, when he and Bratton tried to force-feed the council a budget that would have expanded the police force by 320 officers. When the council questioned where the money would come from, Hahn and Bratton exploded rhetorical bombs rather than negotiate -- all but accusing the council of being in bed with Osama bin Laden. They ended up apologizing, which for Bratton amounted to a mild lesson that he's not in New York anymore. For Hahn it was a loss of face, one that was compounded when his veto of the council's budget was overridden. In interviews, he conceded that he had misjudged the council's resolve.

"We don't have a weak mayor system anymore in Los Angeles," quipped Bill Boyarsky, former city editor and local columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "What we have is a weak mayor."


Villaraigosa, elected but not yet sworn in, watched Hahn's budget embarrassment from a safe place on the sidelines. However, he made it clear that he agreed with the way things played out. "I'm for more cops," he told the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum in the midst of the battle. He said he wants to add jobs on the Eastside, and that "isn't going to happen if we don't address the crime rate in this part of the city." But, he added, you don't hire 320 cops today and fire them next year because you can't pay them. As for Hahn and Bratton's tone: "I think both the mayor and the chief realize that their comments were inappropriate, to say the least."

In case anyone in Hahn's camp had hoped otherwise, Villaraigosa's appearance before the forum -- performance is a more apt word -- left no doubt that he will be a force beyond his district. Eschewing the podium, he took a microphone and walked among the lunch tables, agreeing with questioners who wanted campaign finance reform and praising the hiring of respected civil rights attorney Connie Rice (a Villaraigosa partisan in the mayor's race) to help oversee the effort to clean up the police department after the Rampart scandals.

Villaraigosa also made a point about leadership that might have been a sly dig at Hahn's understated demeanor. Leaders should lead, Villaraigosa said. He then told a story from his first weeks as speaker. Gray Davis had tested his toughness by publicly pressuring him to go along with his agenda. Villaraigosa recalled that he held his tongue with the journalists who sought his reaction, but at the right moment, "I marched over to the corner office, and I made it absolutely clear [to Davis] that if you say that again in public, I will embarrass you. Not with words, but I'll make sure that everything that comes into this house gets put in a black hole."

Villaraigosa is joining a body -- much like the assembly -- where term limits have turned posturing for higher office into a full-time pursuit. Already, Padilla is thought to be positioning himself to run for a post at the citywide or state level. He is only 30, but with four years in office (and a maximum of four to go), he is the second-longest serving council member. Jack Weiss, the former federal prosecutor who defeated Tom Hayden on the Westside two years ago, has become a prolific sender of press releases and is being urged by moderate Democrats to run against District Attorney Steve Cooley next year.

Wendy Greuel, who worked for Mayor Bradley and in the Clinton administration, flirted with challenging Padilla for the council presidency in June but has bowed out -- for now. It's too early to predict where Tony Cardenas may want to go next. However, he arrives at City Hall as an instant insider because of his ties to Padilla, his onetime protege. Eric Garcetti, who represents Silver Lake and Echo Park, and Martin Ludlow, the former labor organizer and friend of Villaraigosa who replaced Holden, both bear watching.

Then there is Parks. He could have made a credible candidate for mayor his first day on the council and has not discouraged talk that he may seek revenge and run against Hahn. For now, the 59-year-old Parks is a model L.A. councilman, more solid than flashy, picking his words -- and his fights. Colleagues listened when the former chief said the LAPD could not afford 320 new officers and also didn't need to greatly enlarge its counterterrorism unit, an action sought by Bratton.

The council's other obvious mayoral challenger, Villaraigosa, insists that he won't be running in two years. "I want to be a city councilman. I fully expect to fill out my entire term," he told me.

This might be a convenient stance now that Hahn has made inroads with Miguel Contreras, the county federation of labor chief who has been a key Villaraigosa ally. Hahn and labor bonded during the secession fight, and afterward the mayor appointed Contreras to the city airport commission. Contreras is now saying that it's unlikely the federation would endorse anyone but Hahn in 2005. While that's not an absolute, Hahn should be able to count on some union support and the backing of the Police Protective League, which likes that he delivered on a promise to let officers work a three-day week.

Even if Villaraigosa does opt out, until 2009 at the soonest, he will be more than just a strong personality on the council. When he ran for mayor he was regarded by the city's more liberal and progressive activists as their great hope for the future, and many expect him to push an agenda heavy on social justice. Having Ludlow with him helps that cause, which also can expect support from Garcetti and Ed Reyes. In fact, with only two Republicans on the council, former cop Dennis Zine and Greig Smith -- both from Secession Land in the West Valley -- the spectrum of debate should lean more to the left than it has in some time.

The new council also figures to be bolder and to stand up to the mayor more often. That could be a good thing, even if you like Hahn. In a city where the public's interest in local politics keeps fading, the naked clash of competing ambitions may not produce better governing, but it sure can be entertaining.

©Kevin Roderick 2003

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