A lot of people stayed home, many, no doubt, in disgust. Those who went to the polls Tuesday in Los Angeles punched in their votes, and punched hard--often against incumbents who typically would have been shoo-ins.
Election business as usual at City Hall uses a simple formula: Longtime politicians raise big money, get big endorsements and waltz back into office without significant opposition. On Tuesday, the less-than 15% who bothered to vote sent a strong message to several local politicians: It's not business as usual. And that's something to hail, because business as usual has not served this city well.
The council has too often served as a club in which unspoken collegial courtesies mattered more than making tough policy decisions. Where not offending a colleague about a controversial project in his or her district was more important than debating whether the city at large would really benefit from another slew of luxury condos. Where staying in the good graces of a powerful city bureaucrat was more important than debating the bureaucrat's policies and how they affect the people of Los Angeles. Where handing out proclamations to everybody but Saddam Hussein has been more important than creating pro-active and unifying policies in a city that has the disturbing potential to further segment itself by neighborhood, class and race.
VOTERS' MOOD: The irksome mood among voters was almost palpable. In the black and Latino communities, they were angry and frustrated about the videotaped King police beating and the council reaction--or lack of reaction--to it. And they were fed up in the San Fernando Valley and the Westside about encroaching development.
The result was runoffs in probably four council races and stronger than expected showings by little-known and under-financed candidates.
RUNOFFS: In the San Fernando Valley, incumbent Councilman Hal Bernson and school board member Julie Korenstein are in a June runoff. Bernson, in office since 1979, is facing his strongest challenge ever, in large part due to his support of the huge Porter Ranch development north of Chatsworth--which promises to urbanize one the city's last undeveloped areas. Most polled in the district opposed the project.
In the 6th Council District, a hybrid of the Westside and the Crenshaw area, incumbent Ruth Galanter appears to face a runoff. Again, the issue was development; voters who believed Galanter had cozied up to developers said so at the polls, and now the one-term councilwoman likely faces a runoff with political aide Mary Lee Gray.
In South-Central Los Angeles' 8th and 9th districts, there was frustration but good news as well: There will be new blood on the council. In the 8th District, where Councilman Robert Farrell is retiring, civil rights activist Mark Ridley-Thomas and political consultant Rod Wright will compete. In the 9th District, where the seat is vacant due to the death of Councilman Gilbert Lindsay, school board member Rita Walters faces a runoff with Lindsay aide Bob Gay.
AWAKENINGS: Even without runoffs, two incumbents who won had better read the political tea leaves carefully. Richard Alatorre, facing three challengers, prevailed, but garnered only 57% of the vote after he backed a losing supervisorial candidate and tangled with some Latino activists over the redevelopment of Olvera Street. Nate Holden won 72%, but a perennial candidate with no financial backing won an astounding 28%. More than a few voters, angry with Holden about his hands-off policy regarding Police Chief Daryl Gates, wrote in votes for Mickey Mouse.
This is no routine election year in Los Angeles politics. Voters have made it clear that they want more than the routine.
Is City Hall listening?