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Profiles in Power : Can Jackie Goldberg Teach L.A. a Lesson? : Experiencing One of the Hottest Political Debuts in City History, the Councilwoman is Calling for an Urban Vision That's Defiantly Liberal

March 05, 1995|JAMES RAINEY | James Rainey is a Times staff writer who covered Los Angeles City Hall for four years.

All 15 City Council members were in their seats. Newspapers, mail and other distractions were laid aside. The kibitzing of aides and reporters had descended to a low rumble. A rare day for the Los Angeles City Council.

Less than two weeks after Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg and three other rookie lawmakers had been sworn into office, the city legislature settled into its first substantial debate. The issue was the breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Specifically, the council was being asked to endorse a bill by then-state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) that would let voters decide whether to dismantle the country's second-largest school district into several smaller and, ostensibly, more manageable units.

San Fernando Valley Councilman Hal Bernson came to the ornate wood-and-marble chambers confident that he would win an endorsement for the Roberti bill. With six other council members answering to constituents in the Valley--where support for the breakup was strongest--an eight-vote majority was within his grasp. Lambasting the school district's low test scores, high dropout rates and repeated outbursts of violence, he quickly set the mood for the debate. The district was a "miserable failure," Bernson pronounced, "a Titanic sinking from its own weight."

While other council members took their turns, Goldberg stewed. For most of her adult life she had been a high-school teacher. She had spent the previous 22 months teaching government and English as a Second Language at Grant High School in Van Nuys. For eight years, she had been a member of the Los Angeles School Board, a period during which financial support for schools had slipped drastically. Now she was witnessing what she believed was a retrograde attempt to re-fight the integration battles of the 1970s and to isolate the district's poorest schools.

When her turn came, Goldberg rose slowly, pivoted to face Bernson and took the debate the one place it hadn't been: right into the classroom. In three minutes, she wove a tale of her teaching experiences and the uncredited successes of many Los Angeles schools--an infusion of images so immediate and so personal that the banal, bureaucratic air was blasted aside. At the end, she was jabbing her finger in the air, narrowing her eyes and tilting her considerable frame forward. Bernson seemed to shrink into his overstuffed chair.

"I don't want to hear from you that it's a failure until you go look at it!" her voice rang out. "There are people out there every day who go out and look in the faces of children from all over the world and all over this city. And they say, 'This is the only institution left in America that says, "Come on, come all of you!" We will do the best we can.' "

A hush followed. A few members were still scheduled to speak, but recognizing that Goldberg had seized the moment, they declined. By submitting an amendment to send the subject to committee for more study, the freshman councilwoman had also stolen the parliamentary initiative from 14-year veteran Bernson. The result was a 9-6 vote to move the issue to the council's Intergovernmental Relations Committee, where it sat when the state Assembly Education Committee killed the bill the next day.

"It was a pivotal point for her," Bernson aide Francine Oschin says in grudging admiration. "It put the whole council on notice: This is a formidable politician. And it set the tone for everything else that has followed. She gets a tremendous amount of respect."

One council member puts it more succinctly: "Nobody messed with her after that."

Nearly 20 months into her first term, Goldberg is still in the midst of one of the hottest political debuts in recent Los Angeles history. Allies and foes count her as one of the city's emerging political powers, a woman whose vote and influence are courted as if she were an archduke of the city's political aristocracy, not just a fledgling duchess. In a byzantine City Hall--where, the adage goes, rookies spend their first year just looking for the restrooms--Goldberg has scored a string of legislative victories that have countered the prevailing political climate.

She won health benefits for live-in partners of city employees, both gay and straight, despite the city's preoccupation with costs. She passed a proposal to help police crack down on black-market gun sales when local officials have despaired of stanching violence. She got the city to launch a constitutional challenge of Proposition 187, despite the anti-immigrant fervor and the political danger for anyone who opposed it. And she opened a hairline crack in the insular wall that surrounds the Los Angeles Police Department, authoring a policy that will put civilians in charge of investigating police officers' internal discrimination and sexual-harassment complaints.

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