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LOS ANGELES

A City Consumed by Self-Interest

October 15, 2000|Joel Kotkin | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute of Public Policy and a research fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute

Born amid riots and recession, the 1990s consensus on subordinating narrow self-interest to hold Los Angeles together is disintegrating. The collapse can be seen in public-employee strikes, a police department in near-disarray, a largely uninspired leadership class and an all but absent business elite. As a result, the region, despite its strong economy, enters the new century without the civic leadership and social cohesion that the challenges ahead require.

Although never formalized, the '90s consensus, which followed the breakdown of the liberal coalition built by Mayor Tom Bradley, linked private-sector unions, middle-class Valley residents, Jews, an emerging Latino political class and the remnants of L.A.'s business elite. It was largely Mayor Richard Riordan's creation, and, for a time, it worked reasonably well.

The new consensus helped rescue the city from the divisive racial aftermath of the Rodney G. King police beating and '92 riots, the effects of a deep recession and, at the county level, a "near-death experience" on the edge of bankruptcy. The city became more hospitable to entrepreneurs, chiefly through the efforts of the mayor's "business teams." Several important projects--Staples Center, Disney Hall and the new cathedral--got off the ground.

The county, led by increasingly pragmatic liberals like Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, discovered fiscal discipline and the advantages of boosting the private economy. Perhaps most important, the crime rate dropped dramatically in the city and throughout the county.

Yet, during the past year or so, the consensus has started to unravel. Prosperity has become the problem, as middle- and low-wage workers, with the backing of most political leaders, have sought to get their share of the spoils of a vibrant economy. Low-wage workers, including janitors and hotel workers, organized and won some significant victories, with deservedly strong public support.

The union drive, however, has taken a more divisive turn. In strikes against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and L.A. County, unions have, in effect, targeted the public, not corporations. Although labor and its allies like to portray these conflicts as a struggle for working-class rights, the reality is more complex. These job actions essentially pit relatively well-compensated public-sector workers against both the middle class, who pick up the bills, and, inadvertently, the working poor and poor, who receive the bulk of their services.

That the city must enter into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to avoid a civil-rights suit against its police department is another sign of breakdown. Enlarging the police force to fight crime and burnishing the LAPD's image formed the centerpiece of Riordan's first mayoral campaign. They are central to his legacy. But the Rampart corruption scandal has changed all that.

Ultimately, the end of the '90s consensus may stoke growing pressure to break up Los Angeles. Although Riordan was largely elected by the Valley, which accounts for roughly half the city electorate, his inability to bring down significantly the cost of government, particularly in comparison with neighboring cities, his kowtowing to city unions and the humiliation of the once-proud LAPD may embolden secessionists.

The failure of Riordan and other political leaders to reform the public sector represents the biggest single factor undermining the '90s consensus. In the understandings reached in the fiscal crisis of the mid-'90s, the city and the county agreed to limit layoffs of public employees in exchange for wage concessions. Although nearly 400,000 Angelenos in the private sector lost their jobs, only a few thousand public workers lost theirs.

Now, with private-sector workers, particularly those in high-skill professions, reaping huge income gains and public treasuries bulging with surpluses, public-sector employees, whose members, overall, enjoy salaries roughly $9,000 higher than the county median, have become increasingly militant in their demands for higher wages and better fringe benefits. The unions' militancy stems from their rapidly growing political power and influence, particularly at the city level. The election of numerous former labor officials to state legislative offices underscores labor's political ascendancy regionally.

So great is public-employee union power in the city that even politicians who previously portrayed themselves as champions of middle-class taxpayers, such as Riordan and Councilman Joel Wachs, have flinched when facing the union juggernaut. "Joel thinks we should stand up to the unions," explains one Wachs supporter. "It's just that he doesn't want to be the one to do it."

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