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L.A. Politics Take on a N.Y. Flavor

April 08, 2001|Fred Siegel

NEW YORK — Leading mayoral candidates are competing to prove who is the most pro-labor at a forum organized by prominent trade unionists. All support hefty raises for low-paid service workers, promise that city contracts will never go to non-union companies and pledge to walk the picket lines, if necessary, to organize workers. Realizing that everyone is saying the same thing, one candidate interjects, "Forgive some of the repetition here, but you are entitled to know how intense our feelings are." Fearful of being one-upped, another candidate evokes his hard-scrabble Latino roots. In response, one union leader shouts, "He's our man! He's the son of an immigrant and he speaks their language."

The above is a composite of recent labor events in New York City and Los Angeles. They meld together nicely because New York and L.A. are growing to be more alike. In 1993, a slow-growth group formed in the 1980s, called "Not Yet New York," wanted to halt the Manhattanization of Los Angeles. But with nearly 4 million people now, L.A. is denser than ever. Once a famously apolitical near-Midwestern city, L.A, thanks in large part to a rising left-labor-Latino coalition, is developing the intense, ideologically edged politics that come with growing population density.

A quarter of a century ago, the idea that the two cities' similarities might outweigh their differences would have seemed absurd. But in 1975, L.A. didn't have a subway, and the new immigration that has changed the face of both cities was just beginning. The liberal politics of Los Angeles in the Tom Bradley years were kept in check by Republican control of state government. Today, Los Angeles, like New York City, is a part of an overwhelmingly Democratic state. If either of the leading liberal candidates for mayor, City Atty. James K. Hahn or Antonio Villaraigosa, ends up in City Hall, L.A., like New York in the 1960s, might begin an experiment in full-throated urban liberalism.

The New York City mayor of that era, John Lindsay, tried to create social democracy in one city. His administration attempted to redistribute income on the local level, in part, by giving city workers hefty pay and benefit increases. He ended up redistributing 700,000 jobs to the rest of the country, and the Big Apple nearly went bankrupt.

By 1993, urban liberalism seemed to be down for the count in both New York and L.A. Both cities had been shaken by rising taxes, rioting, rocketing crime rates and huge job loses. Big-city liberalism had come to represent a toxic blend of economic incompetence and ethnic antagonism. Faced with crisis, the overwhelming Democratic electorates of both cities elected moderate Republican mayors, Richard Riordan and Rudolph W. Giuliani, who rapidly restored order and business confidence. Eight years later, white middle-class flight has continued, but because of immigration and an economic turnaround, both cities have prospered, reaching their population peaks under centrist Republican reformers.

But this year, urban liberalism is likely to make a comeback in both cities. The irony is that the comeback is based on the successes of Riordan and Giuliani. The relative peace and prosperity of both cities have obscured the reasons that brought the Republican insurgents to power, while demographic changes have eroded their voter base. In the outer boroughs of New York and in the San Fernando Valley, many white Catholic and Jewish homeowners who swung to Giuliani and Riordan have moved on, and their houses have been bought by young Latino families and newly arrived twentysomethings for whom the traumas of the early '90s are ancient history.

Riordan and Giuliani seem to have transformed national policies more than the politics of their cities. Riordan's "compassionate conservatism" was adopted by the winning presidential campaign of George W. Bush; Giuliani's unprecedented success in curbing crime has set the norm for cities around the country. But neither man institutionalized a local following. While Riordan's designated heir, Steve Soboroff, may not even make the runoff, Giuliani didn't even bother to groom a successor.

The coming transformation of politics in both cities is potentially so sweeping that it's not hard to imagine that the pro-business, pro-police policies of Riordan and Giuliani could be pushed aside in a few years. This year, term limits will produce an extraordinary political turnover. In L.A., the offices of mayor, controller, city attorney and eight of the 15 council seats will change hands; in New York, the mayor, the controller, the public advocate, four of the five borough presidents and 35 of the 51 council seats will have new occupants.

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