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Commentary

The Talk of the Town Is Return of Bradley Model

April 12, 2001|RAPHAEL J. SONENSHEIN | Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, served as consultant to the Los Angeles Times Poll on election day

On Tuesday, the voters provided a first peek at the politics of the new millennium in the nation's second-largest city. Much has changed, and much remains the same. Los Angeles is still a city in which politics is not on the voters' front burner.

Despite the energetic efforts of six mayoral candidates, both state parties, competing branches of organized labor, and even the Morongo tribe, voter turnout was no more than one-third of registered voters. And despite changing demographics, a majority of those who went to the polls were white, albeit a smaller majority than in earlier years. Jews still represented a highly mobilized constituency and continued to be more Democratic and liberal than non-Jewish whites.

And yet the changes are significant, even remarkable. Term limits radically transformed Los Angeles politics in unforeseen directions. Never have there been so many competitive races for so many seats. There has probably never been as strong a field of candidates in Los Angeles elections. Voters, however, showed little interest in electing outsiders, presumably the goal of term limiters.

Nonpartisan Los Angeles has long been insulated from state and national politics. This has fostered a spirit of reform and clean government, but has led to lower voter participation than in partisan cities. In 2001, the barrier between local nonpartisan politics and statewide partisan politics began to erode. In 1993, Michael Woo had to go to court to allow the state Democratic Party to endorse him in the nonpartisan mayor's race. With the passage of Proposition 34 by state voters in November, the two state parties gained the power to raise and spend large sums of money to contact their party members.

With that flexibility, both parties landed in Los Angeles with a vengeance, spending money in support of their favored candidates, Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa and Republican Steve Soboroff, who used these results to reduce Democrat James K. Hahn's early lead. Term limits also brought the state and local political scene closer, with state legislators vying for council seats, and with council members going after state offices.

The city elections saw the end of the Riordan era in Los Angeles government. While it is too early to write the final chapter of Mayor Richard Riordan's years, there has clearly been a sudden drop in his ability to extend his political power to favored candidates.

In 1999, Riordan commanded city politics. He backed candidates who defeated three school board incumbents, led the successful battle to pass a new City Charter and helped elect several members of the City Council. But in 2001, Riordan has fared poorly. Two of his three school board candidates lost badly, and his endorsed candidates in the 9th Council District and in the 32nd congressional race ended up in third place. His key strategic advisors are in Hahn's camp, his key money people are with Villaraigosa and his endorsee Soboroff finished third.

A post-Riordan runoff between two strong Democrats would have been unimaginable even two years ago. Instead of the Riordan model, the talk of the town is the Bradley model that seemed doomed to the dustbin of history not so long ago. Yet, while Riordan's power has nearly evaporated, his influence remains. The rise of education to the top of the list of issues that the voters want the new mayor to handle was certainly influenced by Riordan's detailed attention to school reform.

Riordan's election in 1993 and reelection in 1997 showed local Democrats what can happen to them when voters even in a heavily Democratic city feel that their leaders are not solving the problems they face. Riordan's ability to appeal to Latinos and Jews in 1997 foreshadowed the sort of alliance between these two groups that seems to be emerging in the Villaraigosa campaign, albeit now in a liberal direction. A sort of biblical punishment at the polls should be an ever-present reminder to Democrats feeling euphoric with two candidates in the runoff. Just as the Bradley model on interracial liberalism has reemerged in a time of social transition, so might the Riordan model come back.

These changes can almost make one forget the job that faces the next mayor, the next council, citywide public officials and school board members. As early as November 2002, there may be a vote on whether the city will break apart through secession. For all its renewed sophistication, Los Angeles politics is still local. Voters are less interested in politics than in whether city officials can do something about the public schools, reduce crime and traffic and control electricity rates. A more pluralistic city political system is long overdue, and like any ship with a host of interesting and exciting new passengers and crew, it will need a shakedown cruise.

A long tradition of nonpartisanship and quiet government must be integrated with a new, competitive, energized political environment within which the city can be effectively run and responsively led.

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