On the first and third Tuesday evenings of each month, as he wields the gavel at City Council meetings, El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon deals mostly with such local concerns as where to put a skateboard park and what to do about leash-law violators.
But Gordon has spent many of his other evenings during the last couple of years on a collision course with Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and his powerful allies. And Gordon--whose 16,000 constituents number but a tiny fraction of Riordan's 3.8 million--is now a figure to be reckoned with.
Gordon has used his professional political skills to build a large, unusual alliance among urban, suburban and rural communities to oppose Riordan's plan for a massive expansion of Los Angeles International Airport, which lies just across Imperial Highway from El Segundo's northern boundary and its blocks of tidy homes, lush parks and well-regarded schools.
Two or three evenings a week, Gordon left his political mail and fund-raising firm's offices a few blocks south of the airport and drove the rush hour-clogged freeways to Hemet or Upland, to Chino or Garden Grove.
Speaking calmly but forcefully to one local government session after another, Gordon got right to the point:
There is a better--and cheaper and faster--way to accommodate the air travel and cargo needs of the millions of new residents expected in the Inland Empire and other fast-growing places in the region, Gordon would say. There is a way to share the jobs and other economic benefits, as well as the burdens, of life near an airport.
Then he would lay out a plan to "constrain LAX to the capacity of its existing facilities" and spread the anticipated voluminous new passenger and air cargo demands among 11 other airports in the region.
In the small packet of materials Gordon would leave behind was a sample resolution opposing LAX expansion and backing a regional plan. All a governing board had to supply was a vote to join the Coalition for a Truly Regional Airport Plan. That coalition aims to build political sentiment to counter LAX expansion proponents, which include labor unions, the airlines and the air cargo industry.
"Mike traipsed all over the countryside on his own time, and at his own expense, knocking on doors and making friends and building allies," said Dennis Zane, a former Santa Monica city councilman and the consultant hired by the El Segundo City Council to develop a strategy for fighting LAX expansion.
"He transformed what used to be a David and Goliath story into a Goliath and Goliath story," Zane said. "When you get all [these other communities] together, it's a formidable group, and they have to be taken seriously."
Strong Response to Battle Call
By the time airport officials in Los Angeles released their $12-billion LAX Master Plan's 12,000-page environmental impact report in mid-January, about 100 cities, counties, civic agencies and school districts, from Manhattan Beach to Riverside and beyond, had voted to join the coalition and oppose the LAX plan.
And Gordon and El Segundo, a prosperous, politically conservative and family-friendly town, were ready for the next phase of their battle against LAX, one that might well include lawsuits and take years to resolve.
"It's a rarity for a small-town mayor to have a role in something like this," Gordon said during a recent interview.
The battle began in 1996, when airport officials first indicated their desire to greatly increase cargo and passenger capacities--initially to accommodate up to 100 million passengers annually (about 65 million use the airport now) and roughly double the cargo volume. Plans call for lengthening runways but not adding any.
Those officials, noting the importance of LAX to El Segundo's booming economy, say Gordon is leading his town to bite the hand that feeds it.
"I think he's doing an incredible disservice, not only to El Segundo, but also the whole area," said John J. Agoglia, president of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners. "He's misinformed and unrealistic."
LAX is where the airlines and the cargo companies want to be, and its growth will continue anyway--without better facilities and improved access roads--unless the expansion plan is approved, Agoglia said.
Yet even some who strongly disagree with Gordon find something to admire in his methods.
In putting together LAX expansion opponents and people who want the jobs expected to come with greater airport business near their own communities, Gordon has created "a coalition of NIMBYs [not in my backyard] and wannabes," said UC San Diego political science professor Steven P. Erie.
An expert on the state's infrastructure, Erie supports the proposed LAX expansion but says civic leaders throughout Southern California must develop a much broader approach to meet air commerce needs in the near future.