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A Match Not Made for New L.A.

March 04, 2001|D. J. Waldie | D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

LAKEWOOD — In notoriously uncentered Los Angeles, the April 10 primary will confront voters with an almost insurmountable challenge. The problem isn't mainly political, although choosing the right leaders from among the nearly 80 candidates for 17 city and school district offices is hard enough. Rather, it is choosing the right metaphors to find meaning in this election.

It would be satisfying to the working poor and not-quite-middle-class millions of the city if the election were about finding leaders to match their longings. But it is more likely, in a race notable, so far, for its blandness, that termed-out politicians seeking remaining open seats is all the meaning the city is going to get.

Los Angeles needs more. The city is poised uncomfortably between contradictory images of itself: a place exceptional for the unaccountability of its leadership and the Los Angeles the voters intended by approving a new city charter in 1998. The politics of the newly chartered city, if only in outline now, will be as different from the liberal coalition Tom Bradley led in 1973 as his Los Angeles was different from Sam Yorty's conservative city dominated by corporate CEOs in 1961 or the corrupt and segregationist city that Mayor Frank Shaw fronted before his recall in 1938. Even Mayor Richard Riordan's recent example of leadership through political hardball and the persuasion of billionaire friends isn't much of a model, judging by his modest influence over the selection of his successor.

Experienced--that is, term-limited--politicians say experience counts. But in this case, not as much as they or voters might hope. From their resumes, it is hard for an outsider to see how the candidates for the city's top offices can imaginatively project themselves into L.A.'s new political community, a place not fully realized but where they, presumably, intend to lead the city's residents. L.A.'s new leaders will have to master an unfamiliar city charter and endure the further winnowing effects of term limits. They will have to accommodate the last erasure of the city's old industrial economy (along with the example of its business leadership) and overcome the indifference of the city's new-media economy (and most of its leaders). They will have to confront the disenfranchisement that motivates breakaway movements, school-district deconstruction and L.A.'s pervasive identity politics.

From the deplorable sequence of Mayors George Cryer, John Clinton Porter and Shaw in the 1920s and '30s, through the consummate municipal technicians Fletcher Bowron and Norris Poul- son in the '40s and '50s, to feisty Yorty, shrewd and silent Bradley and arm-twisting Riordan--L.A. mayors were more often led than leader in a political system that dispersed authority as much as it sprawled neighborhoods. The old city charter, heavily influenced by the Progressive Era notion that civic life ought to be run like a benevolent corporation, gave Los Angeles a figurehead mayor, a City Council with blurred legislative and executive powers, an unruly thicket of independent "boards of commissioners" and a permanent corps of department heads. They were intended to be the system's dispassionate managers, safely beyond even L.A.'s neutered politics.

One of the greater ironies of this unworkable system, which valued expertise over leadership, is that it has recently worked so well. It is the city's Department of Water and Power and its professional management--having inherited another Progressive Era notion: municipal ownership of utilities--that are keeping the lights on in L.A. during California's cold, dark winter of energy scarcity.

The DWP's success in making the old L.A. work is the wrong lesson in leadership, however, if this spring's candidates are willing to learn. The new charter under which the winners will govern is unlike anything this city has ever seen. It ends the independence of city department heads, costs the City Council its managerial role and fundamentally changes the politics of land use in Los Angeles. It is supposed to take the city's formerly scattered lines of political influence and concentrate them upward to the mayor's office, at the top of the newly refurbished City Hall, and outward to seven area planning commissions and more than 100 advisory neighborhood councils. It seeks a hard-to-imagine equilibrium between greater authority in the mayor's office and greater power in neighborhoods to cure voters' confusion about who's in charge and their itch for secession. In combination with term limits, the new charter means wholesale change in the city's political apparatus and new faces in nearly every municipal office by 2003.

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