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A Liberal Push in L.A. City Hall

New Councilmen Villaraigosa and Ludlow offer hope to progressives.

June 22, 2003|Jan Breidenbach, Kelly Candaele And Peter Dreier | Jan Breidenbach is the executive director of the Southern California Assn. for Nonprofit Housing. Kelly Candaele is a trustee of the Los Angeles Community College District. Peter Dreier is a professor of politics at Occidental College and author of the forthcoming "The Next LA: The Struggle for a Livable City."

With the election of Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow to the Los Angeles City Council, progressivism has reached critical mass in city government. On July 1, the two newcomers will join ideological and political allies Eric Garcetti and Ed Reyes in bringing a broad social vision of equity and justice to such city problems as housing, jobs, transportation and public safety. Although these four liberals do not constitute a majority of the 15-member council, they may be able to shape and implement a progressive agenda for the city as a whole.

At the core of a progressive municipal agenda is the belief that private gain must be balanced with the public good. Policymaking's aim is both to stimulate economic growth and promote social justice. No municipal leadership can ignore basic "civic housekeeping" tasks -- potholes, garbage, playground and park maintenance and so on -- in the individual districts. But local government can and should be more than that.

There are limits, of course, to what one city, on its own, can achieve. Huge budget deficits in Washington and Sacramento mean that the city can't count on outside financial help. However, liberal leaders should look beyond the immediate crisis to the time when the economy recovers and develop policies to ensure that future prosperity will be more widely shared.

Influential liberals have sat on the City Council in recent years. Jackie Goldberg, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Mike Feuer are three examples. Yet, during their service, aside from the living-wage law, progressivism as a formative influence in citywide policy was an aberration. Is there any strong reason to believe that the current crop will be more successful in pushing a citywide agenda?

One key advantage enjoyed by L.A. liberals today is that the city's broader social-justice movements have grown in numbers and political sophistication. The labor movement, especially, with hundreds of thousands of members, has emerged as the most powerful political force in the city. It is translating its electoral clout into public policy. Mayor James K. Hahn's recent appointments of labor leaders to the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Airport Commission assure that the voices of ordinary workers will be heard.

Villaraigosa and Ludlow both worked in the labor movement. Reyes and Garcetti have strong environmentalist credentials. All four have numerous ties to housing, civil-rights and faith-based organizations and activists. What's more, the city's elected leaders are more open to liberal ideas than in the past.

Business support for a progressive agenda may sound counterintuitive, but it is possible for the private sector to do well while doing good. Ordinances and regulations designed to increase social equity can include investment incentives, such as zoning waivers that make it easier to build. Additionally, paying workers livable wages, investing in affordable housing and improving transportation create demand in the local economy and help reduce business inefficiencies. Los Angeles is fortunate to have some business leaders who understand these connections and support socially inclusive economic growth.

Among the key imperatives of a progressive agenda:

* Link commercial development to community benefits. One of the biggest problems facing Los Angeles is the widening gap between the very rich and everyone else. The proliferation of low-wage jobs, many of them subsidized with public funds, feeds the decline of the city's middle class. To counter this trend, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the driving force behind the living wage law, has proposed that a "community impact report" -- along the lines of an environmental report -- be undertaken to assess how each planned commercial development would affect housing prices, job location, transportation and public safety. Public hearings and specific proposals would ensure that neighborhood residents, unions and other affected groups have a voice in the development process. The council would then be better able to set minimum standards for jobs, wages and community benefits.

* Ensure that all residents eligible for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit receive it. In 1997, the most recent year for which data are available, L.A. working families with incomes under $35,000 earned more that $509 million in these tax refunds, but at least one-fifth of the eligible families don't apply for the credit. If the city, along with the United Way and other philanthropies, helped employers, unions, churches and community groups reach out to these workers and encourage them to apply, up to $100 million in spending could be added to the city's economy.

* Enact the "big box" ordinance. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has proposed the a that would prevent Wal-Mart-type stores from blighting neighborhoods by paying substandard wages and offering workers few health benefits.

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