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Iraqi Group Gets a Taste of Local Politics

August 06, 2004|Jessica Garrison and Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writers

Barred as a security threat from City Hall in Memphis, Tenn., then robbed while strolling that city's streets, a delegation of Iraqi civic leaders ventured Thursday into Santa Monica -- and emerged unscathed by its brush with that city's distinctive local politics.

The rough reception in Memphis set a slightly nervous tone for the visit here. Indeed, the group had been joined by the head of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Visitors, Charles Moore, to help smooth the way.

At first Thursday, the group's luck still seemed wobbly. As members of the delegation made their way down the hallway toward Santa Monica's City Council Chambers, a scruffy looking man lurched into their path and asked, "Are you the jury?"

One member of their group said they were not.

Once they were inside, however, things got back on track. Councilman Michael Feinstein, who along with his colleagues passed a resolution against the war in Iraq 18 months ago, greeted them with roses for the women and city pins for the men.

"When I heard what happened in Memphis, I thought this experience with a local government should start on the right foot," he said.

Then, officials from what is sometimes known as "the People's Republic of Santa Monica" launched into a discussion of how their government conducted its business and ran its elections.

A woman wearing a head scarf raised her hand: How, she wondered, can you manage to involve all the diversity of religion and race?

"We still have the concern that not all minorities are going to be represented," added another woman a few minutes later. She said she was a Christian from a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Baghdad.

Both Feinstein and Assistant City Manager Gordon Anderson were full of answers.

"The process isn't perfect," said Anderson, who is black. He noted that there was a time in U.S. history when neither women nor blacks could vote.

"It gets better," he said. "Hopefully, you won't be discouraged your first time out."

Feinstein added that "every issue on a municipal level is not a religious or cultural issue" and listed a few: "clean streets, more parks."

The woman in the veil nodded. "That's why we need a civil society," she said.

The Iraqi delegation -- which includes mayors, state officials and community officials who represent Christians, Muslim Arabs and Kurds -- is visiting Washington, D.C.; Memphis; Los Angeles; and Chicago to learn about Americans and study how municipal governments here represent diverse racial and religious groups.

They are part of the State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings up to 5,000 foreign civic leaders to the U.S. each year.

Past alumni include Tony Blair, now the prime minister of Britain, along with 40 other current heads of state or government.

It is safe to say that the visitors quickly grasped that Santa Monica was no Baghdad. Whereas members of the visiting delegation asked that their names not be used and declined to speak with reporters, Feinstein became well known to his constituents in Santa Monica for his habit of speeding around town on in-line skates and for his vigorous exhortations on behalf of the Green Party.

True to form Thursday, he urged the visiting Iraqis not to emulate the United States' two-party model for electing national leaders.

"Follow the European model," he said.

Then he launched into an explanation of how California's initiative, referendum and recall processes work. As the translators rushed to keep up, Feinstein explained that the system had both negative and positive aspects.

"It's an extra voice for the people," he said. "But it also allows people with a lot of money to buy signatures and spend it on campaigns to pass or beat laws."

At that, the State Department's Moore felt compelled to interject.

"Could you clarify for our guests that we don't actually buy votes," he said.

Feinstein gladly did, and promised he would share more of his political views later. After the hourlong meeting, the Iraqis were off to their next engagement: a tour of Green Party headquarters with Feinstein.

They went away clutching their flowers and beaming. Santa Monica officials pronounced themselves honored.

"Realizing where they've come from and what they'll be going back to, it just really got to me," said Judy Rambeau, the assistant to the city manager who choked up as she was greeting the group. "It was really a thrill, to be able to talk about democracy."

Feinstein was similarly enthusiastic.

"In some ways, people in municipal government everywhere have the same kind of concerns about wanting to be responsive and wanting to make sure they hear from everybody," he said. "The difference is they are doing it for the first time in the middle of a far less stable domestic situation than we operate in here."

Over the next few days, the group plans to visit an Orange County mosque and meet with Los Angeles officials to learn about neighborhood councils.

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