The weakest piece on the chessboard, arguably, is also the one with the grandest title: king. Change "king" to "mayor" and you've got the quandary of Los Angeles' political chess match, the one the city keeps playing against itself.
Only six days remain for the two candidates to spend their millions and expend their vituperation, all to land a job that sounds far more powerful than it is.
After all, for the first half a century in American L.A., the most important and best-paid city official was the zanjero, the man in charge of the water system. Fifty years ago, the title "mayor" went to the fellow who was allowed to seek the voters' approval only after a downtown businessmen's cabal anointed him as its designated front man. The mayor has emerged as an independent force only as big business, in the incarnation of Fortune 500 companies, has departed the city limits.
Through all the string-pulling, the job has grown and shrunk like Alice down the Wonderland rabbit hole. Voters said "eat me," and the 1903 charter made the mayor into an uber-alcalde in charge of boards, commissions and departments. Ten years later, the city said "drink me," and the job shriveled to a two-year turn. Weaker, stronger, weaker, stronger -- we struggled to keep the job description between two not very desirable extremes: an efficient tyrant and power in so many hands it guaranteed Boy Scout-honest government and civic paralysis.
A few months before Sam Yorty died, I visited him in his Studio City home, the one with a view of the valley that had made him mayor three times. "Any man who reads beyond the second paragraph of the Los Angeles City Charter," he told me, "would be out of his mind to run for mayor." (He ran four times.)
Our last candidates standing, Jim Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, are campaigning on how each would exercise less-than-omnipotent authority. Unlike New York's mayor, L.A.'s has no say-so over a public health system. Unlike Boston's mayor, L.A.'s has no say-so over public schools.
Hahn has recently been bombarding us with initiatives that are as ambitious as they are implausible: a plan whereby a city that can't adequately fund its Cultural Affairs Department would hand out as much as $625,000 to each production company that stays in L.A. to film; a citywide injunction prohibiting gangs to congregate, which he evidently did not check out with either the city's top lawyer or its top cop; a proposal to allow the mayor to appoint at least three Los Angeles Unified school board members; and, in the prop wash of the King/Drew Medical Center scandals, the appointment of a city chief medical officer who would report to him -- even though King/Drew is not inside city limits.
I know what you're thinking, because I was thinking it too: Why give a mayor more power when he hasn't done everything he could with the power he already has?
Some shortcomings are about tangibles -- where are the thousand cops he promised? What's up with the flubbed paperwork that kept L.A. out of the running for the state's stem cell research gold mine? And some are about intangibles -- the bully pulpit that Hahn so dislikes occupying.
Still, we should power up the mayor's job for one very good reason: We incessantly gripe about the caliber of the politicians we're forced to choose among. Adding more muscle to the mayor's job description could attract better candidates. (I think the best we could have done this year was a face-off between the two former Sacramento roommates, Bob Hertzberg and Villaraigosa. I fantasized about the debates: "You always left the toilet seat up." "So what, we're both guys." "It shows your cavalier attitude toward women...." Just in time for May sweeps: "Desperate Housemates." )
If I were king -- a real king, not a chess king -- I could go for the notion of handing the mayor of the nation's second-biggest city the power to run it. Militating against this is the fact that the zero-sum nature of politics would require wresting authority away from the 88 other cities in the county, and from county government itself. As if.
And the fact that the city has no geographic coherence. Its footprint looks like a big lopsided brain sitting atop a spindly brainstem and spine that tethers the central city to the harbor at the bottom. Try selling a political vision to people who don't know what city they live in or who's in charge of it.
But a girl can dream, can't she? There is one idea that might work: Bring political parties back into city elections. Parties reach beyond ludicrously drawn boundaries, commanding money, attention, power.
Not just the red and blue and Green parties either. L.A. could field candidates from, say, Secessionists (motto: Separate or Bust), the Dog-and-Cat Party and even a Let's Party Party.
I like it. It might work -- or it might just scare us into making more of what we've already got.
Patt Morrison's e-mail address is email@example.com.