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Hard Time

City Hall fight club

August 06, 2006|D.J. Waldie | D.J. WALDIE is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles" and "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir."

Pow! whap! thunk! kraaak! Sounds serious, doesn't it?

It sounds fierce, unslick and messy. Eli Broad whacks Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a testy letter trashing the mayor's school reform deal. The mayor disdainfully replies to the fourth-richest

man in Los Angeles with a two-sentence form letter: "Thank you for your letter of June 30, 2006. I look forward to a conversation wherein we can discuss your concerns." THUMP!

The mayor then wallops L.A. Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer for defending the district's academic performance. Romer unleashes the other "N word" (think Nazi) and calls the mayor a propagandist. CRASH! And the mayor comes back with a roundhouse swing about getting rid of Romer, and he rallies with parents he calls "the silent majority" (the N word here is Nixon). THUD!

The board of the influential Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. counterpunches and votes its opposition to legislation embodying a deal with the teachers union that would give the mayor substantial new authority over the school district. CLANG! And the union local's governing body just barely passes a resolution in support of the mayor's shaky deal. CRUNCH! Said one teacher when the booing and catcalls were done: "I'm not going to tell you I trust Antonio Villaraigosa. I'm not going to tell you I'm going to vote for Antonio again. But as far as I can see from this bill, he has been defanged." OUCH!

In other combat news, City Council members Dennis Zine and Bernard Parks dis Police Chief William J. Bratton, who tartly orders them "to mind their own business." So they and other council members angrily demand that the Police Commission investigate Bratton for his "unprofessional" conduct. BANG! Parks also questions the chief's mental health, and, by the way, he hates the color scheme for the new light-rail line down Exposition Boulevard. SLAP!

Something is heating up the political climate of Los Angeles, and you can't blame global warming. An outbreak of official crankiness on so grand a scale has but one diagnosis: This city is finally growing up.

Uncivil politics and a mature civic culture often go hand in hand. In Britain, just as in New York or Chicago or Boston, the seriousness of the invective is one measure of the importance of the issues, a mark of how real the prizes are to be won or lost. When politicians travel within a bodyguard of mirrors, they cheapen their office and diminish the scope of democracy, which requires conflict. Standing for election -- that quadrennial ritual of stylized self-display -- isn't enough. Popular government is suitably rude every day.

This is one reason L.A. government is unpopular, just as it was intended to be. The infantilism of the city's political life in the 20th century was carefully built into a system that valued efficiency and frustrated the normal give-and-take of political life. Local government was domesticated, professional, technically good, distant -- a government of caretakers for a drowsing electorate. Real decisions weren't made at City Hall. They were made at the offices of the Department of Water and Power, at the port, over at the Metropolitan Water District, on the top floor of The Times building or in the meeting rooms of the all-white, all-male and all-Gentile California and Jonathan clubs.

That's far less true now. Term limits relentlessly winnow officeholders, goading them to new intensity if not always to action. City Charter reform erodes old power bases and is assembling new ones in unexpected places. Demographic and economic flux unsettle what remains of business and social elites, their hands unsteady on the levers of power. Empty seats at the bargaining table are taken by new players, some with sharp elbows and memories of being forcibly excluded: unions, ethnic media, a socially active Catholic hierarchy, Valley neighborhoods, immigrants, people of color and advocates of all sorts of agendas.

I've often wondered why L.A., of all cities, should have been racked by some of the nation's worst episodes of urban unrest. Why 1965? Why 1992? Maybe those terrible days were politics by other means, outlets for hard words that were never said or never heard.

Mayor Tom Bradley, patron saint of a 20-year "era of good feelings" in Los Angeles, suffered through brutal, sometimes racist election campaigns with stoic grandeur, but the office he won five times was essentially powerless. The shouting in and around City Hall today is about real power and about who should use it to reshape the structure of the city.

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