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A new standard in California politics

Gov. Schwarzenegger and Mayor Villaraigosa are seen as charismatic consensus-builders.

January 24, 2007|Tom Hogen-Esch | TOM HOGEN-ESCH is an assistant professor in the political science department at Cal State Northridge and coauthor of "Local Politics: A Practical Guide to Governing at the Grassroots" with Terry Christensen.

IT IS CLEAR THAT political leadership is creating new political dynamics in Sacramento and Los Angeles. Together, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa may represent what voters see as a model for political leadership in California -- the charismatic consensus-builder whose powers of persuasion enable him to transcend the institutional weakness of office and rise above partisan gridlock.

During the last century, with a few notable exceptions, extraordinary leadership skills were not as necessary in California. Voters expected governors and mayors to be little more than competent managers, whose power could be easily checked by other branches of government as well as by a strong bureaucracy. For a time, the model worked, as the postwar economic boom and the state's ethnic homogeneity transformed politics into a question of how to divvy up a growing economic pie.

However, with the decline of the state's manufacturing sector, the 1980s introduced a new era of economic and ideological division. The 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which placed a 1% cap on property taxes, previewed the state's new politics of scarcity. Moreover, tensions from years of unprecedented immigration have increased demands on the political process even as political leaders commanded fewer resources.

Two decades of partisan gridlock followed, culminating in the 2003 campaign to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Although not fully appreciated at the time, it now appears that voters elected Schwarzenegger to harness his star power to help break the deadlock.

With the notable exception of his disastrous lurch to the right in 2005, Schwarzenegger worked with Democrats to pass on-time budgets and to protect the environment and raise the minimum wage. In November, the governor completed a remarkable political comeback, helping to pass several popular infrastructure bonds. Bipartisanship in Sacramento is now flourishing.

Los Angeles' political history has followed a similar script. In the 1920s, reformers also envisioned executive power hemmed in by a strong City Council and bureaucracy. The formula worked fairly well until emerging class and ethnic fault lines erupted into violence during the 1965 Watts riots. Only the consensus-building skills of Mayor Tom Bradley, who significantly opened city politics to minorities, helped to heal divisions. However, a recession, the 1992 riots and Bradley's retirement ushered in an era of political division.

Although Mayor Richard Riordan deserves credit for charter reform and focusing attention on schools in the 1990s, he preferred to operate behind the scenes and frequently alienated opponents. Riordan's successor, James K. Hahn, though a competent manager, shunned the political limelight. In contrast, Villaraigosa is careful not to antagonize opponents. And on weekends, he can be seen planting trees, hosing sidewalks and feeding the homeless.

What lies ahead for Schwarzenegger and Villaraigosa? Plenty of opportunity for success and failure. In Sacramento, the governor's bipartisan leadership could result in further public investments that may improve quality of life for decades. In Los Angeles, the mayor's leadership on education, transportation and housing could continue to make L.A. a destination for upwardly mobile immigrants as well as help to retain the city's dwindling middle class.

But their strengths could also prove to be their greatest weaknesses.

Schwarzenegger's healthcare plan and proposals for billions in additional infrastructure spending are laudable. But his "borrow and spend" philosophy leaves much of the bill to future generations. Ignoring the state's multi-billion-dollar deficit will surely be considered a major failure of leadership.

Similarly, Villaraigosa's education reform may never even get off the ground if the law allowing his takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District is struck down in the courts. Even charismatic consensus-builders have to know when to pick their battles.

With Schwarzenegger termed out of office in 2010, and his presidential aspirations constitutionally nonexistent, rumors abound that he has set his sights on Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat. But one could also see the Brentwood resident as a future mayor of Los Angeles, preferring the role of chief executive to merely being one of 535 members of Congress. It is widely assumed that Villaraigosa covets the governor's office, making a scenario in which each endorses the other for his current job seem not so far-fetched.

By replacing traditional candidates for governor of California and mayor of Los Angeles with candidates of exceptional charisma, consensus-building, stamina and, perhaps, vision, voters may have significantly raised the bar for future political leadership in the state.

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