Sure, the name's familiar, even if you can't spell it or pronounce it. Zev Yaroslavsky's been a big presence in this town since he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1975, and then to the county Board of Supervisors in 1994. Before then, in his impetuous, impassioned youth, he and some fellow activists came alongside a Soviet ship in L.A. harbor, jammed a toilet plunger against it to steady their boat and hurriedly spray painted "Let Jews Go" on the hull. He reads history and politics for pleasure. Mitch Miller inspired him to play the oboe. His predecessor on the board, Ed Edelman, played the cello, and did so once at the Hollywood Bowl. Yaroslavsky would prefer to take a Bowl bow narrating "Lincoln Portrait" by Aaron Copland. He ran uncontested in the primary in June, so he'll be a supe until he's termed out in 2014. The question is, is this his swan song to politics or the overture to a long-speculated run for mayor of Los Angeles?
After three decades in politics here, people still have trouble with your last name. Chick Hearn once called you "Zevalosky'' at a Lakers rally.
Zev is a Hebrew name that means "wolf." I'm named after my grandfather, whose name in Yiddish was Velvel, and Velvel is a diminutive for wolf. My first campaign for office was ninth-grade Boys League vice president. My slogan was "Vote for the guy with the shortest first name and the longest last name." I won in a landslide.
The county has budget problems but not as dire as those of the city of Los Angeles; why is that?
We've lived within our means. We worked with our unions to meet their needs and asked them to work on our needs, so they're getting paid the same as they were getting paid two years ago. In good years we've socked away money so in the lean years we could navigate a recession. In 1995, the first year I was here, when the county almost went bankrupt, we received a call from our creditors in Switzerland. They grilled us like a prosecutor: What are you doing about employee salaries? What are you doing about employee benefits? What's your reserve? Up until then the county had been spending about a billion dollars a year more than it was taking in, but [this conversation] convinced [the supervisors] that we never wanted to be in this position again. It was humiliating, but it was also scary because we realized they're going through our books, and they were nervous enough to call us to account. It's a good thing they did. L.A. County government is in as good a financial condition as any major urban county in the state, but I don't know for how much longer.
What's government going to look like in 10 or 15 years?
It's going to have to be a lot more innovative, more entrepreneurial than it is currently. We're going to have to partner with nonprofits. We do that already with health clinics; they do it less expensively than we do, and they do it better; they're less bureaucratic. I think we're going to do more of that, probably at all levels, not just human services.
So have you changed your philosophy of governance?
I don't know how much of it is a change. We can either go broke doing it the way we were doing it, or we can find a better way of fulfilling our mission, which at the end of the day is about the most marginal among us, the most needy, the sickest, the most unfortunate.
Richard Nixon wrote about six crises; what crises top your list?
I think homelessness is a major human services crisis and a major moral crisis. [The county's] Project 50 has been a successful attempt to create a template for the toughest cases. I think we're on the right track. We need to accelerate it. It's not cheap, it's not easy, but we can do it.
My daughter called me one night. She'd taken a walk in Berkeley and saw a homeless person on the curb. She sat and talked to him. She said: "Dad, while we were there, hundreds of people walked by and not one person made eye contact." That was a description of me. I get off the Hollywood Freeway and this [homeless] man [is] there; I would not make eye contact with him. When you make eye contact, you can't ignore them. If you don't, you can drive right by. That's a metaphor for how our society addresses [the] homeless in general. And once you make eye contact, you can't turn away.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, the political analyst, said the supervisors are the most powerful, least known public officials in the nation. Should you all have higher profiles?
I don't think we get the attention city [officials] get because newspapers tend to write for the readership, and we don't deal with a lot of middle-class issues. Most of [the board's] work involves services for people on the margins, as opposed to cities, which deal with tree trimming and street paving and that sort of thing.