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L.A. City Council a hot destination for former state legislators

Six new L.A. City Council members took office Monday, four of whom served in Sacramento. Skeptics worry that the council is becoming too uniform.

July 04, 2013|By David Zahniser
  • The 14 members of the L.A. City Council and where they served before joining the council. Council District 6 is vacant.
The 14 members of the L.A. City Council and where they served before joining…

The Los Angeles City Council experienced its biggest transformation since 2001 this week, with six new members taking their seats — all but two after serving in the state Legislature.

With seven out of 15 members coming from Sacramento, the hand-over has solidified the council's reputation as a destination for professional politicians. By the end of the month, an eighth former state lawmaker could take office, depending on the outcome of a special election.

The arrival of so many former state lawmakers can be attributed in large part to term limits, said Councilman Paul Koretz, a state assemblyman from 2000 to 2006. Term limits, in place at both the city and state level, were "sold as a way to get citizen politicians" into public office, Koretz said.

"What it's done in reality is almost eliminate them" at City Hall, he added.

Koretz, who won his council seat in 2009, said that when he started following politics in Los Angeles, the great local leaders were John Ferraro, Joel Wachs, Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky. None had held elected office before winning seats on the City Council, he said.

By 2003, term limits had swept out Ruth Galanter, Rudy Svorinich, Mike Hernandez and Hal Bernson, four others who had not served in public office until they joined the council.

These days, council members typically come to the job from one of three places: the Legislature, the Police Department or the staff of another City Council office. Key exceptions are Jose Huizar, who won his seat after serving on the school board, and Tom LaBonge, who came from the Department of Water and Power. But LaBonge had also spent 17 years as a council aide and four in the mayor's office.

Galanter, who served from 1987 to 2003, expressed dismay about the changes, saying the arrival of so many state politicians, combined with the leadership style of Council President Herb Wesson — a former Assembly speaker — is already making council members behave like their counterparts in Sacramento.

Two decades ago, council members weren't shy about disagreeing with one another — and often did so publicly, Galanter said. These days, council members much more frequently fall in line with Wesson, as lawmakers do with the party leadership in Sacramento, she said.

The council "now has the imperial speaker," Galanter said, "and the obedient troops who know about rewards and punishments."

On Tuesday, after winning another two years as council president, Wesson defended the council's string of unanimous votes, saying there's "nothing wrong" with building consensus. He also said he had been wrongly portrayed by critics as a dictator. "I don't tell you how to vote," he told his colleagues. "We build coalitions here."

Wesson has already endorsed former Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, who currently works at the DWP, to fill a vacant seat in a July 23 special election. He argued that the arrivals from the Legislature would bring talent to the lawmaking body. "Sacramento gets a bad rap," he said. "They're honest, hard-working people and very operational."

Yaroslavsky, a county supervisor who served on the council for 19 years, said he fears that as the council takes on a greater number of professional politicians, it loses a diversity of viewpoints. That change, he said, can be traced not just to term limits, but to the huge sums spent by "independent expenditure" campaign groups — labor unions and others that have put $800,000 or more behind their chosen candidates.

Those groups "have made it very daunting and intimidating for community-based candidates to run," he said.

"The pool of potential candidates who are community-based has shrunk. And because the pool has shrunk, the odds of a community-based candidate getting elected has also shrunk," said Yaroslavsky, who was elected to the council in 1975 while running an advocacy group focused on the plight of Soviet Jews.

For veteran politicians, the attraction of a council seat is clear. Council members earn almost $180,000 per year, nearly double the money provided to members of the state Assembly. With roughly a quarter-million people in each district, council members wield enormous power. And, unlike state legislators, they will be eligible for pensions — something wiped out for Sacramento lawmakers in 1990.

The Sacramento arrivals should help the council by bringing experience with the legislative process, said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A. Those who are bothered by the presence of career politicians at City Hall won't be nearly as excited, he said.

"For those who like term limits and don't like their politicians to be around very long, this is probably the worst-case scenario," he said.

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