Lorenzo Marquez, left, talks with Van Nuys neighbors Don and Prudy Schultz… (Steve Lopez / Los Angeles…)
Don and Prudy Schultz set out walking from their Van Nuys home at 9 a.m. Tuesday, on their way to cast votes they hope will bring changes they've been waiting on for years.
"I think this is the most dysfunctional city I've known in my adult life," said Don, who ran a real estate appraisal business with Prudy until their retirement 13 years ago.
Over the years, the couple said, whether the issue was regulating noise from the Van Nuys Airport, fixing streets and sidewalks, or attacking the prostitution trade that sometimes spills off Sepulveda Boulevard and practically to their doorstep, they've had to fight to get any attention from elected officials. Don said he used to call the city's 311 complaint line for help, but he gave up on that after being put on hold so many times.
When Don and Prudy got to their polling place Tuesday, a church on Saticoy Street, a poll worker told me only 22 of the 2,000 people registered to vote there had cast ballots. For local elections in Los Angeles, apathy, cynicism and low turnout are legendary.
But the Schultzes always vote, in person, and although they're frustrated, they're not entirely cynical. A Wendy Greuel sign is planted in their front lawn, and Don said the city controller's career path has groomed her for the job of mayor. Besides, said Don, she worked for the last good mayor — Tom Bradley.
"I'd feel very proud to have a female mayor," said Prudy, but she added that she's more interested in results than gender.
The Schultzes are among a handful of voters I've been in contact with since January, when I asked them to keep a close watch on candidates and share their thoughts during the campaign.
No one is turning cartwheels.
Howard Cohen, a North Hills resident, remains the most disappointed member of the group. A currently unemployed public affairs consultant and political analyst, who once ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly, he doesn't see a mayoral candidate who appears equipped or inclined to change the City Hall culture.
"For the better part of two decades," Cohen said, the city has been run by vested interests who throw money into campaigns and then come calling for a return on their investment.
"The most important reason for me to vote was to defeat Measure A…," Cohen said.
Already, developers get tax breaks the city can't afford, he said, and public employee unions get contracts the city can't afford. Now city officials want an extra half-cent sales tax to cover their bad management?
"Look, I'm a liberal," Cohen said, but with no confidence that more money would mean better management. "If I voted for Measure A, who knows if they can get an ambulance out here in time if I have a heart attack?"
Cohen said that, assuming there's a runoff, he'd like to see one honest debate a week on a different issue, with a capable moderator "who can interrupt them and say, 'You say this, but before, you said that.' Can we get away from … talking points and rehearsed lines and have them tell us what they're going to do? What can you assure voters you're going to do to make the city run again?"
Peter Weinberger, a lawyer and Pico-Robertson resident, agrees with Cohen about the City Hall culture. For him, a snapshot of the problem can be found in the way the billboard industry used both access and predictable City Hall bumbling to have its way with the city attorney, City Council and mayor.
Sure, L.A.'s mayor doesn't have the built-in power of those in, say, Chicago or New York. But as Weinberger said, that's no reason we can't have a "big, bold thinker as mayor."
After we talked, he spent a few minutes drafting a list of things the next mayor ought to pledge to do.
Make every kid's walk home from school safe.
Create affordable housing through density bonuses.
Give the unions a budget for wages/pensions and ask them how they want to spend it.
Make the L.A. River a resource for the entire city.
Encourage business to donate big money for parks.
Create flat-rate taxi fare zones around transit hubs to promote easier use of public transportation.
Rethink planning to emphasize pedestrians.
Promote citywide contests (soccer tournaments, poetry contests).
"There are a lot of things a mayor can do," said Weinberger. "You just need to think big [and small] and you have to care about the average citizen."
Two average citizens, Don and Prudy Schultz, walked home Tuesday having done their civic duty. We were approaching their house when Prudy pointed out the cracks and dips in the street, and she said it's been long overdue for repaving.
Near their house, they introduced me to a neighbor, Lorenzo Marquez, a resident of the neighborhood since the 1960s. Mr. Marquez walks with a cane, and he had his eye on the many hazards as he moved. Near his house, the roots of a half-dead tree had lifted the sidewalk. But if I wanted to see real problems, he said, I needed to head over to nearby Valerio Street, and he'd be happy to be my guide.
As we made our way there, Mr. Marquez did not have many kind words for local politicians, some of whom won support with their promises and then disappeared, as he sees it.
He was right about the sidewalk. It looked like a small mountain range, and the neighbors all stood there surveying the damage and wondering whether the election would bring change.