This week, Los Angeles reelected a mayor in a race so unheralded that, on voting day, it failed to make the front of The Los Angeles Times. (Turn to page A3, goo-goo geeks.) So somehow the city has wound up again with Antonio Villaraigosa, a handsome fellow who keeps asking city residents to “dream with me,” perhaps out of worry that they might awaken. Well, no danger of that just yet: Turnout barely reached 15 percent.
Nevertheless, some Angelenos did notice the occasion, and some were even riled up about it. On the night before the election, about 250 malcontents, along with most of the lesser-known candidates on the ballot, showed up for an event put on by local radio station KABC. The setting was a shabby ballroom at a Four Points Sheraton near LAX, where radio host Doug McIntyre, seated on a stage in front a movie screen showing black-and-white clips of rampaging peasants, presided over KABC’s “Pitch Fork & Torches” rally. Dressed in overalls for the occasion, McIntyre tried to remind voters that, indeed, there might be something to care about in the upcoming election. “If Los Angeles fails, America fails,” he shouted. “And if America fails, the world fails.”
Despite such stakes, few of the candidates who showed up at the event seemed especially likely to inspire city residents to overthrow the established order, let alone rescue the world. There was Phil Jennerjahn, a first-time candidate endorsed by the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, who may well be the most likable of all the candidates. He exhibits a level of candor completely unsuited to politics. I asked him why, for instance, he had written up a voter guide on his website that didn’t just endorse him, but also two other mayoral candidates, Walter Moore and David Hernandez. “I wanted to be fair,” he explained. “I wasn’t going to come out and say ‘I’m the best, I’m the only choice.’ Because that’s not true.”
Also in attendance was candidate Craig X Rubin, a self-described Messianic Jewish pastor whose chief aim (in life and in politics) is to legalize marijuana use. Rubin already got the ball rolling on this in 2006, when he and his wife launched a medical marijuana club. This proved to be a headache with law enforcement, however, and in 2007 Rubin was sentenced to over four years prison. He remains out on appeal.
David Saltsburg, known to everyone as “Zuma Dogg,” made an appearance as well. Since being barred from street vending at Venice Beach in 2006, Zuma Dogg, who lives in a van, has steadily shown up to City Council meetings to perform songs, dances, and raps protesting city policy. In the process, he has become an unlikely expert in the minutiae of city politics. When questioned about solutions, however, Zuma Dogg has relied mainly on appeals to the teachings of management guru W. Edwards Deming. In a recent debate, Zuma Dogg, during a customary paean to Deming, noticed fellow candidates Walter Moore and Craig X Rubin whispering to each other and looking amused. The next day Zuma Dogg telephoned Rubin to register displeasure. “He threatened to kill me and said if I showed up at the debate I’d be dead,” Rubin told me. The police took Zuma Dogg in for questioning, and local blogs and papers carried news of the incident. “I went through the process,” Zuma Dogg later told a local website. “I was evaluated by the threat management psychiatric squad, and I was driven back to my car and told, ‘Zuma Dogg, don’t let this stop you.’” Zuma Dogg didn’t let it stop him.
The most plausible antidote to public indifference may have been lawyer Walter Moore, who managed to secure 26 percent of the vote on Tuesday, an impressive feat considering that his campaign war chest amounted to only $208,000, about a fourteenth of the $2.9 million amassed by Villaraigosa. Moore, who was running for a second time, gained attention last year for promoting a law that would grant the Los Angeles Police Department greater leeway to crack down on gang members who are in the country illegally. This, along with general disappointment with Villaraigosa, increased support for Moore. Still, he seemed to have a bit of a tone problem. One of his campaign spots consisted of little more than a demonstration of how many Spanish-language radio stations there are in Los Angeles. Moore’s website complained that Los Angeles was “turning into a Third World dump.” And, on a personal level, Moore simply seems to turn people off.
Still, all of the also-rans that evening shared a well-founded complaint: Why should Angelenos accept decline and mediocrity for their city? In the first couple of postwar decades, Los Angeles was known for good governance, decent schools, low crime, and efficient services. Today, few of those blessings remain. Antonio Villaraigosa has been ambitious in rhetoric but modest in achievements. A pledge to plant a million trees remains about 800,000 trees short. A bid to take over the schools failed. Traffic remains dreadful. A fling with a newswoman from Telemundo was received poorly, except by the newswoman from Telemundo. The main achievement of the current mayoralty has been a reduction in crime, but this is thanks mainly to Police Chief Bill Bratton, who was appointed by Villaraigosa’s predecessor. And when Angelenos voted in 2006 to increase their trash fees in order to fund the hiring of 1,000 more much-needed cops, the money somehow didn’t reach its target. By 2008, only 366 police had been added to the force, a bait-and-switch that infuriated those who happened to read about it.
Civic involvement isn’t always necessary or desirable, of course, particularly if a city is doing well. But when a city is in decline, disengagement is more frustrating. Searching for an explanation for the famous apathy of Angelenos toward local government, I contacted two longtime observers of the city. Michael Higby, who runs a popular local website called Mayor Sam’s Sister City, cited layout and shifting demographics. “Compared to a lot of other cities, LA really is more transient,” Higby suggested. “It’s not a traditional city, and it hasn’t lent itself to people fostering some sort of basic level of civic pride. It might only exist artificially around a few sports teams.” Ron Kaye, former editor of The Los Angeles Daily News, pointed to a long history of public noninvolvement and deference to the authorities. “Power in Los Angeles has always been held very narrowly,” Kaye said. “Mostly, people have never paid much attention. Life is too good, the sun is too sweet.” Kaye is optimistic, though, that engagement is on the rise, particularly with the recent defeat of a ballot proposition (Measure B) that had seemed likely to pass. But people have been optimistic in the past, too.
On Election Day, I voted in the afternoon at the “Grand Ballroom” in Temple Beth Am, around the corner from my place. The room was large and empty, and as I signed in to vote, I heard one of the ladies at the registration table tell her colleague, "If it keeps up like this, maybe we'll break 100.” That, she told me, would be a record. I don’t know if they ended up breaking it or not, but I do know that a few hours later Villaraigosa won a second term. It was a beautiful day outside, cars seemed to move along nicely, and I could've sworn I spotted Manny Ramirez at the corner of Olympic and Holt.
T. A. Frank is an editor at the Washington Monthly and an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation.
By T.A. Frank