Let Me Tell You a Story About A Little Town Called Los Angeles…*

Harold Meyerson’s Los Angeles magazine column is not on its website yet, so you’ll just have to believe me that it’s pathetic.   Called “Topsy Turvy,” it is the kickoff to a series of features under the umbrella “The Power Issue.”  I’d call Meyerson’s piece propaganda — and Meyerson more pamphleteer than journalist — except I think he believes every word of it himself.  

In the spirit of Christmas I suppose, the story Meyerson wants to tell is like the Gospel verses that purport to show the birth of Christ and his divinity were foreshadowed by the Old Testament prophets.  In Meyerson’s cathechism, the whole history of Los Angeles has been leading up to this magical moment — the ascension of Antonio Villaraigosa as mayor.  The story’s John the Baptist is the late Miguel Contreras, the man who had the vision of a “labor-Latino-liberal alliance,” and then brought it into the world — dressed I suppose in swaddling clothes.

Do I dispute the fact that Latinos, labor and liberals today dominate City Hall?  Of course not.  But how new is it?  Not very.  The trend lines bringing each of these factions into power weren’t the vision of anyone in particular, and they were clearly visible long before Contreras became head of the LA County Labor Federation in 1996.  And for all the benefits empowerment accrues to these groups, it has not shown itself to be a coalition that’s strong enough to overcome Los Angeles’ profound problems.

Meyerson has to tweak history to make it fit his mythology.  His tale includes, but minimizes and misinterprets the 20-year mayoralty of Tom Bradley, attributing his rise solely to a coalition of Jews, African-Americans and liberals.  As I understand the history, those factions got Bradley into a runoff in 1969, where he was defeated by a racist reactionary assault by incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty.  It took additional help from labor and some of the business community to get Bradley elected in 1973. 

Labor played an enormous role throughout Bradley’s reign — as strong or stronger than it does today.  Bradley’s mightiest achievement, the rebuilding of downtown, came about because of labor leaders like Bill Robertson and Jim Wood, who saw the potential for thousands of good jobs in the construction of office towers and, later, the Metro Rail.

In comparison with Los Angeles’ reputation before World War II as an anti-labor city, Meyerson makes it seem like a phenomenon of the Villaraigosa era that unions play a dominant role in choosing who sits on “more than half the seats” on the City Council.  In fact, that level of influence took hold in the 1970s.  Bill Robertson was about as big a power broker as this city has seen in the past 50 years.  The carpenters, machinists, transportation workers and several others were serious power players that at least half the council and all other elected officials had to take seriously.  The players today are different and the agendas are different, but the labor movement’s decisive strength goes back decades.

It goes almost without saying that liberals have dominated Los Angeles politics at least since Bradley’s emergence in the late 60s — back when liberals didn’t hide their philosophy behind anodyne words like “progressive,” back when liberals were much more left-wing than today’s breed.  Three of the four mayors who have served since 1973 were liberal Democrats, and the fourth, Republican Richard Riordan, was only electable in 1993 because Los Angeles was in both a deep recession and a social malaise in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. 

Riordan, however, was the embodiment of the RINO, the Republican In Name Only — a liberal in GOP drag, who only adopts a handful of conservative ideas to maintain his party identity.  A former Bradley appointee himself, Riordan’s staff was populated by Democrats. In fact Riordan and Villaraigosa had the same chief of staff.  Riordan posed no threat to the liberal achievements of Bradley’s era.  His conservatism on law enforcement and the economy mirrored the shift in many liberals’ thinking on those subjects at the time of his election.

True, Riordan took on the unions sometimes — but so did Bradley, and so has Villaraigosa.  If you want to see a mayor who was truly obedient to labor, the only example in my lifetime was Villaraigosa’s predecessor, Jim Hahn, whose defeat was celebrated by Meyerson.

Latinos are also not new to political power in Los Angeles.  Meyerson neglects a significant success of the Latino-labor coalition:  The uphill fight to elect Edward Roybal to the City Council in 1949, a seat he held until 1962.  True, after Roybal left City Hall, Latinos couldn’t win another seat on the council until Richard Alatorre in 1985, but that was more due to the devious political genius of a Spanish-speaking Irishman, Art Snyder, whose pork-barrel politics kept him popular in East LA for two decades.  But Latinos were a part of Bradley’s grand coalition. Throughout his tenure, Bradley never had more than two deputy mayors at a time.  One of the two was always a Latino.  

What really boosted Latino political fortunes in LA was the U.S. Justice Department. In the early 90s, the department sued to force the city to redraw its council district boundaries to maximize the potential for Latinos to win two more seats, for a total of three.  There are still three Latino council members today.  There probably should be four, but for the consensus desire to avoid conflict between the fast-growing Latino population and the shrinking black population.  The 2010 census will likely cost one African-American seat, and perhaps bring about two more Latino seats.  But this is demographic destiny combined with federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act — not anyone’s grand strategy. 

In Meyerson’s mythology, Los Angeles was dominated by business leaders for most of its history until very recently.  In fact, at least since I was old enough to vote, business has had to form or join coalitions in order to have much political influence at all.   Even developers have to adopt the protective coloration of others’ agendas to win votes for their projects.  During Bradley’s era, business joined with labor and with the African-American and Latino communities on pro-growth policies that eventually led to a backlash among affluent suburbanites pining for preservation of Brady Bunch-style neighborhoods.  The homeowner groups — who Meyerson pretty much ignores in his fable — continue to exert strong influence on councilmembers representing parts of the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.

Meyerson is correct in observing that, beginning in the 1980s, “slowly but inexorably, all of the city’s signature big businesses–its banks, oil companies, aerospace conglomerates and department stores…were sold to or enveloped by new owners who moved their headquarters out of town.”  But why did things move in that direction — out of town?  Why weren’t LA-based corporations strong enough to be the nucleus of many corporate mergers?  

That saga is where the real story is, but it’s not one Meyerson wants to tell.  The fact is, Los Angeles has an extremely hostile business climate.  It’s heavily regulated, it’s expensive, and its public services are in tatters.  The young, eager and talented coming out of the nation’s colleges don’t think of LA as a cool place to start their careers.  Married employees with kids don’t want to deal with the bad schools, the traffic or the smog. Los Angeles is also afflicted with California’s poor business climate — a double whammy. 

I was just talking to someone in Phoenix today — the growth there is phenomenal.  Las Vegas, Reno, Portland, and other cities from Boise to Dallas are growing at LA’s expense, because they offer business lower costs, lower taxes, better services and a better lifestyle for the workforce.  Businesses want to ship their good through LAX and the Ports of LA and Long Beach.  They want to sell to the region’s huge population.  But they don’t want to have their headquarters here, and they want as little of their operations here as they can get away with. It’s just too costly and too much of a hassle.

Much of the blame for LA’s anti-business image, and California’s, falls at the feet of the portion of organized labor representing public employees.  To whatever extent labor’s political clout grew in the 90s and 00s, it was due to public sector workers taking over the labor movement.  The labor leaders in Bradley’s time, like Bill Robertson, were pro-business, because business meant jobs.  The labor leaders of the Contreras era are pro-high taxes, because high taxes pay for public sector jobs and perks.

Far from being the fulfillment of an historic evolution, the current political dynamic is in fact quite volatile and unsustainable.  Eventually, high taxes depress business activity so much that raising them brings in little additional funds.  Public services suffer as more and more of the public revenues go toward salaries and extremely generous pensions — and eventually, even the most liberal voters who give government the most benefit of the doubt will notice that despite massive resources going into the government, services aren’t improving.  Those who can afford to leave, leave.  Those who can’t leave are also those who don’t have much to give the taxman — or who can hire accountants to keep the taxman at bay. 

If there is any manifest destiny in Villaraigosa’s emergence, I think it comes from qualities unique to the man himself — his energy and enthusiasm, his charisma.  He obviously makes some people feel hopeful about Los Angeles.  He also has a great network; and better relationships with the state government, the governor and the legislature, than Bradley, Riordan or Hahn had.  That helps.

But the diminishing presence of business in Los Angeles is not a good sign, and it is not good news for liberals, labor leaders or Latinos.  In the first half of the 20th century, as Meyerson points out, business had too much power, and they abused that power to suppress organized labor and minorities.  After Bradley was elected, there was a balancing of influence between business and labor, leading to a period of growth from which all communities and factions saw benefit through working together.  The equilibrium was lost in the early 1990s, and since then, Los Angeles has been in decline.  Meyerson’s pseudo-socialist ideology blinds him to the fact that his beloved labor-liberal-Latino coalition is primarily in charge of handing out ever-smaller pieces of a shrinking pie.  It’s not clear if they know how to grow it. It’s not clear whether anyone does.

*Edited 12/2/06

2 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You a Story About A Little Town Called Los Angeles…*

  1. This was a joy to read particularly since I had the opportunity to read Myerson’s article two days ago. I knew Myerson was giving the macro view, but in doing so he ignored the facts to suit his theory.

    You commentary makes a lot more sense and is more in line with my recollection of things. Thanks.

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