LESSONS FROM THE LATEST L.A. ELECTIONS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The mayoral primary election is over, and after all the mud and mendacity, it may be useful to think about what we have learned from the experience. The most striking observation is that at least in this giant metropolis, the people seem to be figuring out that the political system is seriously bent, even if it isn't completely broken.
They communicated this by their less-than-enthusiastic vote for the incumbent, who barely managed to finish second. This was just good enough to secure a place in the runoff.
Equally to the point, they communicated the message by staying away from the polls.
Together, the mayoral candidates spent $10,401,571 in order to entice 376,649 people to cast a vote for one or the other of the five major or seven minor candidates. (All figures are taken from city Ethics Commission and City Clerk data collected at the end of regular counting on election day. Some absentee ballots remained to be counted.)
In round numbers, that comes to ten million dollars spent for less than half a million voters. Using a little more precision, it comes to a total of $27.62 spent for every vote cast.
Of course different candidates did better or worse than the average, but the sheer magnitude of the numbers is awe inspiring. First place finisher Antonio Villaraigosa spent twenty dollars per vote he received. Second place finisher Hahn spent thirty-nine dollars, and third place finisher Bob Hertzberg spent thirty dollars for each vote he received.
State Sen. Richard Alarcon has earned himself a place in some record book somewhere. He spent fifty-one dollars for each vote he received.
These numbers reflect the fact that the candidates continued to spend money like it was water while saying less and less, but managed to alienate much of the electorate in the process.
The people of Los Angeles are telling us something. There is a limit to people's patience for content-free speeches and for attack ads . In this period following the truly meaningful presidential election of 2004, the nearly meaningless mayoral games of 2005 failed to inspire people to go out and vote.
Some commentators have judged this low turnout as scandalous. They trot out the old clichés about voter apathy and the danger to democracy, but I see a tiny ray of hope. When five candidates look you in the eye and lie, you have a right to withhold your support.
And lie they did, in all the ways that political candidates lie. One was going to increase the size of the police department by 25% without raising taxes (and without telling us how, either). Several were going to clean up the corrupt system of "pay to play," the campaign contributions racket mediated by the harbor, airport and water commissioners, even as they begged for money from the same interest groups that end up controlling those commission seats. The ten million dollars pretty much says it all.
The incumbent denied that a problem even exists.
The overall impression gained from following this election is that there wasn't much substance and, to make matters even duller, there wasn't even much image. The tv ads served mainly to muddy the waters. We didn't see much in the way of political mailers in this end of town, which left the televised debates as the last best hope for some real dialogue.
As I have described in previous columns, the earlier debates were mostly colossal bores in which the candidates gave rote answers about issues over which they have little control.
This left the final debate of Feb. 28. Once again it was deceptively presented as though there was some legitimate involvement by a widespread network of neighborhood councils. As I have described previously, this is false. The difference this time around was that the television station that sponsored the event was aware of the misleading nature of its statements and knew that others such as American-Reporter were also aware. (The station did not respond to a telephone call made two weeks before the final debate.)
The station continued to mislead the public anyway. Here is how one of the moderators, Laura Diaz, described the sponsorship: "CBS 2 News is producing this debate with the L.A. Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils and Citywatch."
What this meant, in practice, was that a CBS producer met in private with the few self-selected individuals who constitute the organizations that call themselves the Citywide Alliance and Citywatch, and together they chose topics out of a group of submitted questions. They then rewrote at least some of them. As Alliance cofounder Bill Christopher told me, they edited questions "for clarity" and even recruited people to read them on the air.
It's that editing for clarity part that's a little suspicious. What came out in the debate was the most dreary, noncontroversial set of non-questions it is possible to imagine. The producers not only clarified, they sanded, polished, bleached and polymer-coated. There were no rough edges left.
In a debate supposedly focusing on "the future," the first question was - no kidding - about the problem of trash disposal. The second question asked candidates what they would do to provide alternatives to gang participation. There was a question about how to make the Port of Los Angeles more competitive. None of these questions is a bad question per se, but they managed to be phrased so as to be the least combative and to allow for non-answers.
The result was predictable. We got to hear such wonderful phrases from the candidates as "establish an office of education under a deputy mayor," or the deep insight that we should turn problems into opportunities. We heard the word "leadership" and the word "tough." In spite of all that toughness, we also got to hear candidates promise to hire hundreds of additional city employees "without raising taxes."
It was a wonder anybody kept the television set on for the whole show, assuming anyone besides political consultants or political columnists actually did.
There is a serious problem with the format that CBS chose. Candidates were given one minute to answer each question. For some questions, candidates were given only 30 seconds. It is hard to imagine a thoughtful person being able to clear his throat in that amount of time, but it is apparently close to the quantum limit in tv-land.
Candidates facing this format have a problem. Take the one about the port for example. The hot issue in the harbor area isn't making the port more competitive. It's already one of the busiest seaports in the world based on tonnage, container throughput or cargo valuation. The issue for locals is the air pollution created by port activities, which wasn't part of the question.
A candidate who understands anything about the politics of the harbor area knows that he can't just answer the question. He has to slip something in about cleaning up the air or risk losing the harbor area voters. He also has to pretend to answer the question so the rest of the non-harbor audience won't take him for a fool. It presents a quandary for the candidate because the question is so badly framed.
The result was a debate in which candidates rattled off answers seemingly without pause for breath or breadth, reciting their legislative triumphs while deploring their opponent's (Hahn's) support for the sales tax increase or protesting their opponents' (Villaraigosa's and Parks') failure to support the sales tax increase.
There were minor differences of tone and temperament. It was that old line about sound and fury, signifying not all that much. After all, it was five liberal Democrats fighting for 25% of the vote and a place in the runoff election.
One of the things that became apparent in this campaign is that when five Democrats go after each other, it isn't much different than when Republicans and Democrats go after each other. Even the grounds for attack are similar. The challengers pointed out the scandals in the Hahn administration. Hahn called Alarcon, Hertzberg and Villaraigosa "Sacramento politicians."
One thing became apparent in the debates. Hahn is least appealing when he tries to go low. He just doesn't have it when it comes to delivering that slightly sad but deeply meaningful tone of voice that accomplished mud slingers have down. As he tries mightily to deliver the epithet "politician," he just sounds like the class nerd. If you want to misuse the media to your own advantage, you have to have the tools, and Hahn lacks this particular vocal talent.
We are left with a few observations. The idealistic fantasy of seeing the issues debated intelligently seems to be just that - a fantasy. Candidates barely have time to make all the necessary gestures to all their interest groups in the allotted time. Just out of curiosity, I replayed the tape of the debate and found that candidates were interrupted by the moderators (for speaking too long) about half the time.
Questions that ought to be asked are left unspoken. For example, I would have asked the candidates to make a public commitment to appointing commissioners based on competence and integrity. It is, after all, the crux of the Hahn administration scandals. In fact, I did submit this question to the Alliance but it was not selected. Instead we had the insipid question about making the port efficient.
Television as a medium for political education is clearly flawed. It did not serve the public well during this election campaign. The problem is that there aren't effective alternatives under the current system.
The ray of hope is that voters may be learning to see through the manipulation by the political consultants and advertisers. Certainly, the huge amount of money spent on this election was entirely ineffective in getting people out to vote. There was some indication that money wasn't everything. In particular, Antonio Villaraigosa spent considerably less than Jim Hahn but finished well ahead.
The runoff election is in May. For the political media follower, these will be interesting times.