THE MAYORAL CIRCU.S. PARADE COMES TO TOWN
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The slogan for this year's mayoral primary election might as well be "What elephant - What bedroom?" Actually, it's more like a small herd. The candidates are pretending there are no such pachyderms and the press are seemingly oblivious to the backlot odor.
First, a short follow-up to my recent comments about the televised debates being sponsored by the so-called Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils. Neighborhood councils are official parts of the city's government, but they are not hosting mayoral candidate debates.
The small group of people who control the private "Alliance" organization are inviting only the five best-funded Democrats to debates, and the debates are being misleadingly presented as sponsored by neighborhood councils. The city's media have, for the most part, taken no notice of this, the exception being the laobserved.com web site. Republican Walter Moore has not been able to fight his way into the debates either by argument or by litigation.
The first of the two debates has now been held. It happened on Monday, Feb. 7, in the CBS studios on Beverly Blvd., a studio lot that now serves two local outlets, KCAL Ch. 9 and KCBS Ch. 2. The audience first had to brave a gauntlet of security screens, starting with an ID check at the parking lot and followed by a metal-detector screening. Those foolish enough to set off the alarm were "wanded." It's amazing what we have come to put up with as a people since 2001.
Then came the real ordeal, a "warmup act" that made clear what this event really was - an assembly by and for Democrats, and Democrats with attitude at that.
People who have been in the audience for a tv game show or late night comedy show are familiar with the concept of the warm-up. Someone will come out and explain to the audience to clap enthusiastically when the "applause" sign flashes and to participate loudly when the show starts.
Well, this warm-up was of a different order. A young woman who seemed to be a stand-up comedy wannabe came out complaining about Bush getting reelected. Then she made fun of the people who voted for him. She got a little titter of sympathy when she said that she couldn't even get out of bed the morning after the November election. Nobody seemed to remember that the audience was supposedly composed of people representative of the whole city, not just Democrats, or that the mayoral election is supposed to be nonpartisan.
Well, one did. A man in the back row stood up and shouted, "You lost! Get over it!" This only made the comedic performance more irritating. The irate heckler finally left, yelling, "I'm out of here." Several people stood in the back and quietly objected that the performer's comments were inappropriate. The sponsors seemed not to notice.
And then there was the debate, if you want to call it that. Real members of neighborhood councils who had been culled by the sponsors got to ask some pretty good questions. We didn't get much depth of response however, because the television station was only offering 90 minutes, and five candidates trying to beat each others' brains out take up a lot of time puffing out their manly chests.
It was not enough time to allow candidates to explain themselves fully, or to respond to questions by developing logical arguments. It was a format that forces sound-bite answers to serious questions.
But it was the amount of time that commercial television made available. The concept that television is supposed to function in the public interest has been stretched awfully thin these past decades. We have a system which requires winning candidates to raise huge sums of money in order to support commercial television by the purchase of 30 second spots.
Why this need be so is a well-worn question. Unfortunately it is a question that has grown stale through age and frustration. Five candidates and two announcers appeared on camera and not one brought it up. Several candidates struggled with a question about the "clean money" concept, a system of public funding that has been adopted by Arizona. In this kind of format, you don't hear much beyond yes or no. It would be a good question to ask in a forum that allowed for more time to answer.
And much as I liked the questions that were asked, it was painfully obvious that questions that are politically taboo within the Democratic Party milieu were not going to be allowed.
So we were off to another television performance in which the question of population growth would not be brought up. That's the biggest elephant in the southern California bedroom because it involves immigration, and immigration involves ethnicity. Nobody in this candidate group has been willing to say anything about it.
And on another critical question, nobody pointed out the obvious - that the city is facing another budget crisis which renders all promises of new spending fanciful. The whole evening was lacking in this most serious bit of reality. Members of the audience understood it. The lady sitting in front of me leaned back and said, "He can't do that" when one candidate promised some little plum.
Hahn's ethics problem is a pretty good-sized Dumbo in the sleeping quarters. The other candidates attacked him vigorously, but Hahn let it all slide off. His position is, in essence, that nobody in his administration has been indicted, but that the PR firm Fleishman-Hillard that provided him so much publicity at the taxpayers' expense is the one to blame. A recent indictment of a Fleishman-Hillard officer should have had him hiding in shame, but Hahn's position is that he was out of the loop. Sure he was.
Of course the tv announcers who were in charge didn't do the follow-up that would have driven the point home. It would have required connecting the dots, but these dots are so luminous, they practically glow in the dark.
It became clear that softball was the game.
The sponsors had even gone so far as to give each audience member a handout explaining the ground rules. Just to give you an idea, let me quote one paragraph out of that instruction sheet:
The producers do not wish to subject any candidate to embarrassment, to ambush, or to a demand for any information that any reasonable voter would not ordinarily expect of a candidate seeking election as Mayor of the City of Los Angeles in 2005.
I'm not sure what they could mean by this. Asking a candidate about his previously secret morals arrest might be considered to be an ambush, but asking probing questions about material that is public fact should be the norm. And if embarrassment is the proper response to being exposed as illogical or dishonest, so be it.
Antonio Villaraigosa should have been embarrassed by the fact that he promised his district he would not run for mayor this year, but there he was up on stage running for mayor this year. Hahn should be embarrassed to answer questions about the way his appointee Troy Edwards used the harbor and the airport departments for campaign contributions. If embarrassing questions didn't get asked, I count that as a failure, not a success.
Nobody bothered to ask Bernard Parks about the Rampart Division scandal that occurred while he was a high ranking LAPD officer. Parks prattled on and on about integrity and never got called on his own record.
On to Bob Hertzberg. He is probably the most interesting challenger at the moment because he is the one candidate with a million dollars in his account who is also trying to move towards the center instead of the left. He has just received the endorsement of former mayor (and Republican) Richard Riordan.
In a city of almost 4 million residents served by barely 9000 police officers, the goal of increasing the size of the police department has been a mayoral obsession for at least a dozen years. Richard Riordan failed. Hahn has failed. Hertzberg now says he can succeed in increasing the force by almost 3000 officers and that he will do so without raising taxes.
The argument he makes is interesting, but unfortunately it is more interesting for what he doesn't say than for what he does.
Hertzberg's argument essentially boils down to this: Over the past four years, the city has seen its revenues increase by about $450 million (out of a total budget of about $5 billion), but Hahn has allowed most of this to go to things like salary increases for city employees rather than for hiring more police. Hertzberg says he will dedicate a substantial portion of all new revenue to hiring more police.
It's an intriguing argument because it suggests a frontal attack on city employee raises. It can't be any other way. Either new money goes to new hiring or it goes somewhere else, and city employee raises definitely fall under the category of "somewhere else." Conversely, the more money that goes somewhere else, the fewer new police hires.
Just for fun, let's do the arithmetic. Hertzberg says that he will spend at least 25 percent of all new revenue for hiring more police. If revenues increase by the same $450 million over the next four years, that would mean a little over $100 million for new police. Since it costs about $100,000 a year to put one police officer on the street, Hertzberg's promise pencils in to perhaps 1000 new officers. He promises 3000. To obtain the entire 3000, Hertzberg would have to apply nearly all anticipated increased revenues to the police, with nothing left over for anything else.
He should have been grilled on it, but nobody bothered to ask. The tv announcers appeared oblivious to the question and the other candidates were gunning for Hahn, not Bob.
One core issue was never taken up. Due to the propensity of California voters for passing ballot initiatives, a situation has been created which pits state government against local government and has placed local governments in a financial vise. Perhaps it's too big a subject but it's another reality that was not allowed to intrude.
Finally, a word about the way KCAL and its news announcers covered the event. They sat facing the candidates and a backdrop. On the backdrop were the names of the sponsors which included the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils. For 90 minutes that logo was on camera, broadcast live, and never once did either announcer make clear that the sponsors do not represent the elected neighborhood councils of Los Angeles.
The fact that a major media outlet allowed this error to pass unmentioned is a transgression that must lie somewhere between gross negligence and deliberate distortion.