A voter’s eye view of the Los Angeles election

This year, for the first time, the nonpartisan Pat Brown Institute at CSU Los Angeles went into the polling field.  As poll director, I wanted our poll to illuminate broader trends in the local electorate, and to conduct it we retained Susan Pinkus, who for many years ran the Los Angeles Times’ polls. Under Pinkus’ direction, calls were made to 1,705 adults between April 29 and May 7; of those, 904 were registered voters and 674 were determined to be likely voters.

We released our poll results in two stages, on May 10 and May 13.  The first revealed that the mayor’s race between Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti has become a dead heat, with Greuel ahead by one point among likely voters but within the margin of error of 4 points. (A second poll by Survey USA for KABC TV showed an actual tie.) Perhaps the tight race will generate the kind of excitement that has been missing in the campaign thus far.  Our second set of results showed Dennis Zine and Mike Feuer hold clear leads for controller and city attorney, respectively.

In this, as in so many elections, we have focused so much on the candidates that we may have forgotten that elections are really about the voters — how various groups’ representation has changed over time and what they want to happen in their city.  

Of the likely voters in the PBI poll, 42 percent were white, 12 percent were African American, 29 percent were Latino, and nine percent were Asian American. Consider that when Richard Riordan defeated Mike Woo in 1993, whites cast 72 percent of all votes, and Latinos cast only eight percent.  Riordan’s election was the last time that a Republican had a real chance for the city’s top job, when Republican voters cast more than 30 percent of the votes.  In the PBI sample, only 13 percent of likely voters identified as Republican.  This is a Democratic town, with 56 percent of the likely voters calling themselves Democrats.  (An estimated 6 percent of the city, and a larger share of its voters, are Jewish, who are disproportionately Democratic, but their numbers were too small in the PBI poll for analysis.)

We often hear negative things about the city and about the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).  We should also wonder how people feel in their own neighborhoods, because that’s their day-to-day experience.  Only 40 percent of voters polled like the direction of the city, and 22 percent approve of the LAUSD, but within this sprawling metropolis, residents are more pleased with their own neighborhoods and even their local schools, than with the “city” and the “school district.”  Voters said their own local schools are in good shape (37 percent favorable), just as they thought their neighborhoods are doing well (52 percent. This has probably been true in the past, but we have tended not to ask.

As Latinos’ numbers and influence continue to rise, they are feeling optimistic.  Nearly half (44 percent) think the city is going in the right direction, compared to only 29 percent of African-Americans, who have seen their hard-earned political gains jeopardized by a declining population share.  Latinos think that Antonio Villaraigosa has done a good job as mayor, giving him a 62 percent approval rating, compared to his overall 50 percent approval.  Latinos were much more likely to give the beleaguered LAUSD positive ratings than either whites or African-Americans.  Latinos favor giving the city’s mayor greater authority over the school district to a significantly greater degree than either whites or African-Americans.

  As a group on their way up, Latinos can see a better future in front of them, and their attitudes toward public institutions are starting to reflect that optimism.

Latinos prefer Eric Garcetti over Wendy Greuel (48-36 percent), Dennis Zine over Ron Galperin for controller (29-18 percent), and Mike Feuer over Carmen Trutanich for city attorney (31-23 percent). 

Whites are not as optimistic as Latinos about the direction of the city, but among all groups, whites are the most satisfied with how things are going in their neighborhoods (65 percent, compared to 31 percent for African-Americans and 42 percent for Latinos).  White voters support Greuel (53-42 percent), Zine (30-21 percent), and Feuer (39-23 percent).   African-Americans, whose numbers in the sample are too low for full analysis, favor Greuel by a 2-1 margin, and also Zine and Trutanich. 

The sleeper for Greuel is a growing gender gap, with women supporting her by 13 points and men backing Garcetti by the same margin.  A surge of women voters or a high black turnout might ensure victory for Greuel, just as a mobilization of Latino voters, who tend to be late deciders, would do it for Garcetti.

Among registered voters (numbering 904 in the PBI sample), crime, the city budget, and education emerged as what people worry about most.  Voters also expressed concern about traffic, the economy, streets, and jobs — essentially the bread-and-butter issues of everyday life in a big city. 

Yet not all groups have the same concerns.  Whites were more likely to list traffic than either African-Americans or Latinos, who were worried more about crime than whites.  And whites and African-Americans were more concerned than Latinos about the city budget.

What guidance does this poll hold for the next mayor? 

With all the talk about pensions and other budget issues at city hall, the next mayor will have to spend much time and political capital on quality-of-life issues that will require hard choices among budget priorities. 

The mayor can build on voter optimism about neighborhoods and local schools while trying to build confidence in the city government and in the school district.  Voters will want to see results in their daily lives, not just glossy programs that are advertised to have no costs or side-effects, only benefits.

Both candidates have been working hard to convince the electorate that no hard choices will have to be made, that it’s possible to have a fully staffed police force, nice parks, easy-to-navigate streets and lots of new jobs.  Naturally, this is not going to be true starting July 1, when the mayor takes office.  To govern is to choose.

With two Democrats in the runoff, the voters will not be able to give an ideological direction to the new mayor.  The voters will really be selecting the better leader, the person most likely to negotiate and bargain on the city’s behalf, to make the right choices among competing priorities.

Voters won’t tell the mayor whether more money should go to parks or to keep the police force at 10,000 officers, whether to support a jobs-producing development or stop it in order to reduce traffic congestion.  Nor will voters tell the mayor how to deal with the powerful forces that dominate city hall.  They may be ambivalent about giving the mayor greater authority over the school district, but they certainly will expect schools to improve under the next mayor. 

Once elected, the new mayor will hopefully trust the voters enough to make plain that choices must be made, that there is no free lunch when it comes to municipal services, that talking alone won’t make a powerful and effective mayor, and to engage the public in the process of setting priorities.  Our poll does not say whether voters will welcome that honesty.  But what our poll does show is that the voters will look to their own neighborhoods and their own local schools to see if what the mayor is doing works for them.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs and Director of the PBI Poll at California State University, Los Angeles.  Full reports on the PBI Poll on the Los Angeles City Elections can be found at www.patbrowninstitute.org


‘Little Flower’ Could Help Antonio Bloom

Dear Antonio,

I imagine you are enjoying the hoopla surrounding your election. As the first Latino chief executive in more than 130 years, it may be tempting to bask in the warmth of a great ethnic triumph.

But don’t enjoy it too much. Los Angeles does not need a symbol or an icon; it needs a mayor, one who can be both decisive and effective. We need less rah-rah and more Fiorello La Guardia.

I point to the former mayor of New York, in part, because you have said he is a particular hero of yours. He was also an icon of my own family. After all, he was one person who could unite the politics of my grandmother, a socialist, with those of my grandfather, a Republican businessman.

You should be able to relate to La Guardia, who also came from groups — he was part Italian, part Jewish — previously underrepresented in New York’s long Irish-dominated political system. He was not a tall man, hence his nickname “The Little Flower,” but to be fair to you, he was not quite as handsome as you.

La Guardia made people forget their ethnic and political divisions, because he approached his job not as an ideologue, but as someone who wanted to get something done. La Guardia was seen by some as an old-fashioned Teddy Roosevelt progressive, by others as a left-leaning New Dealer and even as a closet socialist — but first and foremost he was a builder.

“There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets” was one of his favorite truisms.

Politics to La Guardia was basically a means to help people, and turn the city he loved into the most efficient, most livable and humane giant metropolis in the world. To him, that meant not scoring political points but building parks, freeways, air terminals, housing and port facilities. After serving as mayor from 1933 to 1945, he left New York, without question, the greatest, richest, most important city on the face of the planet.

The key lesson is how he achieved these things. For one thing, he had no patience for those forces who stood in the way of progress.

He hated and defeated the inefficient old Tammany Hall system, which extracted bribes and kickbacks in exchange for contracts. The machine La Guardia faced and defeated makes the petty shenanigans alleged to have occurred under Jim Hahn seem like a church bingo game.

In New York under La Guardia, Harper’s Magazine reported in 1936, “good government is measured by getting a good deal for the money.” The city was well-managed, and civil servants were expected to be exactly that — people who served the public.

La Guardia expanded the bureaucracy in New York, but also drove it in a relentless and driving way. He “set standards” for city employees, notes Fred Siegel, professor of urban history at Cooper Union, and would tolerate only the fullest effort. Time-servers, incompetents and sycophants — standard issue in many city bureaucracies — had a rough time under The Little Flower. Some of them called him Mussolini, but in New York, the trains really did run on time.

Herein may lie your biggest challenge. Most people agree with you that government needs to do important things that will mean jobs and better lives for all Angelenos. But as Siegel points out, today’s civil servants and their unions have achieved such power in many big cities, Los Angeles included, that they have become the de facto government.

Your opportunity then lies in finding a way to reinvigorate the city government — particularly after the torpor of the Hahn years — so that it might achieve things people in this city really need. The biggest problem may lie not in your opponents, but your closest friends, the public employee unions and the left.

Your old friends on the left and among union activists will be pressuring you to be the herald of a new “progressive” era. Get on the talk shows, lambaste the Bush administration, take stands on every issue from gay marriage to Iraq.

At City Hall, they will push you to adopt the kind of symbolic legislation — extensive living-wage legislation, inclusionary zoning, tougher regulations on industrial and other businesses — that will make the Westside leftists feel good, but could also accelerate the flight of jobs, particularly blue-collar ones, out of town. Many of your friends, particularly in the teachers union, will plead with you to block any really significant change in the schools that imposes standards on students or teachers.

Then there is the siren song of Chicanismo, something you have moved decisively away from. There will be those who may urge you to be a pinup poster for Latino power — suited for the Democratic Party’s purposes. This will alienate many of the other L.A. ethnicities, like Jews, Asians and African Americans, who showed they are not afraid of a Latino mayor, but may not be as enthusiastic about having someone running City Hall who thinks of being Latino as his primary vocation.

Particularly important will be to reach out to Los Angeles’ increasingly disengaged white middle class, particularly in the Valley. It may have been great to see high turnouts on the Eastside, but you need to worry about the near record low turnouts in places like the West Valley. You will need these people to stay in Los Angeles, consider sending their kids to public schools and keeping their businesses here.

Fortunately, there are some examples to emulate. Maybe you should chat with former mayors like San Antonio’s Henry Cisneros and Denver’s Frederico Pe?a, who became Latino power brokers well before you. Today, both are widely remembered in their home towns not as “Latino” mayors, but as effective ones who helped turn their cities into progressive, successful and economically healthy communities.

But finally, perhaps the greatest inspiration can be found in the example of The Little Flower, who combined compassion with competence and charisma with common sense. If eight years from now, they call you the La Guardia of Los Angeles, all of us will be very sorry to see you go.

Best wishes,

Joel Kotkin is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of “The City: A Global History” to be published by next month by Modern Library.

Diversity of Dizzying Dimensions

When voters cast their ballots for mayor in next week’s primary, they may be electing to that office the first Jew, the first Latino or the first woman.

There are 15 candidates on the April 10 ballot, but only six are considered serious contenders. In a reflection of Los Angeles’ diversity, two — Wachs and businessman Steve Soboroff — are Jews; former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra are Latinos; and two — City Attorney James Hahn and state Comptroller Kathleen Connell — are Anglos.

With no candidate expected to get a majority in the crowded primary, the two top vote-getters probably will compete in a June 5 runoff.

All are veteran politicians except for Soboroff, who has never run for public office and is trying to use that to his advantage. "A Problem Solver, Not a Politician" is the phrase used on his bumper stickers, campaign literature and TV commercials.

At 52, Soboroff has made a great deal of money as a commercial developer of shopping centers, malls and retail chain stores. His wealth reputedly stands at $10 million, though he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview that the figure is lower.

Soboroff has committed $687,000 out of his own pocket to his campaign, supplementing $2.9 million in outside contributions.

He will need all that and more, mainly for television commercials, by primary day. If he makes the June 5 runoff, he will have to spend at least another $3 million, according to political analysts.

Not to worry, though. "I’ll spend whatever it takes to become mayor," Soboroff says.

So far, there have been some 40 debates among the six candidates. The debates largely have been devoted to issues rather than personal attacks, except for some bitter exchanges between Soboroff and Wachs, whose mutual dislike is palpable.

The front-runner at this stage is Hahn, with Villaraigosa closing in fast, followed by Soboroff. As the only Republican in the race, Soboroff is counting on the support of white voters, especially among conservative middle-class residents of the populous San Fernando Valley.

There are no assurances that he will attract the most Jewish voters. A vast majority are Democrats, and although the mayoral race is supposedly nonpartisan, they may vote for a more liberal contender.

On the other hand, Jews who prefer to vote for one of their own probably will back Wachs, who is a veteran of 30 years of city politics and enjoys a considerably higher profile in the Jewish community than does Soboroff.

Wachs, who is among the more conservative of the candidates, had been expected to be one of the strongest entrants but in fact is far back in the field, according to polls.

No one is billing the contest for runner-up — and a spot in the runoff — as a Latino-Jewish confrontation, but the possibility of such a face-off points to the emerging political realities of America’s second-largest metropolis.

A generation ago, Jews played a substantial role in Los Angeles politics as financial backers and campaign strategists, but they shunned the limelight, and few ran for elected office.

The situation has changed drastically: Jewish politicians today are omnipresent in Los Angeles and in California as a whole.

The area of Sherman Oaks is illustrative. Close to the boundary between the Los Angeles Basin and the San Fernando Valley, Sherman Oaks is part of the Los Angeles municipality and has a strong, but not predominant, Jewish presence.

Counting from lowest to highest office, a Sherman Oaks resident could have a Jewish city councilman, county supervisor, state assemblyman, U.S. congressman and two U.S. senators.

The Jewish political domination is not as pronounced in other districts of the city. Relative to their proportion of the population, however, Jews are vastly over-represented in Angeleno politics, particularly given the demographic changes of the last decade.

Latinos, primarily of Mexican descent, have become the single-largest ethnic group in Los Angeles, making up 42.5 percent of the city’s almost 3.9 million inhabitants. Jews, whose numbers are stable, represent about 10 percent.

African Americans make up close to 11 percent but are about to be overtaken by Asian Americans, according to just-released figures from the 2000 census.

Jews still lead all other groups in voter participation and financial donations, but Latinos, until now relatively dormant on the political scene, are beginning to flex their muscle.

The current mayoral election, especially a potential Soboroff-Villaraigosa contest, is an omen of things to come as a new generation of Los Angeles-born Latinos demands its share of the political pie.

So far, the political competition between Jews and Latinos has been muted and nonconfrontational, and leaders in both communities are working to keep it that way. One sign is the increasing number of programs Jewish organizations direct toward Latinos, hoping to create bonds similar to those that linked Jews and blacks during the civil rights struggle.

Villaraigosa is a prime example of the upcoming generation of Latino leadership. A young and very personable politician, he grew up in the then-heavily Jewish area of Boyle Heights. He likes to say he was a potential delinquent and rarely fails to credit his Jewish high school teacher for turning him around.

Villaraigosa enjoys considerable support in the Jewish community. Two of the wealthiest and most influential Jews in Los Angeles — developer Eli Broad and television mogul Haim Saban — are among his prominent backers.