September 22, 2019

‘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.