Memo to Next Mayor: We’re All in This Together

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February 7, 2013 in Politics & Government

(Editor’s Note: Today we continue our series of posts from invited writers who offer thoughts on what the coming four years hold for Los Angeles and its next mayor. These opinions do not reflect the views of Frying Pan News or the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.)

Before Antonio Villaraigosa won his first term as mayor, he came over to my house to film a commercial. This took place by the merest chance. My neighbor across the street is a union organizer, a fellow progressive and a respected figure in local Democratic circles — he might have had something to do with Villaraigosa’s sudden appearance in our neighborhood. A whole bunch of staffers fanned out up and down our street that morning, knocking on every door to ascertain where they might mingle with hoi polloi and gather up a few sound bites.

I already had Villaraigosa signs on the lawn, so we must have looked like a good prospect. Some of these fresh-faced campaign operatives came over and asked whether we’d be willing to have the candidate and his family come in and chat for a minute. Sure! I said. I’m a supporter.

In he came with a bunch of posse: a neat, small, handsome, distracted man, his astonishingly beautiful wife, a lovely daughter and a number of cameramen, minders, lighting guys. They scarcely fit in the kitchen. We gave them hours-old coffee—I remember being very embarrassed about that—reheated hastily in the microwave. The cameras rolled. What did I want to ask our next mayor? I didn’t hesitate for a moment.

“What will you do to involve ordinary Angelenos in government?”

The answer was, I regret to say, non-awesome in the extreme, and involved some kind of weakly improvised nonsense about Neighborhood Councils. I am in general no fan of Mike Bloomberg and his autocratic ways, but there’s no denying that the New York mayor understands and makes use of the bully pulpit of his own City Hall with a level of skill that no Los Angeles mayor has succeeded in achieving since the days of Tom Bradley. This is partly a matter of star power or personal pizzazz, but there’s an esprit de corps to it as well, the living articulation of that phrase our President is so fond of: “We’re all in this together.” Which is a maudlin and shallow-sounding sentiment, but also incontrovertible.

Our next leader will need to focus and animate his biggest resource—the energy and intelligence of the citizens of Los Angeles—not only to support his or her initiatives, but also in starkly practical terms. Angelenos want to help repair the schools, want to find and develop effective ways to rely less on automobiles, to conserve, to cut down on carbon emissions, to clean and beautify our neighborhoods, to help care better for our poor. Individual citizens who want to help very often can’t easily find an effective way to do so.

The diffuse, disparate, overlapping nature of our city and its institutions ensures that civic focus will likely always be difficult to come by. And it must be far easier for a mayor to govern without a lot of pesky citizens offering their two cents, whether they are camping on your lawn, hounding you on the phone or otherwise interfering with your Machiavellian wheelings and dealings. But if you don’t succeed in roping us all in, Future Mayor, you will be doing a lousy job.

(Maria Bustillos blogs for The Awl and The New Yorker. Her books include Dorkismo and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.)

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