What's the matter with L.A.'s 15th Council District?

The community of Watts, still struggling more than a half-century after the notorious riots of 1965, needs a Los Angeles City Council representative who will focus on its particular needs. So does Harbor Gateway, the long-neglected shoestring strip of land that doesn’t actually touch the harbor; and Harbor City, which is neither a city nor on the harbor, yet is also neither integrally South L.A. nor truly South Bay; and Wilmington, which really is on the harbor but for too long has been denied its fair share of the wealth that flows through it from the Port of L.A. to the rest of the nation.

Each of those communities needs a council member who will promote its particular interests. But they will never get one — not as long as the city herds all of those areas into a single, mammoth City Council district. That’s the unfortunate consequence of having only 15 council seats for the entire sprawling city of Los Angeles. For more than 100 years, the representative of those neighborhoods has been elected chiefly by the people of the once-separate city of San Pedro, which sets an agenda that revolves around the port, the benefits it brings and the problems it causes.

Those geographical and political facts of life form the essential challenge of the 15th Council District, in which incumbent Joe Buscaino (of San Pedro) is charged with serving those other communities while knowing he will be either reelected or tossed out by the voters in his hometown.

Other structural frustrations shape the job as well. Incumbents who learn the ropes hold all the cards at reelection time. They have such fundraising clout that the highest caliber would-be challengers seldom bother to run until the seat becomes vacant. That situation leaves some voters with uninspiring council representatives who are challenged only by under-qualified and inexperienced people who are even less likely to perform well.

This is very nearly the landscape of the March 7 election, in which Buscaino is being challenged by political newcomers Caney Arnold, a former Defense Department employee, and Noel Gould, a music industry executive.

Buscaino’s performance has been adequate — no more and no less. He presides over important projects, such as the makeovers of Jordan Downs and the Port of Los Angeles and the reinvention of the old Ports o’ Call in San Pedro. He focuses on the everyday concerns of Angelenos: potholes, broken sidewalks, untrimmed trees. He is learning what it takes to get his district’s fair share from City Hall. He has brought some needed attention to Watts and Wilmington, and not merely his hometown of San Pedro.

He is vulnerable chiefly because of a housing project known as Sea Breeze in Harbor Gateway. Buscaino collected at least $94,700 in campaign money from donors who Times reporters found to be directly or indirectly linked to Samuel Leung, the project’s developer. Some of the named donors said they knew nothing of the contributions. Despite neighborhood opposition, Buscaino supported a zoning change to accommodate the project — and in so doing became Exhibit A in the case against City Hall’s inept (and perhaps corrupt) land use and development process.

Meanwhile, there is a crying need for new housing in Harbor Gateway and elsewhere around the city, and like it or not (and we don’t like it), the only way to get it built without a citywide land-use and planning overhaul is to do hyper-local changes to the city’s pathetically outdated zoning map. It is entirely plausible that Buscaino is a supporter of building badly needed housing and a mere nincompoop when it comes to scrutinizing his campaign donors. In any event, Buscaino is disappointing yet still the best choice among the three candidates.

In Arnold and Gould, Buscaino faces two people — savvy, successful in their careers, involved in their neighborhoods — who are a cut above the usual challenger. That alone doesn’t qualify them for a seat on the council, however. Arnold says he wants to help build a grassroots movement in the Bernie Sanders mold, and there’s nothing wrong with that — but it doesn’t help voters understand how he would serve them better in City Hall. Gould describes himself as a tough deal-maker who could get better outcomes for the district, but like Arnold, he lacks the record of public problem-solving that Buscaino had when he first ran six years ago.

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