Go ahead, throw away your vote!

You have a week to gear up. Next Monday, March 5, get to bed on time. Get a good night's sleep. Wake up early in the morning, do some jumping jacks, eat a good breakfast, put on comfortable shoes. Then get right to it. Grab your sample ballot, go to the polls and get in line. It's time to change Los Angeles. If you live in one of the city's even-numbered districts, or in district 7, you're electing half the City Council.

Valley voters, in District 2! This is a big day. You'll decide whether to keep Wendy Greuel or instead... OK, wait. Never mind. No one's running against her. You're keeping Wendy Greuel. Go home. Get back in bed.

Ah, but District 4! Hancock Park, Griffith Park, Hollywood, Silver Lake! Get to work. Choose between your incumbent, Tom LaBonge, and, um... Hmm. It says here that no one is running against LaBonge.

District 8? Anybody home? Every single one of you wants Bernard Parks for another four years? District 10? Herb Wesson doesn't even have to print up a new lawn sign? District 12? You're so happy with Greig Smith that you're just letting him be?

This is unheard of. Five members of the Los Angeles City Council get free passes. Why? Is everything so perfect? Or is it just that mounting a challenge is so hopeless?

Term limits are part of the story here. Let's say, for example, that you want to run for the City Council, but the incumbent is running for re-election this year. You can either challenge the incumbent, go to L.A.'s donor class and plead for money—and get turned down, since people with money to spend have already invested in the incumbent and would be foolish to bank on an unknown challenger—or you can bide your time for four years and wait for an open seat.

While you're deciding which way you'd go, know this: Since term limits went into effect here in 1993, every serious candidate in Los Angeles who had a ghost of a chance to get elected waited for the open seat. No one challenged the incumbent—with one exception. Antonio Villaraigosa. But he was a special case. As the charismatic former speaker of the state Assembly, with close ties to L.A.'s labor establishment and a years-long list of contributors, he had the juice to take on Councilman Nick Pacheco. Pacheco wasn't as deft at squeezing money and favors from contributors as some, and his clumsy efforts generated some bad publicity. He was vulnerable. Villaraigosa smelled blood, and he attacked.

Same thing happened two years later. Mayor Jim Hahn was looking weak. Villaraigosa pounced, and now he's mayor.

So sure, an incumbent can be ousted before his time is up. But pretty much only by Antonio Villaraigosa.

Anyone else, forget it. You'll be losing your race, or else waiting until the incumbent is termed out. That made the real term of office not four years, but eight. Last November voters added a third term, so the term of office is now unofficially 12 years.

But it doesn't stop there. Now, even when there is an open seat, an unseen hand in City Hall or Sacramento is often designating the successor. So, for instance, when Martin Ludlow left office in 2005 after serving only half a term (and before pleading guilty to election crimes), a phone call was made, a meeting took place, and Herb Wesson was selected as his replacement. One by one, viable candidates dropped out. They had no choice.

"I know I said I'd support you," the line typically went. "But I got a call, and was told that if I wanted my bill to pass, I'd have to support Herb." The deals were secret, but you could trace them by noting the consolation prizes. Who filed to run, then dropped out to take a job in the mayor's office? Who suddenly and mysteriously won an appointment to a state commission?

The choice of candidates is increasingly made well before election day, by power brokers and political consultants. By the time the choice gets to the voters, there is no choice. The election is over. Voters are superfluous.

There was going to be an open seat this year in the Valley district vacated by Alex Padilla, who was elected to the state Senate. Now that was going to a race. Padilla's aide, Felipe Fuentes, was groomed and ready to roll. Cindy Montanez, an assemblywoman whom Padilla just beat for the Senate, was in for keeps. Then, when voters loosened term limits, ex-councilman Richard Alarcon decided he wanted to leave the Assembly to get his old job back.

Calls were made. Meetings were held. Next thing you know, Montanez and Fuentes dropped out, and you may have noticed that Villaraigosa recently appointed Montanez to the city Planning Commission and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez appointed her to the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. Which carries a salary of $123,987. Meanwhile, Alarcon has been elected, and it's not even voting day yet.

Oh, Monica Rodriguez is still in the race, and she's a good candidate. But those voters who do bother to show up next week have to wonder—why should we vote for a candidate who wasn't even smart enough to take a deal to get out? That's the real genius of the pre-selection system: Putting the few voters who do show up in the position of questioning the candidate who didn't sell out.

Don't forget to vote.

Robert Greene is a member of The Times' editorial board.

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