There are 37 candidates running for 11 offices in the L.A. city election to be held six weeks hence. Among them are big names, like Tom and Nate and Zev, and little names like Lou. I mean Mort.
Tom is the mayor who wants to stay mayor, Nate is a city councilman with dreamy aspirations to replace him, and Zev is a councilman who dropped out of the mayor’s race when he discovered his IQ was too high to qualify but still wants to continue in office.
And then there’s Lou. I mean Mort.
His full name is Mort Diamond and he is a hot dog vendor in the San Fernando Valley, operating from a two-wheeled cart parked at the corner of Sherman Way and Owensmouth Avenue.
Mort is not selling hot dogs at the moment, however. He is running for City Council against incumbent Joy Picus, who deals with political adversaries in the Valley the way coyotes deal with cats in the Santa Monica Mountains.
I mean that metaphorically, of course, since no one is likely to devour Mort Diamond, a scrappy, down-home guy who became politicized during a fight with the county over rules governing hot dog vendors. I’m not sure how that translated into a desire to run for city office, but it did.
Mort is a person of modest intellectual means, more a spokesman for those who repair air conditioners than those who study theoretical physics. But there is a compelling veracity to him that attracts people who, like me, continue the Diogenic quest for an honest man. Why else would I go to a Canoga Park pizza parlor on a Wednesday night? Why else would I go to a pizza parlor at all?
“It’s good to see you again, Lou,” I said when we settled into a corner of Mike’s Pizza, where a fund-raiser for his candidacy was being held. “Mort,” he said, “my name is Mort.” “Oh, sure, Mort. It’s still good to see you.”
I have always called him Lou and I don’t know why. Sometimes he corrects me and sometimes he doesn’t, having learned from past experience that ultimately I will get it right. I suspect his name doesn’t stick because I see him not as one man but as Everyman, the quintessential representation of those frustrated by a society out of control.
I see Mort as a guy selling hot dogs from a cart and Lou as everyone selling hot dogs from a cart while under attack by gang members, tax collectors, drug dealers and sexual revisionists.
Though emotionally incapable of actually eating pizza, I have followed Mort’s fund-raisers from pizza parlor to pizza parlor during the past few months and talked politics with him over a red liquid described by the proprietor as wine.
“The candidates are all puppets,” Mort was saying the other night, referring to the five others running for City Council in the 3rd District. “If they talk like puppets and look like puppets, they’re puppets. No, wait, how does that go?”
He turned to his political consultant, Joe Boyle, who said, “If they’ve got strings like puppets and they look like puppets and get funds like puppets. . . . No, let’s see, if they talk like puppets. . . .”
“Never mind,” I said. “I get the idea.”
I do not mean by levity to imply that Mort’s campaign is not serious. He has raised about $4,000 and figured that night to raise $500 more from the 50 supporters who paid $10 each to attend. This compares poorly with the $300,000 Picus manages to collect for a campaign, but nickels and dimes do not add up as quickly as big checks from land developers.
As a further indication of his resolution, Lou (I mean Mort), a one-time jolly fat person, has lost 100 pounds for the fight to become a member of the City Council. He has also lost some of his joie de vivre, due not so much to the slimming-down process as to lessons learned in acrimonious debate and in doors slammed in his face.
“I have learned it is not all sweetness and good will out there,” he said at the pizza feed, looking more tense than I had seen him. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you this is a nonpartisan race.”
He has also learned, I fear, the art of political evasiveness that transforms the simple declarative sentence into one ringing with obscurities. Where once Mort was able to stand up and say he would do the best he could, he now says, “I will not lock out opportunities to modify resulting legislation in light of future experience.”
I am hoping that is simply a phase he is going through and that ultimately he will return to the role of a hot dog vendor who is madder than hell and not going to take it anymore.
You’re learning politics, Lou, but I hope you’re not over-learning. (I mean Mort.)