Mayoring On Into the Boredom Zone

Phillip E. Present is a professor of political science at Cal State Northridge.

The last two mayors of Los Angeles have shown a similar pattern of behavior in at least one respect: They became bored with the office and sought other outlets for their interests and ambitions.

One consequence of this lack of interest was an increasing inattentiveness to the day-to-day routine of managing the city's business. In both administration, this eventually led to mismanagement, lapses in executive judgment, unethical practices or possibly worse.

Sam Yorty was mayor for three terms (1961-1973), and during that time his main focus shifted from city garbage collection to being an outspoken supporter of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. His frequent travels, often taken officially to benefit the city, gave him a background and platform from which he could make foreign-policy statements. He used this policy focus in his campaigns for the U.S. Senate. All of these trips and activities drew Yorty away from the more mundane management functions of the city.

Tom Bradley has been mayor since 1973, having been reelected to his fifth term earlier this year. Unlike his predecessor, Bradley served two full terms before running for higher office. He ran for governor in 1982, losing narrowly, and in 1986, losing decisively. In between those elections, he told the voters of Los Angeles in 1985 how much he enjoyed being mayor and that he deserved to be returned to office for a fourth term. He did not rule out another gubernatorial campaign in 1986, and neither did he like to be reminded that he had campaigned against Yorty in 1969 by saying that no one should be elected mayor for more than two terms.

Being mayor of Los Angeles can be challenging, rewarding, frustrating and boring--all in the same day as well as over any given period. Governing this city requires the visionary "grand-design" dimension of management and the willingness to handle the mundane, tedious, low-visibility-yet-essential administrative duties if the vision is to have any hope of being implemented. Indifference to the nuts and bolts of day-to-day city management can eventually create problems that will swamp the best-intentioned of mayors.

The history of the last two mayors is that after about eight years on the job, Yorty and Bradley really wanted to do something else. In Bradley's case, if the office of mayor could not be a springboard to the governorship, at least it provided a comfortable and secure cushion from which to engage in personally rewarding activities, some of which might have been in conflict with the city's business.

How can the public tell which politicians are beginning to get restless, bored or tired in their job? The same way we can tell about co-workers. They begin to look for other interests or challenges not necessarily associated with their primary responsibilities, and they look for other jobs.

Unfortunately, elected officials often face more difficulties in resolving job satisfaction than workers in the private sector. There are simply fewer opportunities to move up in elected jobs. After all, there is only one chief executive officer of the United States and only 50 state CEOs, and if one considers the U.S. Senate a step up, there are only two openings per state.

If none of the above afford upward mobility for big-city mayors, the public should not be surprised if long-term incumbents find time to become "consultants" to businesses or to take trips to foreign cities. Any number of such opportunities will be available, and soon they will seem a natural extension or part of it.

If the voters would recognize these as signs of boredom, then the electorate might question more seriously the wisdom of routinely returning to office third- and fourth-term incumbents. Maybe there is a law of politically diminishing returns: After eight and certainly after 12 years in the same office, the politician becomes much less responsive and accountable to the constituency. The office needs to be re-energized by a new occupant.

A more drastic way to solve incumbency boredom would be to place legal limits on terms of office. The proposed California constitutional initiative limiting terms for state offices would not affect city elections. However, many of the same arguments supporting that proposition could be made for a similar one at the local level.

The paradox of imposing legal limits on the time that an incumbent can remain in office is that it will make the political process more accessible and competitive.

Whatever the method used to make longtime incumbents more responsible and accountable to their constituencies, the public must first recognize and understand the negative consequences of methodically reelecting politicians who no longer have much or any interest in tackling all the demands and facets of their job. Without this awareness, the public will not get the kinds of politicians it deserves.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°