With perfect pitch and an awe-inspiring sense of his own authority, Cardinal Roger Mahony flexed his political muscle last week, and the city’s political leadership genuflected in response. Anyone else might have looked audacious, but not the archbishop of the fastest-growing Catholic archdiocese in the nation. Presiding over a news conference at St. Vibiana’s, he declared that he would “absolutely not” build his grand, new $45-million cathedral on the Skid Row site he was standing on, but would stay downtown at a site of his choosing. The mayor and City Council breathed a near-audible sigh of relief. Councilwoman Rita Walters, in whose district St. Vibiana’s is located, gushed about how “pleased and delighted” she was that at least the cardinal was staying downtown.
Mahony’s imperious political style has long been apparent. In 1988, he broke with his own--and his church’s--pro-union stand and imposed a crushing defeat on his cemetery workers and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers when they tried to organize against his wishes. In 1994, he placed himself at the swirling center of the fight over Proposition 187 and spoke out forcefully against a wildly popular measure. At about the same time, he rammed Hope in Youth, an anti-gang program closely tied to himself and the archdiocese, through the City Council and Board of Supervisors, despite the city’s and county’s dire financial straits, and the fact that the county’s Community Youth Gang Services was already in place. He wished it. He got it.
But has the cardinal, in his quest to build his new cathedral, taken one step too many in his use of secular power? If Los Angeles’ history is any guide, he has not. Indeed, he’s not even close.
Mahony is only the latest of a long line of local men of God who have successfully intimidated the city’s Caesars, and bent them to their will. The story of the city’s social and cultural history, beginning in the 1880s on through the 1940s, is, in fact, one of the successful political activism of the city’s crusading Protestant ministers.
In 1902, these ministers were among the key players in the morals/vice wing of the city’s high-minded, good-government Progressive movement, which successfully campaigned to shut down Los Angeles’ quasi-legal, police-protected gambling dives, saloons and houses of prostitution that had flourished since the Gold Rush. They were the new Los Angeles, the migrating sons of the Midwest, come to erase the city’s cattle-town, Wild West image, while their brothers made their fortunes.
Protestant ministers would then lead Los Angeles’ Progressives into a deep involvement in local politics; electing candidates who shared their backgrounds and values and keeping all others out. By 1915, they shared political power with the city’s elite group of downtown businessmen, but, using politics as a weapon, they dominated the city’s culture (excluding Hollywood, where they had influence). Crusading ministers formed groups and organizations like the Sunday-Rest League, the Anti-Racetrack Gambling League and the Anti-Saloon League, all to successfully ensure that the people of Los Angeles would live according to the minsters’ Calvinistic vision of the world.
Fire and brimstone preachers like “Fighting Bob” Shuler became social arbitrators and king-makers ready to bring down the wrath of God, enforced by the Los Angeles Police Department, on anyone they deemed to have stepped on the wrong side of their narrowly drawn cultural lines. And that included the chief of police and mayor.
Throughout the 1920s, Shuler, who had a powerful radio ministry, would gather up his fellow clergymen and their disciples and arrive unannounced at the offices of the chief of police or mayor. There, using his position as president of the Ministerial Union, Shuler would excoriate them, in full view of the press, for their complicity in the organized-vice operations then flourishing. In 1929, Shuler became an ardent and crucial supporter of teetotaling, Bible-quoting Mayor John R. Porter, best remembered for declaring Los Angeles “the last stand of native-born Protestant Americans.”
Shuler, Gustav Briegleb and other ministers set the moral tone and cultural agenda for Los Angeles, and often intimated the then-hapless and corrupt LAPD to do their bidding. Shuler was almost single-handedly responsible for the firing of Chief of Police Louis D. Oaks, whom the reverend spied upon during several of Oaks’ drinking and womanizing escapades, afterward revealing them to the public. Although not directly responsible for the downfall of the corrupt Mayor Frank L. Shaw in the late 1930s, Protestant ministers were in the forefront of the movement that launched the recall effort that threw Shaw out of office and forced Police Chief James Edgar Davis and other high-ranking officers to resign.
Mahony’s Roman Catholic predecessors, particularly Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, could also exercise some political power, but not of the magnitude that Mahony can today. McIntyre, who became California’s first cardinal in 1953, was a red-baiting McCarthyite and a good friend of L.A. Police Chief William H. Parker, then the most powerful Catholic in public office.
Los Angeles was still a Protestant town, and that was where the key power lay. McIntyre had enormous power within his parishes, and enough behind-the-scenes political juice to get tax exemptions for his rapidly expanding parochial school system. Although he displayed a talent for politics, just like his mentor, New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, McIntyre never came close to wielding the kind of raw power that Spellman did. New York was an Irish Catholic city when Spellman was in his prime, and the Jews, blacks and (less church-going) Italian-Americans had yet to achieve the kind of serious political clout they now enjoy.
But the church in Los Angeles has always depended on lay Catholics for political influence, starting with oil millionaire Edward L. Doheny on through Mayor Richard Riordan. Los Angeles lent itself to working at an elitist level up until the ‘60s, as The Committee of 25 regularly met to make important decisions. A Catholic leader like McIntyre, or Doheny, if not at the table, was easy to identify and consult with.
Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple also had enormous clout and political power, and was a conduit to the WASP downtown power structure. The Jewish Federation Council and the Jewish Family Service reportedly checked in with him before they took a stand on a major political issue, says a Magnin biographer, Rabbi William Kramer. He set the policy. If an Orthodox Jewish group wanted to build a synagogue and needed a code variance, they went to him to get it done.
From 1915 to 1980, Magnin was the power in the Jewish community. Politicians sought his endorsement, or at least his neutrality. Politically, he worked through the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee, had a weekly radio show, a column in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and his Temple Bulletin column was reprinted in the Jewish press. Magnin and McIntyre consulted closely and made sure not to offend each other or oppose each other on really important issues.
What made both Magnin and McIntyre political players was their specific circumstances. Each headed their own power structure, each was able to deal at the highest levels with the Protestant elite that ran the city and each ran groups outside the city’s true power centers. Schuler, by contrast, operated at a time of suffocating homogeneity, in an inward-looking Los Angeles, where power was held tightly and one had to be a member of the right religious club to exercise power in ways other than the extraordinary styles of Magnin and McIntyre.
In 1973, South-Central’s black ministers, fed up with the then-conservative and often racist regime of Mayor Sam Yorty, proved pivotal in electing Tom Bradley the city’s first black mayor. Those minsters remained the bedrock of Bradley’s political support for the next 20 years. Bradley owed a lot to them, as he did to the rabbis who supported him overwhelmingly in his 1969 losing effort, and again in 1973.
If there is a lesson for Mahony in this history of religious power in secular Los Angeles, it’s for the rest of the city to learn, not him. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the ministerial leaders of the civil rights movement demonstrated in the ‘60s, and the religious right is showing today, a strong, united, focused religious movement can have enormous impact on secular politics. Mahony, who has an independent power base, is not accountable to the economic or political powers that be. With the building of his cathedral, for example, he has his own power base with the Daniel Murphy Foundation and the others who gave him the money. So his constituency is not the same as a Unocal or Arco, which have to worry about bad publicity affecting their customer base.
Moreover, during his career, Mahony’s been involved in financial planning for the Vatican and has exercised more power over the church’s property than many other archbishops. This indicates that the church has been willing to delegate a great deal of responsibility to him. Additionally, Grass-roots Latino organizing groups, like the Eastside’s United Neighborhood Organizations (UNO) and South Central’s Southern California Organizing Committee (SCOC), are his strong allies.
Mahony’s constituency is active Catholics, those who go to mass and send their kids to Catholic schools. And they are certainly not going to turn their back on him, or the church, over the demolition of St. Vibiana’s, which is not seen as the seat of the archdiocese. Catholics, like other Angelenos, don’t identify with downtown. They’re dispersed throughout the region. As such, St. Vibiana’s doesn’t have an emotional hold on them.
Part of the furor over Mahony’s decisions to demolish St. Vibiana’s, take on the Los Angeles Conservancy and the courts, and now to keep the city guessing where he will build his cathedral lies in the fact that we’re so unaccustomed to raw power being openly displayed in Los Angeles. We have a weak mayoral system and diffuse economic and social power--except for that strong hierarchy that is the Catholic Church. Mahony can do what he does because he’s a strong hierarchical leader, can move fast and has a strong vision of what he wants. The lesson is that the cardinal has not overplayed his political hand. It’s that he’s holding all of the cards.*