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Revenge of the Nerd

The last time charter reformists were running amok in the City of Angels, the year was 1925-- and James Ingram wishes he could have been there. Fortunately for Ingram, now that L.A. is again preparing to overhaul its civic covenant, his obsession with all things charter suddenly seems voguish.

Ingram, 34, who’s writing his thesis on L.A. charter reform as part of his doctoral studies at UC San Diego (he teaches political science at San Diego State University), can tell you more in 30 minutes about L.A.'s city charter--and L.A., period--than most Angelenos will learn in a lifetime.

“No one else has wasted five years of his life tracking down every last fact about Los Angeles charter reform,” he says, exhibiting little regret. Certainly, his quest has lent him a fascinating vantage point from which to view events in Los Angeles, past and present.

Take the Daryl Gates fiasco, which paralyzed the Los Angeles Police Department and the city for months. “Most people didn’t realize that Daryl Gates could have been recalled,” Ingram says excitedly--that is, the former LAPD chief could have been removed from his job by voter referendum. “Charter nerds like me know.”

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By the time L.A. adopted its first charter in 1889, the city had a population of 50,000 and a legacy of the second-highest crime rate in the country, topping even Dodge City.

“If you had seen L.A. in the 1880s, you never would have seen the potential for a great city,” Ingram says, a thatch of blond hair slipping over his forehead as he stands in the living room of his small West L.A. apartment. To drive home his point, he pulls out a map from 1888, when whole blocks were labeled HOIF--House of Ill Fame--and buildings carried such designations as “gambling,” “opium joint” and “prostitution” (which was legal).

It wasn’t until the turn of the century, when L.A. began to envision a grander future for itself, that political reform became an issue. First came the birth of the initiative process in 1903 (“We led the whole world in direct democracy,” he proclaims with detectable pride), then the creation in 1915 of the nation’s first public defender, then the 1925 ban on gender discrimination in the workplace.

Enamored as he is with L.A.'s past, Ingram has at least one foot planted in the present. He firmly opposes the San Fernando Valley secession campaign--"When do you stop secession? What if Van Nuys just wants to be Van Nuys?"--and occasionally even ventures out of his apartment to savor the still-undivided metropolis. “This is a great world historical city. It’s a great experiment in whether people can live together.”

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But Ingram’s zeal for L.A.'s latest stab at charter reform is tempered by a sense of the past. “How can you replace a civic culture by rewriting a charter?” he asks with a trace of resignation. “No piece of paper can do that.”


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