The Limits of Reform: When Fairness Isn't Enough

Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the author of "Surviving Power."

Charter reform will raise questions about the distribution of power in Los Angeles--the mayor versus the City Council, neighborhood councils versus the more traditional notions of mayor and council. There is something less tangible, however, that goes to the heart of a city's political nature, and that is its governing style. Charter reformers who ignore this factor do so at their own peril.

In 1989, when the commission that drafted the city's ethics code delivered its report to the mayor and the City Council, Geoffrey Cowan, its chair, and I, its executive director, met with Councilman Richard Alatorre and his then-chief aide Robin Kramer. The councilman pushed us to amend the commission's recommendations to restore the officeholder account. He wanted to continue taking a fire engine filled with toys into the barrio on Christmas, explaining that he used his officeholder account--contributions by rich corporations seeking to do business with the city--to pay for this goodwill gesture. When the meeting concluded, Kramer told us that the councilman was 95% with us and, if we gave him an officeholder account, he would make the ethics code a reality. Since we needed him, we followed her advice.

A subsequent conversation with a well-known government-affairs consultant echoed Alatorre's approach to governance. If an immigrant businessman needed help with city regulations, he hypothesized, the man shouldn't waste his time and money hiring a lobbyist, because he would only be a small contract. What he should do is throw a fund-raiser for his council man, which would put the businessman's community in contact with the elected official and make him a broker (read: client) for his higher patron.

Alatorre's and the consultant's style of governance is classic "client/patron politics." It was the style of the party-machine bosses. It is the style of the governments that many immigrants left behind when they came here. It is personal and caring, at least for those who can count themselves as clients. It is a bridge between outsiders and government. When you talk to many business people in the city who come from a client/patron culture, they do not talk about their clout, their capacity to perform or their ability to deliver support to politicians. Rather, they talk about who they know because who they know will enable them to overcome barriers, real and perceived, to solving their problems.

What characterizes client/patron politics is the personal connection--and that is exactly what makes it anathema to the reformer. A reformer would have urged the immigrant businessman to call his council member as a constituent and ask for help, expecting help would be forthcoming just because he was a constituent.

Los Angeles operates both ways: There are elected leaders who think of themselves as patrons representing their clients, and there are elected leaders who think of themselves as representing classes of constituents: the poor, the middle class, the business community, and so forth. Most politicians are a little bit of both, which doesn't upset most constituents, who still believe that it helps to know someone, or know someone who knows someone.

Alatorre is currently under investigation for allegations of giving and receiving favors, acts that are part and parcel of client/patron politics. In the days of party machines, when U.S. cities were last populated by large groups of immigrants who were outsiders to the system, it would have been the norm. Immigrants joined political parties in return for an economic reward that was essential for their survival: a home, a job, or just help when they needed it. Reformers eliminated most of these economic incentives with Civil Service, ethics laws, even the New Deal, in which the government took over the responsibility of providing for the general welfare.

Yet, reform politics is inherently non-personal. It is principally about fairness. Communal, non-reform politics is about relationships. When the charter reformers seriously begin tinkering with the structure of L.A. government, they would be wise to consider just how these two governing styles, reform and client/patron--and their underlying cultures--might affect their handiwork. For it is entirely possible that governing styles, and the political cultures they express, will override, if not subvert, whatever new government structures the reformists concoct.

To avoid that, charter reformers should be sensitive to the diversity of governing styles operating around them and devise political structures flexible enough to nurture relationships and be fair. Excessive attention to fairness and openness at the expense of the importance of relationships in politics will not make Los Angeles more governable.

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