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Night of the Un-Dead Subway

We’ve entered a new era in California. I suggest we name it the Age of Vampire Politics.

Oh, maybe you could stick another moniker on it. Like, Boo-Hoo Politics. Or the Era of The-Voters-Really-Didn’t-Mean-That-Did-They?

But I like Vampire Politics. As in, you know, the Un-Dead. It refers to the fascinating practice of ignoring election results, pretending that the voters didn’t do what they just did.

In Vampire Politics, bad policy never dies. Bureaucrats and teachers and various commissions keep alive their failed programs even after the voters have tried, and failed, to drive a stake through their hearts.

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For example, you probably think we just exterminated new subway construction in Los Angeles. Tired of sinkholes and subways-to-nowhere courtesy of the MTA, we passed Proposition A with a 68% majority. In no district of the city did the favorable vote fall beneath a 60% majority.

The headlines read: “Subways Dead as a Herring.” Or something like that. Everybody knew it. New subways were finished, kaput, and we awaited the response of the subway builders at the MTA.

Well, last Monday the MTA board met for the first time since the election. Executive Director Julian Burke, who appears to have read the newspapers, proposed that some old subway money be switched around and used for an expanded bus program.

That made sense. Then came the exercise in Vampire Politics.

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Several of the directors said no way, no how, would they vote for a $320-million bus program. They wanted the money put in reserve for the very districts that had been scheduled to get the new subways--the Eastside and Mid-City. And there the money would sit, awaiting expenditure.

Expenditure on what? Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the sponsor of Proposition A , offered a guess. “The agenda is . . . to keep subways alive,” he said. The other board members were “holding hostage the transit needs of the county for the sake of a pipe dream.”

Mayor Riordan, ever the optimist, interrupted Yaroslavsky. That can’t be true, he said. Just can’t be.

Then Supervisor Gloria Molina interrupted the mayor. As a matter of fact, she said, it was true. Yaroslavsky was right. On the Eastside and in Mid-City, she said, “we should look for what other opportunities are available to us. That doesn’t exclude subways. It includes subways.”

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City Councilman Richard Alatorre, also a board member, then chimed in his support. Keeping the money dedicated to the districts, he said, would mean that the MTA “was not foreclosing the possibility of . . . the subway.”

True enough, the board members had additional reasons for keeping the money dedicated to their districts. Namely, they wanted to ensure that the hated San Fernando Valley received nary a dime of the funds. But, as the meeting droned on, it became clear their major motive was preservation of the subway concept, Proposition A or no.

And when the vote came, they succeeded. The bus program was whittled down to a pilot program and all the remaining funds were reserved for “other opportunities.”

So it goes in our new era. And not just with subways. Last year, for example, the voters decided to ditch bilingual education after concluding that it had failed miserably. But did bilingual get ditched?

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No. From Oakland to Los Angeles, school officials divined that the voters were misinformed. Some districts simply and blatantly refused to stop using bilingual methods. Others, like our ever-clever district in Los Angeles, continued bilingual classes and called them something else.

The same with phonics. After years of failure using the whole-language approach to reading, California passed a new law requiring schools to use phonics. It was widely ignored. Many school officials, it seems, believed the new law was mistaken.

In fact, the mistake theory appears to drive much of Vampire Politics. After the vote to preserve funds for a subway last Monday night, a staff member for one of the officials put it this way: “We don’t believe our side of the issue was explained [during the campaign for Proposition A]. There were misconceptions. We think, with the proper education, the voters would not have supported the proposition, at least in our district.”

In other words, the voters didn’t get it. But we do.

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Sometimes the mistake theory even works in advance. My favorite example took place only this month. Our beloved sheriff, Sherman Block, expired while running for a fifth term in office. And we, the voters, were urged by various leaders to vote for Block anyway.

The rationale was most interesting. If Block had won he would have been sadly unavailable for office, so the decision of choosing the next sheriff would have passed to the Board of Supervisors.

You catch the message? We, the voters, are too dumb to choose a sheriff. As with the decision to kill the subway program or bilingual education, we would probably make a mistake. So, rather than commit another boner, why not let our leaders choose the sheriff for us?

We chose not to take that advice, of course. We passed up the opportunity and instead elected a living, breathing Lee Baca as sheriff.

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I guess we’ll just never learn.


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