After Jackie Goldberg, Whither the Left in Los Angeles?

Marc B. Haefele is a columnist and staff writer at the L.A. Weekly

For the past seven years, Jackie Goldberg was the Los Angeles City Council’s major pain in the behind. Now the question is, how will the city get along without her truculent energy? It looks like the city will have to, however. Because no one on or running for the council has what it takes to fill her place.

Just weeks after Goldberg left to take her new Assembly seat in Sacramento, City Hall already seems quieter. Her abrasive contralto is no longer there to nail the issues beneath the surface: “If you put an army into a city, nothing bad will happen,” she said on her last council day, questioning the city’s sky-high spending on the hyperactive policing of the generally peaceful 2000 Democratic National Convention. “But did you really need an army? The desired effect was to intimidate people, and I think we’ll be living with [the consequences] of this policy for a long time to come.”

Goldberg is what the English press would call a politician of the left. But not the left one associates with state Sen. Tom Hayden, former eminence of the Students for a Democratic Society and 18-year veteran of the California Legislature. Hayden’s out to replace Goldberg’s colleague Mike Feuer on the City Council next year. So a comparison between Hayden and his departed fellow leftist is inevitable.

But Hayden, in his words, writings and deeds, is a theoretician whose legislation often fails to make it into law. Goldberg, possibly the most left-leaning councilmember since World War II, compiled a list of accomplishments that peaked but did not stop with the 1997 living-wage ordinance. Her success, however, stemmed as much from her years of teaching high school in Compton as from her student-organizing days at UC Berkeley. However she managed it, she arrived on the council with the abilities to gather widespread support and to compromise, while reaching toward those whom she feels are left out of the process. This is not a common skill set today, even among political liberals.

At Goldberg’s last Personnel Committee session, she was still trying to apply some living-wage benefits to part-time city workers while juggling several other labor issues on her agenda. No other councilmember had ever shown concern for part-timers, who now constitute a huge proportion of those employed by the Department of Recreation and Parks.

You wonder who’s going to pick up those fallen balls now. The only current councilman who shows similar concern for the downtrodden is Mike Hernandez, and he’s out next year. Of those who remain another two years, it’s hard to think of even liberals Mark Ridley-Thomas or Ruth Galanter, let alone conservatives like Nate Holden or Hal Bernson, as making improved working conditions a key priority. Young freshmen Alex Padilla and Nick Pacheco are still positioning themselves and haven’t delved deeply into such issues.

So who will replace Goldberg’s confrontational manner, concern for social justice and ability to bargain? The list of potential newcomers isn’t auspicious. In her district, the contenders include Goldberg’s brother Arthur, a fellow Berkeley activist who has, however, long stood in his sister’s shadow. It also includes former council incumbent--and failed mayoral candidate--Mike Woo, who as a councilmember never gained the trust of his colleagues. It includes Goldberg’s former staffer, Conrado Terrazas; Bennett Kayser, a respected neighborhood activist and former charter commissioner; former Assemblyman Scott Wildman, whose reputation veers between loose cannon and charismatic; and Eric Garcetti, son of the former district attorney. You can’t rule every one of them out as potential activist councilmembers, but that certainly isn’t suggested by their records to date.

Among next year’s council candidates, there’s no shortage of outspoken individuals: Hayden, of course, and LAPD Sgt. and Police Protective League honcho Dennis Zine, who wants to succeed Laura Chick in her 3rd District. As an undeclared but widely presumed front-running 1st District candidate, there’s termed-out state Sen. Richard Polanco (one wonders just how long it’ll take for the term-limit laws to make the City Council into a rest home for retired state legislators).

But another Jackie? Not likely next year. Beyond that, however, the possibility exists; there’s a new generation of younger, progressive people, active in local left causes, who might yet move on to electoral politics. Some have found a career in community-based organizations. Others found their cause in the organizing movement known as Justice for Janitors, which probably brought more young Angelenos into political activism over the past four years than any cause since the Central American civil wars of the early 1980s. These young activists worked incredibly hard and learned fast. The janitor movement and related low-income-worker activism grew under the aegis of various locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union and the Service Employees International Union; already, some of the younger organizers have moved up in these unions’ ranks. As SEIU Local 660’s leader Gil Cedillo’s election to the Assembly shows, union leadership can indeed translate into elected office.

Emergent left leaders in their political prime who might consider a council bid include Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Hotel Workers Union Local 11, and Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the labor-supported think tank known as Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE.

Otherwise, expect a wait. The transition from ‘60s activism to L.A. City Council candidacy took Councilwoman Galanter more than 15 years. It took Goldberg even longer. But Goldberg’s departure leaves a void in areas that have now become matters of general public concern. The ever-increasing political power of unions in Los Angeles--and support from the area’s wealthy liberal community--could urge some smart, as-yet-unknown labor-backed activist into an inner-city district’s council race in less time than that. *