Wave bye-bye, L.A.
Say goodbye to the career politicians.
Fifty-some years on the public payroll between the two of them. Five decades of suckling at the taxpayer’s teat.
Finally, they’re leaving.
And this city will miss them when they’re gone.
You can’t in fairness call Joel Wachs and Rick Tuttle the last two men in city government to believe in city government; that would be too sentimental about them and too uncharitable toward those they will leave behind in City Hall when they turn in their titles--Tuttle giving up the city controller’s job in July after 16 years, and Wachs leaving the City Council in October, 30 years and change after he cast his first vote.
The two young lions of the 1960s have become elder statesmen in their 60s. Wachs, the Republican tax attorney turned independent, the social liberal and clipper of double coupons who likes to show he can pinch a tax penny until it hollers, and Tuttle, the freedom-riding “white boy” who got arrested and called Medgar Evers from jail a few hours before Evers was killed, are two decent men who put their faith in public service--a career option that’s probably not even listed on the guidance counselors’ forms any more.
When they were young men, before “career politician” got hijacked by the spinmeisters and held hostage, the phrase meant Stevenson and Kennedy and Earl Warren, and “public service” meant the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty.
In the political millenniums that have passed between then and now--political assassinations, the Vietnam War and Watergate--the ideals were knocked out from under those who came after the “generation which Joel and I share,” says Tuttle. And soon “public service” became “big gubmint” and “bureaucrats,” the things to campaign against, not about.
The two are of the same time but not of the same temper. Wachs practices politics as performance art: witty, genial, quotable, brilliant at taking the public’s temper, not always A-plus on the follow-through. On his fiscal-skinflint M.O., most spectacularly on blocking the way to public financing of the Staples Center, he has stayed on message. Mayor Riordan’s staff took to calling him “Dr. No,” and why Wachs never had that put on a T-shirt is one of life’s enduring mysteries. Thirty years before, he was a greenhorn councilman when he took on a mayor named Yorty, demanding that he come clean on an income tax matter. One campaign consultant was right when he remarked of Wachs, “No one ever voted against someone for being a watchdog.”
Tuttle, on the other hand, is a public official with a private face. He’s rarely seen in the council, and voters who’ve elected him four times couldn’t place him in a lineup.
On a hot afternoon a few years back at a ceremony honoring police killed in the line of duty, Tuttle had taken his place in the big muckety-muck good seats. As “just folks” started arriving and it became obvious there weren’t enough seats, Tuttle stood up and gave his seat away, and stood for the rest of the ceremony.
Like a government paycheck, Tuttle’s headlines have always been modest but steady. He embraced the Watergate admonition to “follow the money,” practicing activism with a pencil and calculator and audit power. He has cracked the City Council’s knuckles over its favorite pork. He got mandatory audits written into the new City Charter, crafted civil rights rules forcing downtown private men’s clubs to integrate, and refused to pay for lavish dinner tabs, yoga classes and a $2,800 chartered jet flight to Sacramento by a former DWP chief, the last “the worst [official] extravagance I’ve ever seen.”
What they share is, as Tuttle says, a belief that when good people stay out of public service, “it leaves the field open to two other types: the rascals, there to put their fingers in the public purse, and the people motivated by a kind of uni-dimensional idealism that . . . can get whole societies into trouble.” What the son of a World War II Marine veteran means here is Hitler.
Egos? Of course they have. You can’t ask people for votes or campaign contributions without ego. Wachs ran for mayor after two big years on the council. Tuttle was on the community college board of trustees, where Jerry Brown got his start, before becoming controller, where Jim Hahn got his start.
So give them the gold watch, L.A., and a moment’s thought for the men and the time when politicians campaigned against each other--not, hypocritically, against the job they’re running for.
Patt Morrison’s columns appear Mondays and Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.