There is a palpable weariness in much of Los Angeles of the professional candidate -- the politician who wins election to an office, then leaves it to run for another, seemingly with the sole object of keeping his or her career going. Such candidates often seem so plugged in to a network of consultants, slate mail specialists, fundraisers, city contractors and mutual endorsements from others just like them that their elections appear inevitable, even if their records of accomplishment are scant. It would be refreshing, exciting even, to identify and support a candidate who emerges from grass-roots or neighborhood activism and takes on the political establishment.
Many insurgent candidates try to take that role, especially in special elections such as the Sept. 22 race to fill the 2nd District City Council seat that Wendy Greuel left earlier this year after her election as city controller. Turnout for such races is historically light, and it’s theoretically possible for a nontraditional candidate to win the few thousand votes it may take to land a spot in a runoff, even without a huge fundraising network or a well-honed get-out-the-vote effort.
But such candidates too often fail to impress, including a few in this election. Some have little going for them beyond a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. Others come armed with vague conspiracy and corruption theories about City Hall, or arguments based on a couple of newspaper clippings, or a rote ideological challenge to capitalism, immigration or the labor movement. It’s fine to say, “I’ve lived here my whole life, got fed up and finally decided to do something about it,” but it’s not, by itself, sufficient for a serious run for office. Voters should demand that a candidate offer a coherent critique of the current state of government, a program for making improvements and a convincing argument as to why the candidate’s particular experience and talents make him or her the best choice for the job.
Still, the caliber of grass-roots candidates appears to be steadily improving. Several in this special election -- although by no means all -- exhibit an admirable grasp of City Hall’s processes and failings, and insight into how to make things better. Businessman Frank Sheftel brings disarming candor, Mary Benson an admirable record of neighborhood activism, Josef Essavi -- whom this page endorsed in his run earlier this year for the Community College District Board of Trustees -- and Pete Sanchez an impressive knowledge of the city. David Saltsburg, better known as Zuma Dogg, is almost always irritating, as befits his role as City Hall gadfly, but occasionally right on target about what ails Los Angeles. None, though, makes the case that he or she is prepared to represent the interests of more than a quarter-million people, keep the city solvent and help steer a path toward the future.
Nor is it easy to get too excited by the traditional candidates. Paul Krekorian has served just three years in the Assembly, Tamar Galatzan two on the Los Angeles Unified school board, and it’s difficult to identify sufficient accomplishments in those jobs to warrant such an early switch to a new one.
Other candidates criticize Krekorian for “carpetbagging” -- moving a short distance into the district to be eligible to run. This page rejects that simplistic thinking; a person otherwise fit for office does not become unqualified because of the haphazard way in which district lines are drawn, as long as the candidate’s move into the district is real and permanent. Krekorian is no carpetbagger, and his experience as an attorney, Los Angeles city ethics commissioner, Burbank school board member and assemblyman give him the background to do a credible job as a councilman. But he fails to articulate an adequate reason why now is the time for him to leave his Assembly job and start something new -- other than that the council seat opened up. Voters in the 2nd District can do better.
Galatzan, a neighborhood prosecutor in the city attorney’s office, has shown admirable and, to some degree, unexpected independence on the school board. Despite backing from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa two years ago, she has not proved to be an automatic supporter of the mayor’s marching orders on schools. Neither, though, has she been effective or energetic on the board. There is little value in independence if it’s just another word for isolation. The City Council, and the people of the 2nd District, can ill afford a representative unable to work with others to get things done.
The best candidate, and the one most likely to help make City Hall work for her constituents, is former Paramount Pictures Corp. executive Christine Essel. She brings an understanding of the private sector and the need for the city to attract and retain business. As a former member of the Airport Commission and chairwoman of the Community Redevelopment Agency under mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan, she knows her way around the city bureaucracy without having become a creature of it.
Essel also moved recently to be able to run for the seat, but she’s a longtime San Fernando Valley resident with a keen grasp of the daily assaults on residents’ quality of life who nonetheless resists the simplistic notion that “downtown” somehow is purposely sucking the life out of the Valley. She understands that growth will occur and that the city’s job is not to stop it but to make sure it enhances, rather than diminishes, Los Angeles. The Times endorses Christine Essel for the City Council.