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Column: Is President Trump right? Are Democrats destroying our cities and states?

Thousands participate in the All Black Lives Matter solidarity march along Hollywood Blvd. in June.
Thousands participate in the All Black Lives Matter solidarity march along Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood on June 14, 2020.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In California, Wisconsin, Portland, Seattle, Chicago — and wherever else there are protests, homelessness, wildfires or any other problems — Democrats are to blame.

Just ask President Trump or any of my readers who regularly write to tell me they agree with him.

Los Angeles has tens of thousands of homeless people, these people say. The mayor is a Democrat. The City Council is full of Democrats. The Legislature is dominated by Democrats who work with a Democratic governor. So there you go. It’s all their fault.

This makes sense unless you consider that in the Central Valley, which has a lot of Republican legislators, local officials and some of Trump’s most powerful congressional allies, cities up and down Highway 99 have big homeless populations. Are Democrats to blame there, too?

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Look, there are plenty of reasons to second-guess the work of California’s Democrats, who just ended a belly-flop legislative session with “accomplishments outmatched by the deep troubles facing communities across California,” as my colleague John Myers put it a few days ago.

And I’ve weighed in many times on the failures of our fearless leaders to handle the housing crisis, homelessness and other problems. And now the city of L.A. is in another budget mess after local leaders approved raises for police officers and others they can’t afford to pay.

But Trump has been even more unhinged than usual lately, which suggests he must believe the polls that say he’s losing to a guy he accuses of being asleep in his basement. The president has ranted recently about planes full of black-clad thugs traveling to spread violent riots. He has warned that Joe Biden is a radical controlled by the far left, that gang members are moving in next door and that Democrats are planning to abolish suburbs once they burn down the cities.

It’s interesting that the president of a country with the most COVID-19 deaths, millions out of work and white supremacy rising is telling us what might go wrong if he loses. It’s kind of like the manager of a losing ball club insisting on a contract extension so he can put a stop to the skid.

As for unrest in cities, vandalism and violence can’t be condoned, and some mayors have been a little clueless about how to respond. But the characterization of widespread chaos condoned by Democrats is fiction.

I got to wondering what it’s like to keep getting pummeled by Trump for everything, here in the state with the world’s fifth-largest economy, so I called a couple of local Democratic public officials.

L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis came in somewhere between outrage and eye-rolling indifference.

“This president believes the way to get reelected is by fear-mongering and inciting more riots, protests and civil disobedience. To me, he’s creating more havoc,” said Solis, who has also served in the Legislature, in Congress and as Labor secretary in the Obama administration.

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Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, another Democrat, said crime rates in many cities have been in decline. (Hate crimes, however, increased by 17% in Trump’s first year as president, according to the FBI.) Garcia was particularly ticked about Trump’s suggestion that Democrats have all but endorsed mob rule in the streets.

“I don’t know any mayor … who isn’t strongly against looting and crime, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen, while recognizing the importance of peaceful protest,” said Garcia.

And why might people be marching?

It’s partly about patterns of excessive police force and systemic racism. But it’s also about decades of public policy decisions by both major political parties that have left far too many people trapped in substandard housing, with jobs that don’t pay the bills, schools ill-equipped to level the playing field, and cities patching budget holes partly, but not entirely, of their own making.

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Federal aid accounted for 13% of municipal budgets in 1978, said Peter Dreier, a professor of urban policy at Occidental College. But big cuts began under President Reagan.

“Federal funds now account for only about 3% of municipal budgets,” said Dreier, who added that Trump “has proposed the most drastic cuts to cities of any president since Reagan, but Congress has not approved most” of them.

Supervisor Solis said it has been harder to get federal transportation and housing funding since Trump took office, and Mayor Garcia had a similar observation.

“Under Obama, they sent regular support and were really engaged at all levels of federal government. And that immediately changed once Trump took office,” he said. “He’s trying to inflame and create more division and his policies have made things worse. He put in a tax-cut program that benefits the top 1% and large corporations, and he campaigns against basic improvements like raising the minimum wage.”

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Yeah, but we need a lot more than a boost in the minimum wage.

Five years ago in Long Beach, when an aircraft assembly plant closed, I watched Boeing employees who made $40 an hour at their union jobs struggle to find any work that paid even half that amount.

Two years ago, when I looked into why more than 20% of the students at Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima were homeless, I realized the school was surrounded by shuttered aerospace and manufacturing plants.

Neither major political party has had a good enough response to global forces that made middle-class wages scarce and drove income inequality in the U.S.

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Two months away from election day, Trump is promising to “reduce taxes and regulations at levels not seen before.”

Biden’s pitch is to tax the wealthy and invest in green jobs, housing, education and child care for working parents.

May the best plan win.

Trump was right when he said four years ago that the system was rigged against the little guy, but by many measures, he rigged it even more, and guess what — people ought to be marching in the streets, as well as to the polls.

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The tax cut was so weighted to the wealthy, the income gap widened. Job growth was primarily in relatively low-paying jobs. The promised return of manufacturing jobs has mostly been a flop. Not only has the guarantee of cheaper and better healthcare never materialized, but millions lost coverage.

I thought Trump’s best pitch four years ago was a national infrastructure program that would create good-paying jobs for legions of Americans.

“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said in a victory speech. “We are going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none and we will put millions of people to work as we rebuild it.”

It never happened.

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And for that, Trump can’t blame Democrats.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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