The Los Angeles City Council has a new president, Herb Wesson. But does a new president change anything?
The council president is just one vote of 15 on that notoriously difficult to manage body. In that sense, he's not much different from his colleagues. He manages his district and votes along with his colleagues. But the president also has some additional power: He assigns members to committees and acts as the figurehead for the larger body. For years, John Ferraro used the position to establish himself as second only to the mayors with whom he served; more recently, Eric Garcetti has brought a lighter, more cerebral touch to the job and used it to launch his bid for mayor.
Wesson is the first African American to hold the post, so it's tempting to see him in historic terms. And yet, in the strange ethnic stew of Los Angeles, it's interesting to note that he's actually more closely aligned with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa than with either Jan Perry or Bernard C. Parks, the other black council members. In fact, they're downright suspicious of him, accusing him of coveting their political turf and worrying that from his position as council president, he will manipulate the redistricting process to shore up his base at their expense. Wesson dismisses that notion and insists he's eager to have good relations with all his colleagues.
But when I visited him recently, he had a binder on his desk full of congratulatory notes. Neither Perry nor Parks had sent one.
All this means that, while it's about time the city finally had a black council president, Wesson's elevation to the job isn't likely to launch a new era of cohesive black politics in the city.
A more likely effect of his presidency is that it's good news for Villaraigosa. Garcetti and Villaraigosa collaborated on certain projects but were always a bit wary of each other. Wesson and Villaraigosa, by contrast, are thick as thieves. Both are former speakers of the California Assembly, and they forged a friendship in those years. Now, as his time as mayor winds down, Villaraigosa needs the council to join him in tackling the tough issues surrounding the city budget.
Wesson certainly won't stand in the way, and he could be an important ally. "He has never given me his word and not kept it," Wesson said of the mayor. "And he would say the same of me."
Already, Wesson has given some indication of the job he'd like to perform. In his first week, he guided the council through a puerile debate over what to do with a citizens initiative to require porn actors to wear condoms. (Of all the troubles this country faces, it surely must amaze those looking at this city that this is what we concern ourselves with.) Wesson engineered a compromise that had the council approve the
requirement by ordinance and avoid a costly ballot measure on the question. It's not exactly an achievement that ranks with peace in our time, but at least it saves a bit of money and avoids a season of debate over ejaculation.
Now he'll have to deal with the more pressing and pertinent question of the Department of Water and Power's urgent need for a rate increase if it's to comply with state and federal water-quality rules. Many council members have been running for cover on this issue, insisting that they can't possibly consider such an increase until a ratepayer advocate is in place, then dragging their feet on approving the creation of the advocate. In contrast to his equivocating colleagues, Wesson is refreshingly direct: "We can't wait."
That's what passes for courage in today's Los Angeles politics, and it could give both the mayor and council cover to do the right thing.
Still, Wesson's also capable of the empty rhetoric that dominates so much of this city's discourse. When I asked him last week what he hoped to accomplish as president, he said three times — with a straight face — that he was only concerned with helping his colleagues. "I want to give [my council colleagues] all the glory," he said, while taking all the responsibility for failures on himself.
That's pablum, of course. No one does the hard work of standing for public office in Los Angeles to be anonymous. But taking responsibility would be a laudable ambition for his presidency, especially given that he assumes the office while two of his colleagues — Garcetti and Perry, as well as City Controller Wendy Greuel — are vying to become the next mayor. That means they'll be looking for credit and hoping someone else is there to take blame.
The year ahead, Wesson conceded, "may become challenging." But he says he's up to it. "My life is a challenge."
Jim Newton's column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.