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Joe Buscaino for L.A. City Council

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Citizens should vote, even if they’re not wild about the choices they face. It’s not merely a matter of paying one’s democratic dues. Voting gives people a stake in their government and sends a message to elected officials that their constituents are paying attention. All residents have a right to the services that government provides and a right to be heard, but voters have a particular degree of moral and pragmatic clout with a politician that nonvoters lack. At election time, we on The Times’ editorial page do our best to stand in the shoes of the voter. We choose.

In the special election to fill the vacancy in the Los Angeles City Council’s 15th District, we choose Joe Buscaino, a Los Angeles police officer and a first-time candidate for public office.

He is young, earnest and smart. He listens. He can learn. He is not entirely prepared to take this office; in fact, he has a long way to go. But if he pays attention to the needs and interests of the people in the Harbor City, Harbor Gateway, Watts and Wilmington portions of his district, as well as those in his native San Pedro; if he takes into account the city’s fiscal crisis and its need to balance financial stability against quality-of-life issues and doesn’t merely go to bat for police officers or the Los Angeles Police Department; and if his constituents and others who care about Los Angeles push, prod and question him, he can be a good addition to the City Council.

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Competing against Buscaino in the Jan. 17 runoff is state Assemblyman Warren Furutani, a former board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District and Los Angeles Community College District. Both are Democrats. Where Buscaino is green, Furutani is experienced in politics and government. With all of Furutani’s experience in government, though, we look for more from him in leadership and vision than he offers.

When Buscaino fails — as he does — to outline a plan for dealing with the city’s financial problems, or to attempt a redefinition of what city government should be, what it should deliver and how it should pay for it, or to take a stance on taxes or other revenue options, we shudder. Yet we find it easier to give him, as a novice, a bit of slack that we must deny to the veteran Furutani.

District residents should be comforted by the fact that Buscaino, after his service as a full-time LAPD patrol officer, has put in several years as a senior lead officer. That’s important. A senior lead is a neighborhood troubleshooter. His job compels him to know the streets and the people, know the problems and, importantly, know how to arrive at solutions.

He, often more than a City Council member or staffer, is the go-to person for residents with complaints about quality-of-life issues. To be successful, he must know how to extract answers and action from City Hall on matters that go far beyond policing. And, by all accounts, Buscaino has been a successful senior lead.

Yes, San Pedro residents embrace him in part because they identify with him. They know his father from his years as a fisherman and a baker; they understand the family’s Italian immigrant background; they remember him from his days at San Pedro High School; and they respect law enforcement and police officers. But it’s clear as well that when they needed the kind of help that a senior lead can bring, he came through.

Can he do the same for Harbor City, or the very different demographics of Harbor Gateway and Wilmington, and the seemingly worlds-away region of Watts? Can he bring the senior lead’s facility for working with different governmental agencies to the problems wrought in other parts of the district by federal public housing projects, by school failures, by the lack of adequate healthcare facilities, by brownfields, environmental degradation, joblessness?

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Residents can hope, but that’s not enough. They must demand. The same goes for this page; if Buscaino wins this election, he will have our rapt attention. Voters should enthusiastically send him to City Hall, and then make it unmistakably clear that they will watch. And push.

Buscaino has the backing of the Police Protective League, which is running a citywide campaign calling for “public safety first” and for “full funding” of the LAPD. Even given the unstable condition of the city budget, we have no problem with the concept of public safety first.

Voters should be pleased with Buscaino’s law enforcement experience and his commitment to adequate police and fire protection. What’s missing, so far, is some explanation of how many officers and how much public safety funding is enough, and what kinds of trade-offs (fewer library hours? closed parks? higher fees?) residents should be expected to make in exchange. Voters should insist that Buscaino put the LAPD through its paces at budget time and not automatically say “yes” every time the current chief says he needs more.

We understand why Furutani, when questioned about what revenues he would raise and how, responds that he would take a poll. As an experienced and pragmatic politician, he knows that no tax or fee, or even many cuts, will go anywhere without public support. But a candidate must set a course, not merely observe which way the wind is blowing. The same goes for Buscaino, who answers similar questions by saying he would check with his supporters. A City Council member must listen, but also must show leadership and decisiveness.

It was exasperating, although admittedly a little funny, to hear Buscaino’s response when asked what he thinks of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. You either love him or you hate him, the candidate answered. OK, fine: Do you love him or do you hate him? “I’m, like, right in the middle!” Buscaino said.

Great. A politician. Still, a politician who has some potential — if the district, and the rest of the city, press him to do his best.

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