Newsletter: Karen Bass has never had a tougher job than mayor of Los Angeles
Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.
And what a historic week it was. Some months ago, I read a letter to the editor that described Rep. Karen Bass as the “platonic ideal of a good politician.” Seldom do I tip my hand in regard to my personal opinion on a letter (and in my job as The Times’ letters editor, I read a lot of them), but I remember thinking that I had read no better one-sentence description of Bass anywhere before. In the summer of 2020, when Bass’ name was floated as a possible vice presidential pick for Joe Biden, some readers who described themselves as past or current constituents sent letters detailing their interactions with Bass, who has represented areas of west and south L.A. in the state Legislature and Congress since 2004. Even among some who said they disagreed with Bass’ politics, they described her and her staff as responsive, caring and competent. In other words, Bass was plainly good at her job.
And now, she’s the first woman and second Black Angeleno elected mayor of Los Angeles, a city with rudderless political leadership even before the audio of three City Council members taking part in an appallingly racist, backroom-dealing conversation was leaked last month. Bass has excelled at every job she’s ever had in politics (recall she won a Profile in Courage award as Assembly speaker for her handling of a state deficit crisis, back when California had a lot of those). She’ll need to draw on her existing talents and find new ones just to be an effective mayor of L.A. With Bass at the helm of a city paralyzed by a cataclysmic housing affordability crisis, we may find out over the next four or eight years whether anyone can govern this place.
It’s almost unfair for a person of such historical significance to bear this kind of burden. I find myself thinking of 2008, when the election of the country’s first Black president coincided with an economic crisis that almost deepened into a depression. Bass overcame a billionaire opponent who outspent her 11 to 1 to take what seems like an impossible job, and at this moment Los Angeles lucked out in electing her. Whether Bass is lucky to have won is another matter. As The Times Editorial Board put it:
“Congratulations to Karen Bass, Los Angeles’ next mayor and the first woman to serve in that role. Condolences as well for a difficult job ahead. Bass will inherit a sharply divided city in upheaval by political scandals and seemingly intractable problems, like housing affordability and homelessness....
“With the campaigning over, the governing begins. And Bass will take the helm of a city in desperate need of leadership and direction. She will need to quickly show residents that she is in charge, and she is ready to make change. She can start by appointing a transition team with both City Hall insiders and outsiders who have a track record of reforming city governance. She and that team can start the work now of streamlining housing funding, approvals and construction, so Bass can start delivering on her campaign promises quickly.”
Speaking of L.A.’s political dysfunction, The Times’ op-ed editors asked former leaders, organizers and local journalists for suggestions on what structural changes City Hall needs. Zev Yaroslavsky, a former councilmember and L.A. County supervisor, said the city needs a homelessness czar. Gloria Molina, who also served on the Council and Board of Supervisors, lamented the weak leadership and constant campaigning in City Hall. Activists called for more investment in minority communities, the appointment of public watchdogs and better, more compassionate responses to homelessness. Perhaps the idea that’ll get the most head nods was from journalist Joe Mathews: Abolish the City Council. L.A. Times
On the contrary, why not expand the City Council? Fixing the city’s broken politics by adding more politicians might seem counterintuitive, but at the core of L.A.’s governing crisis are the massive districts that vest far too much power in each elected council member. Making the districts smaller and improving representation requires enlarging the City Council. Says The Times Editorial Board: “L.A.’s council districts are the largest, by population, in the nation. The City Council has had 15 members for nearly a century, unchanged since 1924, when Los Angeles had fewer than 600,000 people and a ratio of about one council member to every 38,000 residents. These outdated districts, each covering about 34 square miles, are a key reason why city government just doesn’t seem to function.” L.A. Times
Donald Trump is running for president again. As much as I’d like to respond with “ugh” and move on, his candidacy raises important questions and presents dilemmas that deserve discussion. Former U.S. attorney Harry Litman weighs in on the question of whether running for president will deter possible prosecution by the Justice Department: “If that’s Trump’s hope, it rests, like so much of his governance, on ignorance and overconfidence. His announced candidacy erects no major roadblock to prosecution by the Justice Department or by Atlanta Dist. Atty. Fani Willis.” L.A. Times
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Plenty of readers want journalists to ignore Trump, and I get that: The man would probably be just another New York heir if a television camera was never pointed at him. But here’s the thing: Much of the media tried that way back in 2015, when his candidacy was regarded as a publicity stunt and was explicitly treated as such. His polling numbers were low then, and better Republican presidential candidates were already teed up. But his conspicuous pugilism and actual utterance of racist ideas that more polite GOP stars only implied with dog whistles struck a cord with the Republican base. Now, Trump is a former president, a known insurrectionist and the most popular Republican around (even if the consensus among commentators is that the GOP is moving on). And you don’t ignore that kind of threat. L.A. Times
Herschel Walker is being used. The Republican Georgia Senate candidate has badly fumbled over his words and expressed truly bizarre ideas. He clearly isn’t a leader; he is, however, an effective fundraising tool for fellow Republicans who apparently have no interest in electing him senator. Writes columnist LZ Granderson: “For every $10 sent to Trump’s Save America in support of Walker in the Georgia runoff, $9 was being kept away from the candidate unless donors said otherwise. He wasn’t in charge then, and if elected, he still won’t be in charge. Just the kind of Black leadership a lot of white Georgians are obviously comfortable with.” L.A. Times
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