For Zev Yaroslavsky, a familiar end to a familiar saga

Last week, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky disappointed supporters and thrilled potential rivals by announcing that he would pass up a run for mayor. Above: Yaroslavsky speaks during a Board of Supervisors meeting on June 25.
(Los Angeles Times )

It was more than 20 years ago that I covered my first meeting of the Los Angeles City Council. As I headed to the chambers, a colleague advised me to take special note of two members: Richard Alatorre, he said, understood city politics better than anyone, and the expert on all matters relating to money was Zev Yaroslavsky.

Yaroslavsky came to the council in 1975, and by the late ‘80s was brash enough to run against incumbent Mayor Tom Bradley. Yaroslavsky dropped out of that race a few months before election day in 1989. But later, when the 2001 mayor’s race began taking shape, he was often listed as a possible successor to Mayor Richard Riordan. He weighed the idea, then opted against running. “This is not an obsession with me,” Yaroslavsky told me at the time. “I live in the city. I care about the city.” But, he added, he had other things to do.

Last week, Yaroslavsky, now a county supervisor, disappointed supporters and thrilled potential rivals by announcing that, once again, he would pass up a run for mayor. It was, to many, a familiar end to a familiar saga.

Yaroslavsky made his announcement on his office website in the predawn hours Thursday. A few hours later, he was at ease, white shirt pressed, blue tie crisp. He’s not often prone to nostalgia or reflection, but on this morning he indulged in a bit of each, as well as some caustic appraisals of the city’s current leadership and the unfolding campaign.


His decision to skip one last try at the office that has always seemed at the edge of his grasp was purely personal. He’s 63 now and has two more years left of his final term as supervisor. After that, he says, he’s eager to experience life outside elected politics.

“My father died when he was 70,” the supervisor said, then chided himself for having said that out loud. “I promised myself I wasn’t going to mention that,” he grumbled.

He’s eager to write — he’d like to put down his own story “even if no one but my kids will read it,” and he has in mind a history of the events of 1968, a year he considers pivotal in American politics. He’d also like to teach, and to maintain his work in the study of democracy abroad and, especially, to keep a hand in the affairs of the city and county.

“The city has got to get its finances in order,” he insisted. “When people have to wait on 911 or get a busy signal on 911 … it’s unacceptable.” The city has raised fees, extracted more money from the Department of Water and Power and cut services. And still, shortfalls grow bigger. “Where,” he asked, “has all the money gone?”


Although he did not do so by name, Yaroslavsky made clear that he holds Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa responsible for that deepening problem.

“The city has made some horrible decisions,” he said, specifically citing the enormous pay raise that officials, including the mayor, approved for most city workers in 2007. The economic crash of the following year made that especially foolish in retrospect, but even at the time, the package — five years of 5% raises — seemed extravagant to many. “Jaws dropped up here,” Yaroslavsky said, referring to the County Hall of Administration, which has weathered the rough

economy far better than the city has.

Yaroslavsky doesn’t envy the next mayor. Bringing the budget under control will require discipline and independence. Extending the subway to the Westside and improving the region’s transportation network will require forcefulness and indefatigability — areas where Yaroslavsky gives Villaraigosa high marks for genuine progress. As he rattled those off, Yaroslavsky spoke quickly and pointedly. Then he stopped himself. “I obviously have my thoughts about these things,” he said.


It’s pretty obvious that there’s a part of Yaroslavsky that wants to be running. And yet he’s been locked in this quandary for many, many years — certainly not wanting to face the prospect of losing but also worried at some level about winning. In the few interviews he gave last week, he emphasized that, although this was not the right time or the right job for him, he would remain civically involved. “I live in this city, care about this city,” he said several times.

Only when I looked up my story from 1999 did I realize that he used the exact same phrasing then, a reminder of how long he’s been weighing this question. Yaroslavsky might have been a good mayor. I, for one, think he might even have been a great one. He certainly would have served with intelligence and independence. History will record him for many accomplishments, which he deserves. It will also note that he never served as mayor.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is “Eisenhower: The White House Years.” Reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.