By: Joe Mathews
LA is a city of 4 million people. In an election for the mayor of such a place, you would think that a wide variety of voices would count. In reality, few do.
Even in such a big city, a few small players dominate the political contest. The most powerful of these are public employees and their unions. Through independent expenditures, they eclipse the voices of citizens, civic groups, and even the candidates themselves.
This state of affairs isn’t confined to Los Angeles. It’s part of the California disease. This is a state that has effectively barred local elected officials from raising taxes. Since local electeds can’t hurt you, many people and interests don’t pay close attention to such races. Local officials are spenders; the people and interests who pay attention to local races are spending interests – the local employees, their unions, and, to some extent, developers.
In this context, a local California election, even one in LA, is an auction, with little connection to the city’s real needs and issues. The LA race is full of ads and attacks and counter-attacks that tell you almost nothing about what the city needs. The LA Times recently noted how few specific ideas and proposals there are for the city.
Ironically one consistent area of discussion is who will be toughest with the unions and other wealthy interests who will decide the election. It is hard to keep from laughing to hear politicians talk about their independence from their patrons. Does anyone believe any of this?
The real race has been within the public employee union community, which is divided between two candidates, who naturally have been the leading contenders — Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel. They appear likely to advance to the second round of voting – providing another two months for Angelenos lacking in entertainment options to watch workers decide who their boss will be.
What could change this? Letting local governments set tax rates for themselves. But that’s a no-go with both liberals (who are obsessed with equalization of funding and prefer statewide policies over real local control) and conservatives (who hate taxes more than they hate big government, and big government unions, and thus defend anti-democratic limits on local taxation).
Until that changes, most Californians can safely tune out local elections. Of course, that’s advice most Californians don’t need, because they already have.
Joe Mathews, Journalist and California Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It