Divided L.A. Needs Mayor Who Can Lead

Editorial Page: 7C

By Tom McEnery

Tom McEnery, Mayor of San Jose from 1983 to 1990, is a Presidential Fellow at Santa Clara University and is writing a book on the future of urban America.


IT was once the city of the angels: Los Angeles. All knew that here was a place of endless opportunity and boundless optimism. The second largest city in America, four times the size of San Jose or San Francisco, it is sometimes called the capital of the Pacific Rim, but today the boosters are silent.

Sometimes, this land of palm trees and dreams reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s description of Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people.” The city’s shady characters, in office high rises and on the streets, seem to tear at each other as anxiety and fear of the future consume the city. In response, the business and political leadership of Los Angeles have engaged in an orgy of meetings and reports. They are for the hundredth time redefining the problem.

One might think the question of leadership in a city-state as important and as troubled as this would be big news. Wrong. There is a mayor’s race going on right now in Los Angeles, but the collective response of her voters, media and pundits has been one big yawn.

Tinsel town’s home-grown industry, once the circulator of the balmy scenarios of Capra and Ford, now presents an apocalyptic vision of California. It is a place where a maniacal nerd, portrayed by Michael Douglas in “Falling Down,” sets aside his pocket protector and picks up an Uzi. As he offs Latino gang members and slaps a Korean grocer upside the head, we see the future that is written large in the morning headlines.

Historian Kevin Starr describes Los Angeles as on its way to becoming the next Yugoslavia. One looks for a melting pot but finds a boiling cauldron, as whites resent the host of immigrants from Mexico looking longingly toward La Illusion del Norte. Increasingly, the established Mexican-Americans as well as other Latinos, African-Americans and recently arrived Koreans and Vietnamese, resent newer immigrants even more.

In the past two years, that city has undergone crisis upon crisis, including the Rodney King beating, Daryl Gates’s firing and the worst urban riots in American history. Yet when Tom Bradley decided to leave office, creating the first open contest for City Hall in 20 years, voter turnout in the primary was pitiful, less than 24 percent.

Maybe people are too overwhelmed by the challenge of L.A.’s problems to put much faith in leadership, in one job, in one new mayor to provide solutions. If that is the case, we are all in trouble. There was an abortive attempt to foist responsibility off on Peter Ueberroth, but outside saviors are not the answer. Only leadership at the top can provide a way out of despair. That is what is needed in Los Angeles now, and it is just what the two contenders in June’s election — Michael Woo and Richard Riordan — are struggling to discover.

The two men come straight from Hollywood central casting: a traditional liberal Democrat policy wonk vs. a Perot-style conservative Republican millionaire. Instead of trying to unify the electorate, they play to their extremes, painting the other as the source of evil.

In a recent debate, the issue of abortion was waved like a McCarthyite manifest, each side trying to score emotional points. In the enveloping nightmare of Los Angeles, this issue belongs at the state and federal level, and has no central position in a mayoral campaign.

Both candidates should know that there is an alternative to such scare tactics — and that it makes sound political sense. Wise politicians, the ones who want to be remembered as statesmen, seek the broad middle. Los Angeles is large enough to touch both extremes at once, to paraphrase Emerson. Victory should go to the man able to go beyond his political base and provide a positive vision of shared community goals and values. One candidate must build a platform of both safety on the streets and basic humanity. Unfortunately, this may have to wait until after the election.

John Gardner told me recently that one of his main hobbies is the study of leadership in our country, and that with the status of leadership now, it doesn’t take much of his time.

One thing to be grateful for: L.A.’s voters in the April primary did something voters in San Jose did long ago — they passed a two-term limit for the mayor. There will be no more 20-year incumbents in Los Angeles. Whoever is elected in June will have to operate on the principle of “up or out.” That may just spur some needed attention to the real problems.

Los Angeles truly needs a mayor for the angels. If none of the magic can be rekindled in that sun-kissed land of opportunity, we are all in trouble.

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