Taking issue with LA Mag's 'Failure' cover

lamagjune09.jpgVillaraigosa supporter and Occidental College professor Peter Dreier has some problems with the Los Angeles Magazine cover package that declared Mayor Villaraigosa a failure. (Whole story is online now.) Here's Dreier's response.

Los Angeles Magazine: “Failure” To Practice Responsible Journalism

The headline "Failure" slapped across a photo of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on the cover of Los Angeles magazine’s June issue was a cheap shot. Yes, it grabs attention on the newstands, but it is also irresponsible and misleading.

Reporter Ed Leibowitz says he's disappointed, even bitter, that Villaraigosa didn't accomplish all that he pledged to do during his 2005 campaign. Leibowitz laments: "Your progressive platform, if enacted, would cleanse the city of its toxins: street crime and failing schools, the evaporation of affordable housing and the carcinogens in our skies."

The reality is that no city on its own, even with the most progressive people in office, can accomplish those goals. Cities lack the financial resources and the legal authority to end crime, adequately fund schools, protect and expand enough affordable housing to meet the needs of municipal residents, and end pollution.

Continued after the jump.

Villaraigosa's landslide victory in 2005 raised hopes about moving the city in a new direction. But what does it mean to be a progressive at the municipal level when so many powerful forces -- a city whose financial needs far exceed its revenue-raising capacity, a President (Bush) and governor (Schwarzenegger) hostile to the plight of cities and the poor, a national and state economy in the dumps, and a business and development community dominated by shortsighted executives resistant to taxes, living wages and regulation – are arrayed against reform?

Not surprisingly, many political scientists believe that America’s big cities are almost ungovernable. We elect mayors, city councils, and school boards to try their best at managing cities and addressing the problems facing its residents and institutions. But without full partners in Washington and state capitals, cities are hostage to forces beyond their control.

So the appropriate way to evaluate Mayor Villaraigosa's first term is whether he used the tools at his disposal to make significant progress in these and other areas, and how LA compares to other comparable big cities on these measures.

On that score, Villaraigosa deserves praise for raising expectations, squeezing the city’s limited funding to address long-standing problems, and using the city’s leverage to make LA more livable.

Villaraigosa has sought to be a new kind of progressive pro-business mayor– by redefining a "healthy business climate" to mean prosperity that is shared by working people, one that lifts the working poor into the middle class. He has tried to promote a more enlightened view of business's responsibility to the broader community. He has encouraged, even pushed, employers to support workers' rights to unionize. Building on the living wage model, his Community Redevelopment Agency and other departments have focused municipal subsidies on industries and firms that provide decent pay, benefits and a career path with upward mobility and create “green” jobs. . He has advocated for a mixed-income housing law that requires developers to set aside units for working families.

On the basic matters of “civic housekeeping” – such as fixing potholes, improving traffic flows, and reducing crime -- LA has been well-served by this mayor. Villaraigosa led the campaign for Prop R, which voters approved, and which will provide $40 billion for public transit. He’s dramatically increased summer jobs for youth from 3,000 to 16,000 in four years.

On the question of public health and the environment, no big-city mayor has tackled the issue with bolder action than Villaraigosa. He took heat from business groups for supporting the "clean trucks" plan at the Los Angeles Port, the nation's busiest port and the largest source of pollution in Southern California from the idling ships and 12,000 trucks that line up daily to take cargo from the docks to area warehouses. Under the plan, all the older polluting trucks will be replaced by modern vehicles, improving the air quality and health conditions in the surrounding areas . The mayor's plan also requires the Port to limit the number of trucking firms at the port, a provision that could transform thousands of drivers from low-paid independent contractors into employees of larger firms, making them eligible to unionize, improve their pay, and negotiate for health insurance and other benefits. The plan is without doubt the most comprehensive of its kind and has already seen results, despite efforts by the Bush administration, as well as the trucking and shipping companies, to thwart it. Villaraigosa has also pushed the Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest municipal utility, to become the engine for a green jobs and clean energy plan.

On housing, Villaraigosa has funded the $100 million Housing Trust Fund, strengthened tenants’ rights, and improved code inspection to fix slum buildings. Thanks to Villaraigosa, LA has, for the first time in decades, a comprehensive housing plan with clear goals for protecting existing affordable units and expanding the supply of housing across the income spectrum.

Housing advocates have been pushing for a mixed-income housing law in LA for a decade, one that (like those in 170 other California cities) would require developers to include units for nurses, secretaries, security guards, garment workers, school teachers and other low- and moderate-income people. Villaraigosa has been an ally in that effort – a cautious one initially, but increasingly bold as the grassroots campaign by Housing LA (a coalition of unions, community groups, and responsible developers) picked up steam. During the last several months he has pushed hard – against the opposition of the powerful development lobby (led by the Central City Association) and some NIMBY neighborhood groups, both of which have considerable influence with key City Council members -- for a mixed-income housing ordinance. It now appears likely that we’ll have such an ordinance in the next few months. Once it is adopted, LA will be the largest city in the U.S. with a mixed-income housing law.

No big-city mayor in the entire U.S. has been as fervent a champion for the working poor – and for the rights of workers -- as Villaraigosa. He played a central role in helping the city’s low-wage security guards win a union campaign by getting major office building owners to the bargaining table, and utilizing the leverage of the Community Redevelopment Agency to create a pipeline of young people prepared for jobs in the construction trades. Against the strong opposition of the city's business community, he supported a dramatic expansion of the city's "living wage"law to lift several thousands of workers who work at a dozen hotels near the LAX airport out of poverty. He has shown up at union picket lines and been a key behind-the-scenes mediator in several labor disputes.

Some agenda items – like the expansion of the city subway and bus lines, the rewriting of the city’s comprehensive zoning plan, and the reform of public schools – are still works in progress, projects that will take many years to complete. The jury is still out on how, or whether, they will succeed. No mayor of a city of over four million people – balkanized by a City Council comprised of 15 powerful fiefdoms and a separate school board -- can please everyone. Juggling so many issues, with so many demands, and so few resources, Mayor Villaraigosa has certainly made mistakes or frustrated some constituencies who expected more. For example, the mayor has faced reasonable criticism from some housing activists over the LA Police Department’s effort to “clean up” Skid Row, often by harassing homeless people.

But any objective assessment of Villaraigosa’s first term has to put his accomplishments and his challenges in perspective – something that the Los Angeles Magazine story failed to do.

For example, no other major industrial nation has allowed the level of sheer destitution that we have in the United States, especially in our cities. We accept as "normal" levels of poverty, hunger, crime and homelessness that would cause national alarm in Canada, Western Europe or Australia. Elsewhere, national governments take responsibility for addressing these and other issues. In the U.S., in contrast, we expect local governments to deal with the problems of poverty, homelessness, crime, and underfunded schools, as well as the impacts of rising gas prices, traffic congestion and pollution, accelerating foreclosures and abandoned homes, crumbling infrastructure, widening wage inequality, escalating health care and food costs, and the export of jobs to China and Mexico. These are national problems that are disproportionately located in cities, but they aren’t caused by the actions or inactions of municipal governments.

Moreover, Villaraigosa took office in the middle of the Bush administration – the most anti-city administration in recent memory. Across the country, city officials, reeling from the loss of federal and state aid, have had no choice but to cut essential services, including public safety, libraries, road repair and public schools. Bush's priorities--cutting taxes for the rich, weakening regulations on business that protect consumers, workers and the environment, and reducing spending for domestic social programs--came at the expense of cities and the people who live in them. Bush imposed many new mandates on cities--such as increased homeland security and No Child Left Behind requirements for schools--without providing the funds necessary for the cities to comply. Let's call it fend-for-yourself federalism.

Under Bush, the federal government was a hostile force, imposing mandates on local governments without providing the funds to pay for them. Federal funding for housing, public transit, and other urban programs was cut, while needs escalated across the country, not just in LA. Even before the current economic meltdown, the Bush administration presided over what economists call a “jobless recovery” that primarily benefitted the very wealthy. Poverty increased dramatically across the country during the Bush years, while the number of Americans without health insurance fell significantly. It was the Bush administration that tried to stop LA from imposing strict environmental standards on trucks and shippers at the Port. It was the Bush administration that pushed the policies that led to the current mortgage meltdown, the epidemic of foreclosures, and the hemorrhaging of jobs, in LA and other cities.

And let’s not forget the 500-pound Republican elephant in the room – that the U.S. has spent more money destroying Baghdad than rebuilding American cities.

The result is that most big-city mayors are now trapped in a fiscal straitjacket. Obama’s stimulus plan will help, but can’t compensate for the dramatic decline in municipal revenues. We cannot significantly solve our nation's urban problems without federal reforms.

Compounding that problem , the state government under Schwarzenegger has been in fiscal chaos since before Villaraigosa became mayor. On most critical issues, the state government has been missing in action, leaving cities to deal with the problems located within their borders but caused by economic and social forces outside the city limits. For example, it is the state government – not local school boards -- that is responsible for funding public education. And California ranks 46th in the nation in per-student spending. Even if Villaraigosa had succeeded in gaining full control of LAUSD, it is unlikely he could have significantly overhauled the troubled schools without a major increase in state funding – a difficult prospect given the Republican stranglehold on any reform of state finances.

A reasonable assessment of Villaraigosa’s term would balance his significant successes with his shortcomings. In his first four years, Villaraigosa has accomplished a great deal, made some mistakes, and erected a foundation for further progress in his second term. Calling his first term a “failure” on your cover may sell magazines, but it doesn’t satisfy any standard of responsible journalism.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College. He is coauthor of THE NEXT LOS ANGELES: THE STRUGGLE FOR A LIVABLE CITY and PLACE MATTERS: METROPOLITICS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY.

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