“The shoe is on the other foot,” City Councilman Richard Alarcon told me, a smile on his face. Yes it was. When I was a reporter, I used to toss questions at Alarcon and now he was hurling them at me.
The occasion was a hearing of the council’s Rules and Elections Committee April 11 on the City Ethics Commission’s proposal for full public funding of city elections. As vice president of the commission, I was facing the committee. Joining me were LeeAnn Pelham, the executive director, and Heather Holt, the commission’s legislative representative.
Alarcon pretty well hated our plan, particularly the portion dealing with the amount of money a candidate must collect to be eligible for public funds. You might call this earnest money, like putting up some bucks when you are buying a house or a car to show the seller you are serious.
We recommended that candidates would have to raise $25.000 to qualify for public financing of council campaigns, $75,000 for controller, $75,000 for city attorney and $150,000 for mayor. We proposed that council candidates could raise this money in $250 chunks and $500 for citywide offices.
Alarcon said these chunks were too big and would turn the process over to fat cats.. It would discriminate against working people. It was racist—not that we were racist but the proposal was institutionally racist.
I could see he loved every minute of it. At one point, he said he wanted to ask me one of those questions reporters always ask, one of those “when have you stopped beating your wife” questions. He did, several times.
The session got me thinking about the difference between being a reporter and representing the ethics commission. My friend and mentor Ed Guthman, a former ethics commissioner, had told me I would learn a lot on this part time job. He was absolutely right. I’ve learned to compromise.
Afterwards, I went up to talk to Alarcon and made arrangements to have lunch with him. We had a nice chat and I congratulated him on his election, I‘ve known Alarcon ever since he was on the staff of Mayor Tom Bradley.
If I had been a reporter, I would have been asking the questions, maybe even in a belligerent manner. Then I would have written a story, hopefully fairly but maybe Alarcon would have hated it.
At the rules committee meeting, I had to look at things in a different way. My job was to persuade the committee to send our proposal on to the neighborhood councils, where people around the city could debate it. That was the ethics commission’s goal and I didn’t want to screw things up. I didn't want the proposal killed. I had to compromise. Journalists, many of them with a self- righteous streak, think compromise is wrong. But in politics and government, compromise is the only way to accomplish anything.
Alarcon suggested that when our proposal goes to the neighborhood councils, other proposals should be included with it, especially one by the Clean Money campaign, which strongly promotes the idea of small contributions.
That was OK with us from the ethics commission. It seemed like a sensible compromise and that’s what is going to happen. We’re not going to get hung up on turf or pride of authorship. We know that it will be tough job to persuade the voters to accept full public financing . We just want the campaign to begin as soon as possible.