Spare me from the “slippery slope,” one of the trickiest phrases in politics.
I learned that the hard way at this month’s City Ethics Commission meeting when I came up with what I thought was a great way of handling the campaign contribution accusations our staff brought against Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
These were old violations dating back to his 2003 campaign for City Council before he ran for mayor. He contested one charge that he went over the $150,000 limit on contributions from corporations, unions and other organizations. He exceeded it, the staff said, by $39,000.
When someone fights one of our accusations, we can hold a hearing ourselves. But ever since a hearing on former Councilman Nate Holden went on for days, the commissioners have turned over the arduous work to an administrative judge, who is a state official. It disappears into a bureaucratic black hole, with a hearing held months later in an office building several blocks from city hall. The hearings are supposed to be public. But good luck to anybody who tries to find one.
From what I read in the paper, the mayor had a defense. Why not, I thought, give him a chance to defend himself before the full ethics commission in city hall, where there would be an audience. The mayor’s an open government guy. I thought he’d jump at the chance. And it would be great for us—public attention focused on our usually ignored task of making sure city office seekers follow campaign finance laws.
I made my pitch at our meeting. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the expression on the face of Steve Kaufman, Villaraigosa’s lawyer. He looked appalled. When he spoke to us, he warned that my plan would take us down “ a slippery slope.” I suppose Steve meant that if the commissioners followed my plan, we’d be holding hearings on every contested case. Commission President Gil Garcetti, usually my ally, warned me of that same slope.
Lawmakers invoke the slippery slope phrase when they want to kill a measure. There are other words like that in the language of politics. One of my favorites is “I love your bill but it doesn’t go far enough.” After invoking that phrase, opponents load the bill down with so many amendments that it sinks.
Only three of the five commissioners were present. Garcetti and Commissioner Helen Zukin, who I mostly agree with, were against me. If I voted no, I’d just be holding things up until the next meeting, when I would lose. So I cast a vote with my colleagues.
When I told my wife, Nancy, about it, she laughed uncontrollably. Don’t you understand? she finally said. You love publicity, news, hot stories, controversy. You want to shine a spotlight on everything and everybody. That’s not how people are supposed to act in city hall.
She’s right. I spent too many years in a newsroom. I’ll never learn.
But I still think it was a great idea.