I spent humiliating years as an ethics commissioner watching the big spenders dominate city hall through loopholes in the law called independent expenditures. So I was especially happy to see the spenders humiliated in the recent 2nd District City Council election.
Los Angeles has a law limiting campaign contributions and expenditures. But as I saw on the City Ethics Commission, it is badly flawed. The biggest loophole permits businesses, unions or anyone to set up an independent expenditure committee, which can collect and spend money without limits. The word independent is misleading. The committees are as dedicated to the election of candidates as the candidates themselves and are as independent as East Germany was in Iron Curtain days. Such committees dominate city elections, and as an ethics commissioner, I couldn’t do anything about them.
In the 2nd District special election Tuesday, Assemblyman Paul Krekorian defeated Christine Essel , a former Paramount vice president. He got 57 per cent of the vote in the San Fernando Valley district even though she received more than $900,000 from the unprincipled coalition of unions and downtown business interests that formed several independent expenditure committees supporting her.
I say unprincipled because the philosophies of the business groups, mainly the Central Cities Association and the Greater Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, are opposed to that of their union allies. If they had principles, they’d be on different sides. What do they have in common? A desire to control city hall, compromising their differences in back rooms far from public view. Their mutual goal is unlimited development and a free hand for other job-creating businesses.
The Los Angeles Times’ Maeve Reston figured out that Essel and her independent expenditure backers spent about $156 for each of the 8,304 votes she received. Krekorian spent $28 per vote. This important story, by the way, was buried way back in the A section of the Times in another demonstration of how its format, limited space and diminished staff are hurting local coverage.
The list of independent expenditure committees that gave to Essel is a roster of the special interests that run city hall, including the Central City Association and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The several unions included the painters, the carpenters, the Police Protective League and the biggest giver of all, Local 11 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents the well-paid workers of the Department of Water and Power.
What beat her in this low turnout election was a collection of neighborhood groups, some centered in neighborhood councils long despised by city hall. It’s an erratic movement, as sprawling as the city. What these grassroots people have in common is anger at city hall and the special interests that run it.
The question now is whether Krekorian will represent them or fall victim to toadies on his staff, shrewd lobbyists, accommodating bureaucrats and the various perks given to council members. Few are able to resist city hall’s pressure to go along.
Ron Kaye put it well in his blog, saying Krekorian ”owes his election to the grassroots activists from Sherman Oaks to Sunland-Tujunga who rallied behind him in the hope he would stand up for them and be the voice of the anger and frustration of people all over the city. Krekorian has a mandate to lead. If he betrays that trust and becomes just another hollow man in the go-along world of city hall, it will soon be clear enough and he will pay the price when he comes up for re-election in little more than a year. “