Bill Boyarsky
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May 19, 2011

Mark Ridley-Thomas' telephone town hall

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas used an interesting telephone town meeting to build support for putting more of the Crenshaw Boulevard light rail line below street level and to have a station at Leimert Park Village. Robo calls from the popular Tavis Smiley were placed to residents in the Leimert Park area urging them to stay on the line and talk to the supervisor about the light rail route, to be completed sometime between 2016 and 2018. It would run from Exposition Boulevard to LAX.

I watched Wednesday night as calls came into town meeting central at the Los Angeles Urban League headquarters on Mount Vernon Drive, at the edge of Leimert Park.

I arrived early and walked around Leimert Park Village, the cultural and political heart of L.A.’s African American community, located off Crenshaw Boulevard a few miles south of the Santa Monica Freeway. A few vacant stores told me the village could use the economic boost the light rail might provide. I went into the well-known Eso Won bookstore on Degnan Boulevard, and looked at the books. I had wanted to visit the store for a long time but never got around to it. I bought “The Most Famous Woman In Baseball: Effa Manley and the Negro Leagues” by Bob Luke. Then I headed south on Crenshaw toward where Ridley-Thomas wants to put the trains below street level. I passed a casket store, but didn’t want to buy one. It and the rest of the businesses were closed for the evening. There were still people on the street, however, as MTA buses unloaded passengers returning home from work, all potential light rail customers.

At the Urban League, I joined Ridley-Thomas, league CEO Blair H. Taylor, Our Weekly publisher Natalie Cole and a few others seated around a table fielding calls. A supervisorial aide told me 410 people called in, certainly many more than would attend a midweek town meeting in person. This is a terrific method of political communication.

Ridley-Thomas answered questions from telephone callers and a few from publisher Cole. Most of the callers favored below-street level construction of the stretch near Crenshaw High School and another school, as well as the Leimert Village station. They expressed concerns about safety and cost.

A strong critic of Ridley-Thomas' plan is his fellow supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky. Yaroslavsky sides with a report by CEO Art Leahy of the MTA saying the Ridley-Thomas proposals would add more than $400 million to the $1.7 billion project. Yaroslavsky opposes cost increases. Ridley-Thomas, who puts the additional cost at $339 million, said the money could be taken from future projects and other sources.

Ridley-Thomas could use Yaroslavsky’s support. Both are members of the MTA board, which will make the final decision, possibly at a meeting next week. But on the day of the telephone town meeting, Yaroslavsky and Ridley-Thomas had a sharp exchange on KCRW's ’s “Which Way, L.A."” over another issue, the power of the county chief executive officer. From their tone on the show, these two strong-minded politicians aren’t getting along.

Ridley-Thomas also needs the support of Mayor Antonio Villairgosa. He controls four votes on the MTA board. Ridley-Thomas said the mayor is undecided. The supervisor is hoping the Leimert Park residents who participated in the telephone town meeting will persuade the mayor to join him.

May 11, 2011

A 36th CD candidates' night is a useful seminar

I moderated a 36th Congressional District candidate forum that shed light on the complexities of a leading domestic issue and on the politics of coastal California.

The event Tuesday night, at Harbor UCLA Medical Center, was for candidates in the May 17 election to replace Jane Harman in the 36th Congressional District seat, which runs from Venice through the South Bay. The subject was health care and the event was sponsored by organizations involved in the issue.

These candidate events are crapshoots, as I have learned during years of covering them. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when only three of the 16 candidates showed up. They were Mayor Mike Gin of Redondo Beach and businessman Stephen Eisle, who are Republicans, and liberal activist Marcy Winograd, who is a Democrat. Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who was ill, sent a representative. Nor should I have been surprised by the size of the crowd—small.

I didn’t use the format I’d been given as moderator—to allow two minute replies, rebuttals, summing-ups. I let the three talk and talk. With just three candidates and a small audience, I liked the idea of a long discussion, sort of like an old-fashioned candidates’ night in someone’s front room.

The district is heavily Democratic and one of the Democrats is favored to win. As evidence of how liberal the district is, even among many Republicans, Gin, Eisle and Winograd, in answer to a question from the audience, all said they favored stem cell research. You’d probably get the same answer in most places in Coastal California, the most liberal part of the state. Maybe not, however, in Inland California.

Elizabeth Forer, who heads the Venice Family Clinic, asked the candidates how they thought institutions such as hers can continue to deliver health care to the needy in view of shrinking state and federal appropriations. Dr. Gail Anderson, medical director at Harbor-UCLA, wanted to know how the new health care law would affect public hospitals. Dr. David Meyer, who heads LA BioMed, a non-profit research institution, wondered about federal funding for institutions such as his, which has made many important medical discoveries.

In their answers, the three candidates revealed much about themselves and their philosophies. Eisle replied to all the questions by talking about using a business approach, taking pages from the Republican playbook, which didn’t seem to have much relevance to the daunting problems of the Venice Family clinic or Harbor-UCLA’s emergency ward. Gin was the pragmatic South Bay pol, talking about convening citizens committees to come up with solutions to problems that have long stumped politicians and academics. Winograd favors Medicare for all, which might solve the problem but is politically impossible at this time.

The discussion gave me a sense of these candidates as people. The audience, which seemed to be composed mostly of health professionals, appeared to be paying attention. At least nobody left. Some of the time it was boring, like a seminar. But campaigns need more such seminars when the issue is as complicated as this one. I wish there had been more candidates and a bigger audience.

May 4, 2011

Pat Brown's legacy: a fine documentary

In a time when the smart money has written off the state, an excellent and timely documentary, “California State of Mind—the Legacy of Pat Brown,” recalls the prosperous past and gives us a bit of hope for the problems confronting the late governor’s son, Jerry Brown.

I saw it last weekend at the Newport Beach Film Festival. For my wife Nancy and I, it was a welcome reunion with the Brown family and friends, including Kathleen, his daughter. The documentary was made by her daughters, writer director Sascha Rice and executive producer Hilary Armstrong. Rice and Julia Mintz are producers.

As the writer, Sascha Rice faced two challenges. One was that while her grandfather, Edmund G. Brown, was one of California’s greatest governors, he is a remote or even unknown figure to generations born after he served, from 1959 to 1967. Secondly, how could she, a family member, accurately show the real Pat Brown who was both an idealistic visionary and a cynical, cunning politician?

Rice doesn’t entirely capture the latter quality. Sometimes, the film is too nice, those being interviewed too admiring of Brown. Weren’t any of his detractors still alive? But Rice did solve the family problem by giving the film an interesting plot, her own effort to discover her grandfather who, to her, was the fun-filled, loving, undemanding grandpa. It was a pleasant side of the old governor but didn’t tell the grandkids much about their aging playmate. Rice returned to Pat Brown’s San Francisco roots, to his gambler father’s cigar store with an illegal card room in back and to his inability to attend college because dad was broke. She traced his rise through San Francisco’s rough politics, driven by ambition and political instinct. The film also tells of his courtship and lifelong romance with his wife, Bernice, who had his love letters under her pillow when she died. This was one of the most touching moments in the film.

Sascha visited the projects the visionary Pat built and loved—the state water system, the freeways and the public universities. There is also a glimpse of the cynical Pat, talking of the Northern California water he wanted to ship south. Those mountain counties, he scoffed, don’t need all that water, implying they were greedy. He wouldn’t have said that at a meeting in Redding or other northern cities and towns.

Sascha interviewed me for the film. I was the journalistic vet, an admirer of her grandfather but one who appreciated how he got things done. I explained the governor had to bargain and cajole to accomplish his aims, how every mile of the freeways and the water project, every university campus was built deal by deal with politicians who didn’t meet the impossibly high standards demanded by today’s ethicists.

It was a rich state then, far different than the one governed by his son Jerry. Today, we are short of money and the electorate is much more cynical. We’ll see if the Brown genes that took Pat from his father’s cigar store-gambling parlor to the governorship are still strong enough to steer Jerry through problems much more difficult than those faced by his dad.

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