Walking through the Occupy LA encampment the other day, I stopped to listen to a small meeting being held on the north side of city hall. A dozen or more occupiers were discussing how and when to serve food.
A couple of people wanted to post serving hours for the free food. There was intense discussion of varieties of food. One person was a vegan, another, wanting protein, was not. And, naturally, there was the question of who would cook or serve, and whether their assignments should be posted.
“Interesting, isn’t it?” said my friend Art Goldberg, a lawyer who has been protesting since his Berkeley Free Speech Movement days and probably even when he was in elementary school. Goldberg had just finished talking to the group on the best and most humane way to treat the mentally ill in the encampment. He said he stops by Occupy LA every day during breaks in a trial in the nearby courthouse.
“If you’re interested in food service,” I replied, rather sarcastically, indicating that the group’s discussion hadn’t grabbed my attention. He said he thought if I had concentrated more, I would have seen the dialogue wasn’t just about serving food .If I had listened carefully, I would have heard the dynamics of Occupy LA played out on a few levels.
I saw what he meant a few minutes later when a young woman came over to us to thank Goldberg for his remarks on the mentally ill. She had been one of those discussing food. Goldberg talked to her about the need to post schedules and to work out differences that had been evident in the discussion.
The problem, she said, was that there were two very strong women involved in food—one cooking and the other serving. The young woman said she both cooks and serves. It sounded as though she was trying to mediate, to understand both sides. As she explained the food situation, I saw that the discussion at the meeting was really about leadership and bringing people together. She was intelligent, personable and mature. I could see her in a few years leading a movement in the neighborhood, city, state or national level, mediating, compromising, and building coalitions.
That’s one of the important points about the Occupy movements. Leaders will emerge from them, just as Art Goldberg’s sister, Jackie Goldberg, emerged from the Free Speech Movement to become a teacher, a school board member, a legislator and a Los Angeles City Council member.
What looks like a disorganized mess is, in many respects, a training ground for those who will join the next generation of leaders. They are receiving practical lessons in subjects ranging from getting agreement on a food-serving schedule to dealing with difficult people to organizing protests against what originally brought them together—income inequality and rapacious financial institutions.
The closing of the Center for Governmental Studies is another setback to the dying cause of cleaning up elections and taking them out of the hands of big contributors.
Last week, Tracy Westen, CEO of the political reform think tank, and Bob Stern, the president, sent out an e-mail saying “With some sadness, but with considerable pride in our accomplishments, we are closing the Center for Governmental Studies’ offices after 28 years of service in the public interest. The recession has depleted our funding, and we cannot continue to operate CGS in its present form.“
The center, mostly financed by contributions from foundations, brought something new to the political reform movement. In addition to advocating electoral reform, the center dug into the policies that too often are shaped by campaign contributions to elected officials. It proposed major changes to a sick state budgeting system that has been heavily influenced by corporate and labor contributors as well as right wing anti tax forces. It also studied one of the great victims of these forces, California’s education system, and proposed reforms. When I retired from the Times, I was employed as a CGS consultant for two years. I worked with another journalist, Emmett Berg, on a project showing how land developers and their government allies put through land use laws weakening flood and fire protection.
“We were one of the few organizations emphasizing improving government,” Westen told me. “We were trying to fix the process we tried to figure out what were the best solutions for the public.”
The center was born during the post Watergate era, extending from the mid-‘70s to possibly the early ‘90s. Reformers were heroes then, but as my wife Nancy Boyarsky had predicted in a Los Angeles Times op ed piece in the mid-70s, the big contributors would eventually use their money and influence to figure out ways around them. The fat cats and their sharp lawyers found loopholes in reform laws. They created political campaign committees that operated outside the laws. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, giving these shadowy committees carte blanche, was a mortal blow to campaign reform. Today, contributors call the shots at every level of government, mocking an intricate web of reform laws.
This was never clearer to me than during my five-year term on the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. We commissioners nailed a few big contributors. But contributors and their lobbyists and lawyers had reached so deeply into city government that I thought our job as reformers was hopeless.
So, apparently, did the foundations that supported CGS. Steve Rountree, chairman of the CGS board, said in an e-mail obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, “In my view this is the result of the impact of the recession on foundation but, more than that, the consequence of our dramatically polarized political environment and court rulings that have tended to gut laws and regulations aimed at making the democratic process fairer. I believe that foundations have given up hope of meaningful reform in this climate.”
Westen agreed. “ As Steve said, some foundations that have supported our governance reforms may have become dispirited by court rulings and legislative gridlock, feeling not much could be accomplished through the legislative or judicial processes,” he said. “And there's some truth to that -- witness Congress and the California Legislature. But, in my view, that's just when organizations like CGS are needed.”
The CGS office was a few blocks from our house, and Nancy and I often passed it on our morning walks. Last week, it was silent and empty, a perfect symbol of the present state of campaign reform.
* Fixed misspelling of Westen's name
During my days as a newspaper and wire service reporter, I did my best to hype up stories about the State Capitol or city hall. But it wasn’t easy to get editors or readers interested. Put personalities and conflict in your stories, advised my Associated Press boss Morrie Landsberg. Even so, I found it hard work, a sentiment I am sure is shared by the current generation of reporters.
Now filmmakers, equipped with visual and story telling skills, are tackling the job of exploring the personalities, issues and politics that have made the Capitol and Los Angeles City Hall so important to the state.
I’ve already written about one in LA Observed, “California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown,” an excellent documentary done by the late governor’s granddaughters, executive producer Hilary Armstrong and director Sascha Rice. It will be shown at MOCA Nov. 10 after screenings in October in Mill Valley, Carmel and Manhattan.
A work in progress is “Bridging The Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race,” by documentarians Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor. They are filming, raising money for the documentary and interviewing the remaining veterans of the Bradley era. Recently, they announced a “very generous grant” from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation.
I don’t envy, Goldfarb and Sotomayor. Pat Brown was an open, talkative, warm pol, qualities that blended with idealism, a sense of purpose and a love of California to make him one of the state’s great governors. Bradley was also a good politician with idealism, purpose and love of Los Angeles. He was one of the city’s greatest mayors. But he wasn’t talkative, nor did he open up to many people.
His guarded personality was partially shaped, no doubt, by his difficult rise from black police officer in a bigoted police department to becoming African American mayor of a city without a black majority—and one of the country’s most respected public officials of his era.
He was a tough interview. Once, desperate for something interesting, I asked him to tell me about his day. He was surprised by my approach but I made him go through the whole thing, from the time he left the house to what he did in city hall. He checked potholes, streetlights and traffic on his way to work. He went over every detail of the budget. He knew the boring procedures of almost every department. I found it fascinating. Here was a great national symbol of African American progress who, at heart, was an incredible city government wonk, which was one of the reasons for his success.
I’ve always tried to think of the political life I covered as having a dramatic arc, like a movie or a play but it’s difficult to translate this onto the printed page. Now it’s the documentarians' turn to tell the incredible and dramatic story of California through the lives of two of its heroes.