"The Republicans were doing it too." That was Fair Political Practices Commission chairman Ann Ravel's surprising defense in a recent LA Times article that made Ravel out to be the latest poster child for government pension abuse. The 62-year-old Ravel is one of those "double-dipping" public employees who retire with government pensions and then pick up other jobs in government. It's a bonanza that - in Ravel's case - costs taxpayers $304,564-a-year.
The Times angle was that Gov. Jerry Brown was breaking his promise to put an end to pension outrages by creating more double-dippers, like Ravel. Pensioned off from her day-job of 33 years in the county counsel's office in Santa Clara at $172,385-a-year, Brown appointed Ravel to the FPPC where she's now making a cool $132,179-a-year. (To be fair, Ravel is not entitled to earn additional pension credits for working at her second, post-retirement job).
As the Times pointed out, state rules prohibit most government retirees from the CalPers system from drawing both a pension from CalPers and getting paid to work more than 960 hours a year (i.e. 24 weeks) at another job that's also part of the CalPers system.
But there are exceptions, neatly summarized in CalPers Publication 33, entitled "A Guide to CalPers Employment After Retirement." This guide - unearthed by LA Observed - outlines the pitfalls and loopholes for CalPers retirees who want to simultaneously draw their pensions and work at a 2nd job. On page 5 is the exception that applies to Ravel:
Positions Not Subject to the Fiscal Year Limit of 960 Hours
• Member of a Board, Commission, or Advisory Committee: You can serve as a member of an advisory committee, board, or commission if you are appointed to that position by the Governor, Speaker of the Assembly, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, director of a State department, or governing board of the public agency.
In short, Ravel is part of an elite class of CalPers retirees who can double-dip because Brown, Assembly Speaker John Perez or Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg have appointed them to about a dozen plum commissions and boards across the state - notably the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (UIAB) and the Parole Hearings Board. (Some of these boards -UIAB among them - were slated for elimination under Brown's May revise budget).
Brown's office told the Times Ravel's FPPC appointment was actually a good thing because Californians were getting an experienced former public servant in a sensitive job. "Our position is that it's critical to bring the best and most experienced people onto boards and commissions," said Brown spokesperson Elizabeth Ashford.
That brings us back to Ravel's defense of her situation: "The Republicans were doing it too." True, her reference to former FPPC chairman Ross Johnson, also a double-dipper, was spot on.
But is Ravel acting like one of the "best and most experienced" public servants when she asks to be excused from criticism because Republicans also double-dipped. That's the the kind of sloppy ethical logic teenage kids use to justify staying out past midnight.
Californians might also cringe when they hear that excuse coming from an FPPC commissioner. The FPPC is supposed to be a bi-partisan - and in practice a non-partisan - watchdog of government ethics. The next time Ravel, sitting as the FPPC's chairman, has a case before her that calls for the FPPC to discipline a Democratic elected official - and someone complains that the recommended penalty is just a slap on the wrist - will Ravel's reply be: Well, it's the same punishment we meted out to Republicans? Maybe that's even-handed. But others might call it a cop-out that can justify all sorts of chicanery and nonsense.
Crew films an episode of "The Closer" on Fuller Avenue near Beverly Boulevard, at about 1 a.m. Third installment in the Night vision series. Click on the image to see it larger.
When Los Angeles Magazine's Amy Wallace called and asked me to write an article for what would be the "L.A. Woman" issue, I blurted out, "Please tell me it isn't going to be all silicon and collagen." She laughed and responded, "Well, there has to be a little of that - it is L.A. - but we are really going to try to do something different." And I have to admit, several months later, they have done just that.
Their October issue focuses on women who "make a difference" and there are a lot of them. Cover girl Maria Shriver holds a regal pose and smartly turned down multiple offers for other covers where the accompanying article would have raised questions about her personal life. Instead, she is the interviewer in the anchor piece on philanthropist Wallis Annenberg.
On Tuesday, over 100 women (and a few men) gathered on the top floor of the Andaz Hotel on Sunset to celebrate the L.A. Woman issue and the fifty women named as the city's "game changers." As editor Mary Melton mused that she wished they could have lunches like this for every issue, I was struck how different this list was from the "Power" issues we are used to from magazines such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and the like. For one thing, you would be hard pressed to find deep pocket advertisers taking out the full page "congratulations" ads — which seem to be the major reason d'être for such issues — with honorees such as Laura Avery, veteran manager of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, or Charisse Bremond-Weaver, director of South Central's Brotherhood Crusade.
Another surprise is there was only one "movie star" on the list and that was Diane Keaton — and she was chosen because of her impact on architectural preservation. Granted, there was a handful of behind-the-camera women such as former Paramount head Sherry Lansing, lawyer Patrica Glazer, Endeavor's Nancy Josephson and screenwriter Aline Broth McKenna, but they were being credited for their civic contributions as much as their professional achievements. Most of the women were not household names nor wealthy powerhouses -- the one thing they had in common was that they each worked passionately to bring positive change to the city and people's lives.
And so since Melton, Wallace and the women of Los Angeles Magazine made the decision to dig a little deeper and examine the complexities of L.A. women instead of the stereotypes without benefit of those "Congratulations" ads, I thought the least I could do was congratulate them in LA Observed.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Friday, September 30, 2011
The federal government's now controversial $535 million investment in Solyndra Inc. tells only a small part of the story of how the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is deeply subsidizing green energy projects in Southern California. All these California investments ipso facto involve size-able risks to taxpayers. If they weren't "risky" projects, private investors would be totally funding them; as it is the biggest investors in these projects are U.S. taxpayers.
As President Obama comes to LA for two fund-raisers tonight, one question might be: will any of the private investors in California's heavily-subsidized green projects be on hand at the House of Blues ($250/head) and at Fig and Olive ($17,900/head) events to thank the president for his administration's support with some "green" contributions of their own to the president's reelection effort?
The size of the DOE's bet through its "loan guarantee" program on California green energy/solar power projects has reached $4 billion according to a Brookings Institution report highlighted two weeks ago by the House Oversight Committee's ranking Democrat, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. This report was held up by Cummings as a rebuttal to claims by the committee's chairman, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-San Diego, that the Obama administration entire stimulus plan (the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), which included $41.7 billion in spending on green projects, had been a "failure." Last week, Issa further focused his attack in a congressional hearing entitled "How Obama's Green Energy Is Killing Jobs." The Brookings report, Cummings claimed, put the lie to Issa's assertions by concluding that green energy:
(1) employs 2.7 million Americans--more than the fossil fuel industry and twice the
size of the bioscience sector;
(2) grew more slowly than the national economy since 2003, but produced
"explosive" jobs gains in newer segments and outperformed the nation during the
(3) is manufacturing and export intensive, and offers more opportunities and better
pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy.
The Brookings report went on to list the federally-subsidized green energy projects in California, many approved for government support just in the last few months. The headline-grabber among all these, of course, has been the Solyndra project, which got a $535 million loan guarantee. The Solyndra loan has turned into a political football after the company declared bankruptcy on Sept. 6 and was raided by FBI agents amid reports (including a front-page New York Times article that outlined Solyndra's campaign of lobbying the White House in the period leading up to DOE's decision to okay its loan). Solyndra's top executives last Friday pleaded the Fifth Amendment when they appeared before a House committee to testify on their loan deal; it was quite a spectacle as the pair remained mute while being battered by insinuating questions from GOP congress members.
Last week, LA Observed reported that another company, BrightSource Energy Inc., received a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the DOE for its Ivanpah solar-thermal project in San Bernardino County, and that BrightSource's chairman, Californian John Bryson, the former head of Edison International, was recently nominated by Obama as secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce (Bryson on June 27th resigned his BrightSource post).
Here are the other DOE funded green energy projects in Southern California identified in the Brookings Institution report:
-The Abengoa Solar Inc. project, in San Bernardino County, is set to receive a $1.2 billion loan under an agreement it reached earlier this month with DOE. According to DOE, this project by the Spanish firm Abengoa will be the "first U.S. utility-scale deployment" of the company's "latest Solar Collector Assembly." The project, DOE added, will create 830 construction jobs but the number of permanent jobs "created or saved" will be 70. Once on-line, DOE says the Abengoa project would fuel the electricity needs of 54,000 homes.
-NextEra Energy Resources, LLC (Genesis Solar) secured an $852 million loan guarantee in August to build a solar plant in Riverside county. According to DOE, that plant will create 800 construction jobs and 47 "permanent jobs created or saved" and generate enough electricity to power over 48,000 homes.
Meantime the DOE has conditional commitments to fund three projects being developed by First Solar Inc. DOE is talking about "partial" loan guarantees of $1.9 billion First Solar's Topaz project in San Luis Obispo, $1.8 billion to the firm's Desert Sunlight project in Riverside County and $680 million "to the firm's Antelope project, in Lancaster, in LA County.
It all adds up to a huge taxpayer bet on the ability of a handful of companies to turn California's sunlight into green energy. That could be a big windfall for the state's environment but - as the numbers point out - the long-term outlook is that these green power projects will create only a handful of permanent jobs.
An exhibition of the artists who formed a community around Sam Maloof in the Claremont area opens today at the Huntington Library. The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley 1945-1985 includes furniture by Maloof, ceramics by Ward Youry, paintings by Karl Benjamin and Millard Sheets and works by more than two dozen other artists. The show runs through Jan. 30, 2012 as part of the Pacific Standard Time series. Rocking chair by Sam Maloof
Also today: Q&A with April Damman of the Stendahl Gallery by Adrienne Crew at Native Intelligence.
Coming up: Blue Sky Metropolis: The Aerospace Century in Southern California opens at the Huntington on Oct. 8.
Photos: The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Click to enlarge.
Ah, love! Ah, love lost! Ah, love deliciously betrayed! So begins the Los Angeles Opera's seasonal salvo: with the profound Russian melancholy of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and the antic comeuppance of Mozart's "Così fan tutte."
So if you run down the freeway to catch both works, bear in mind that the two are worlds apart in their notions of the human condition.
Think Tchaikovsky -- all those sighing, soaring strings, all those upward woodwind spirals that spell unquenchable love pangs, unrequited longing, doom and tragedy - and just by listening, you'll be overcome by the composer's anguished passion, softened by his tenderly lilting waltzes. Especially because music director James Conlon elicits all, gorgeously, from his pit orchestra.
Open your eyes, though, and this Steven Pimlott production from Covent Garden can dislocate you - jarringly - to a universe the music does not inhabit. Really.
Just try to imagine an outdoorsy "Onegin," one where Tatiana's debutante ball - set to a glorious waltz -- looks like a last-minute affair held in a tiny bus-station ante-room, with a few dancers crowding a beadboard wall. Not the place that an upper-class family with a rolling country estate would deposit its daughter for a festive birthday party.
Oksana Dyka (Tatiana) and Dalibor Jenis (Onegin)
Or the other dancing scene, this time at Prince Gremin's grand St. Petersburg manor house: here the once innocent, vulnerable, impetuous Tatiana has become a Princessly wife, a grand lady, and when the returning Onegin spies her, it's not as Tchaikovsky intended -- with his sweepingly triumphant, joyful polonaise that showcases her in a glittery ballroom -- but on a wintry street after a funeral cortège (to that same music.)
Gone is Onegin's heightened sense of loss of this now-unattainable, much-married, exceedingly elegant Tatiana. Gone is the crushing heart-ache for this anti-hero who, too late, realizes his desparate love for her.
Granted, the disconnect between score and staging would be tough for a cast, or even the deputy director Francesca Gilpin, to counteract. But in the title role Dalibor Jenis -- though attractive enough in a lobotomized Rasputin sort of way and boasting a vibrant baritone -- was a stick.
Only at the end, pleading his case with the one he lost, did he come to life. Oksana Dyka at least gave us a clue to Tatiana's turbulent inner world and asserted her ample, if somewhat metallic soprano, though weak in softer singing. Even better, Vsevolod Grivnov, as the doomed Lensky sang his breakout aria with a wonderfully nuanced expression of sadness and equal parts musicianship. If only he'd not sounded so nasal in those earlier agitated scenes.
Ekaterina Semenchuk made Olga a vivacious flirt, the perfect contrast to her withdrawn, book-ish sister Tatiana, and James Creswell simply luxuriated in his burnished basso, singing Gremin's aria for its own gorgeous sake but without a whit of any dramatic flair. It's called stand-and-sing.
But think Mozart and we're in another performance universe altogether. Especially with "Così," because it simply delights in amorous tomfoolery. Tests of fidelity? Plenty of 'em. Switcheroo shenanigans? You betcha. After all, the title -- "Women Are Like That" -- gives more than a hint of things to come.
And this cleanly framed production -- also by Brits Nicholas Hytner (direction) and Vicki Mortimer (designs) and carried out by deputy Ashley Dean -- is fluidly drawn, contemporary enough in style and appearance, thanks, in no small part, to a cast that's lithe, young and hyper-attractive.
What makes this rococo farce special, though, is how Mozart managed to insert the most sublime drifts of music -- like the farewell trio and several of the arias -- that are sung in-between those scenes here loaded with wide-eyeball mugging and gropey-feely sexcapades.
Saimir Pirgu (Ferrando), Ruxandra Donose (Dorabella), Aleksandra Kurzak (Fiordiligi) and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Guglielmo) in Così fan tutte.
James Conlon shepherded his orchestra with, perhaps, a surfeit of muscular vigor, but settled down to allow some airiness for the lyric moments and, most important in an ensemble work like this, kept close rapport between pit and stage.
All six singers boasted estimable talent. Top among them is Aleksandra Kurzak, who made a credibly conscientious Fiordiligi, and let her clear, pure soprano float effortlessly to the rafters, took on the coloratura challenge with chiseled perfection and could land lovely, low notes securely from wide intervals without register clicks.
Ruxandra Donose, as her hedonistic sister Dorabella, put the wheels of infidelity in motion and showed off her mezzo attractively. Ildebrando D'Arcangelo captured both the subtle swagger and endearing naiveté of Guglielmo by way of a darkly honeyed bass-baritone. Tenor Saimir Pirgu carried off his upright Ferrando well and later transformed into a louche type but could use a better vocal technique, while Lorenzo Regazzo's Alfonso and Roxana Constaninescu's Despina made for the wiliest of conspirators.
Photos for L.A. Opera by Robert Millard
Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980 -- that Getty-supported initiative documenting the origins of the area's contemporary art scene currently on display at various cultural institutions across the Southland -- provides Angelenos with unprecedented opportunities to peep into hitherto hidden private collections and galleries all over town. One such treasure is the Stendahl Galleries in the Hollywood Hills. It is the legacy of legendary art dealer, Earl Stendahl, who played an important role in incubating a market for Modern art in Southern California in the early 20th century.
Usually accessible only by appointment, Stendahl Galleries will be open to the public under the auspices of the "Pacific Standard Time" umbrella. Visitors can also learn more about Earl Stendahl and his legacy in the recently released book, Exhibitionist: Earl Stendahl, Art Dealer As Impresario, authored by April Dammann, who is married to Stendahl's grandson.
Earl Stendahl and his wife Enid were colorful and influential personalities who had strong ties to Los Angeles arts communities, associating with notables such as Millard Sheets, David Alfaro Siqueiros, William Randolph Hearst, Clifford Odetts, David O. Selznick, Igor Stravinsky, Guy Rose, Maynard Dixon, the Wachtels, Beatrice Wood, the Walter Arensbergs, Nelson Rockefeller, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price.
Stendahl was an innovator who persuaded collectors to buy avant-garde work and genres. Diego Rivera's growing Pre-Columbian art collection in Mexico inspired Stendahl to collect Pre-Columbian art and artifacts for his galleries in 1935. Stendahl's gallery hosted one of only two non-museum exhibitions of Pablo Picasso's masterwork, "Guernica," to benefit Spanish [Civil War] refugees, in 1939. Moreover, he was instrumental in obtaining Federal Public Works of Art Project commissions for Millard Sheets and other artists in the region. On Saturday, October 29, 2011, April will host a fundraiser-garden party in her historic home and art gallery in support of Hedgebrook, a free writers' retreat for women on an island in the Puget Sound. You can learn more about the fundraiser here.
I first met April three years ago when she hosted a reception for Hedgebrook alums based in Los Angeles. Her historic home and its contents gave me such a contact high that I was left speechless. When our hostess revealed that she had written a large portion of her Stendahl manuscript at Hedgebrook, I was eager to learn more about her home's special legacy and followed up to interview her via email after Angel City Press released the biography this spring.
What prompted you to write this book? Did you personally know Earl and Enid Stendahl? What were their personalities like?
For some years students and art collectors were calling our gallery with questions about Earl Stendahl's early escapades in Los Angeles. It seemed that there was an untold story which might advance interest in and knowledge about the early art history of Southern California. In the Preface of my book, I tell a tale about Stendahl hiring a prominent portrait artist to paint his (Stendahl's) picture over a valuable Guy Rose painting in 1932, thereby hiding the beautiful Carmel scene for decades, until I discovered the cover-up in 2004. Stendahl was Rose's dealer. They had a successful relationship. How to explain? That mystery was like an inciting incident for me. With my background in fiction/screenwriting, I was hooked! I wanted to discover who, exactly, Earl Stendahl was and how he pioneered a family art gallery business that is still in operation 100 years after its inception.
I knew Enid and Earl as a teenager, when I was dating my husband Ron Dammann at Hollywood High. Personalities? They seemed like ordinary grandparents to me. I had NO idea of Stendahl's import or visionary influence on the art world, at that time. His grandson Ron didn't, either. I had access to such rich and original source materials--letters, photographs, catalogs, inventory and price lists--that to NOT have written the book would have bordered on being irresponsible.
What discovery about your grandfather-in-law's story surprised you? What did you learn that even the family did not know about?
Stendahl came from a humble Wisconsin background with no formal training in art. Yet he developed a remarkable eye for quality and for talent. He promoted unknown artists in provincial San Diego and Los Angeles as early as 1911. In the early days of his business, he represented many California Impressionists, often dealing from his gallery in the Ambassador Hotel.
Our family didn't appreciate the significance of Stendahl's courage (not too strong a word) when he invested in artists of the avant-garde, which no L.A. museum or other gallery would touch. He promoted abstract art coming in from New York and Europe in the late 1920s and bravely gave exhibitions to Modern artists whom the local press called "cuckoo" and "dangerous."
The family [also] didn't know that Stendahl took great care of some of his struggling artists, providing studio space for a pittance [in his gallery at 3006 Wilshire Blvd, a block east of Bullocks Wilshire] and bringing his "waifs" (Enid's term) home to dinner almost every night.
What is it like living in a historic-cultural monument. Any restrictions or benefits?
The designation was granted in January, so it's still pretty new. One is not as restricted in remodeling/improving as people think. We are now assured that the house will remain, even after Ron and I move on. I would like to see an institution buy it eventually for artists or writers to work or as a research annex for scholars in the arts...maybe a Hedgebrook south-west, Adrienne!
What pioneering efforts did Stendahl Galleries undertake to bring important artworks to the public's attention?
I learned that Stendahl had made heroic efforts to lure the Guggenheim Museum of NYC to Los Angeles as a West Coast satellite. It's a fascinating story of persistence and canny strategies involving HUGE and famous personalities that, ultimately, failed. The book recounts how Stendahl [organized shows] for David Alfaro Siqueiros and other "revolutionary" painters, acting more like a museum than an art gallery. Additionally, Stendahl displayed Picasso's mural, "Guernica," in his second gallery on Wilshire Blvd. The book shows the painting and an invitation to opening night with a long, impressive list of attendees.
Did your husband grow up in the house owned by [famed art collectors] Louise and Walter Arensberg? What was it like to grow up in the Hollywood Outpost Estates?
Ron grew up next door to the Arensberg house, which operated as an informal salon for the intellectuals of the day--many of them European émigré artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. The Dada art movement actually was born and shaped in this milieu. Initially, Walter Arensberg helped finance the Stendahl family's move to the house next door. Stendahl took advantage of the proximity to the art crowd attending Arenberg's salons. People would hop over a fence between the houses for pineapple juice at Walter's party and a stiff drink over at Earl's abode.
So our family complex includes both houses, one historic (ours) and one with Lloyd Wright interiors where Ron's cousin lives. Architects Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, John Lautner and William Woollett contributed to our house. It's a pastiche of the very best of So. Cal architecture. Ron had a happy childhood in The Outpost Estates. He had lots of pals in the neighborhood, and all the kids went to Gardner Street Elementary (where Michael Jackson went) and then Le Conte Jr. High and Hollywood High.
You also grew up in Hollywood. Where did you live and what are your memories of going to Hollywood High School? What's one of your favorite memories about growing up in the area? What's changed that you miss or makes you sad.
I was born in Hollywood and spent a few years as a child in Chicago, where my father had jobs in radio and early TV (both L.A. and Chicago). We lived in apartments in Hollywood until my parents bought a home in the Laurel Estates of Studio City.
Hollywood High was a blast. Harvard's freshman class of 1964 welcomed its top student (full scholarship) from my HHS class. We had some brainy, fun kids, and Ron and I were going steady, by our senior year. I've contributed a lot of time and money over the years toward the re-vitalization of Hollywood Boulevard and surroundings, but it just doesn't seem to "take." I won't use the word "hopeless," but - how to bring Hollywood back to some measure of former glory? Maybe the answer is that it never was glorious. That's hard to admit.
What is one of your favorite pieces in the Stendahl Galleries inventory?
At the moment I feel blessed to gaze upon "Rising Mists" by Guy Rose. This is the picture uncovered by removing the portrait of Grandpa (Earl Stendahl). It has been put up at auction, but, so far, no sale. It might be that the story of over-painting is the deal-breaker for buyers. Personally, I think the fact that the gorgeous canvas was covered up for 75+ years makes it a fascinating object! But I have come to understand that art collectors can be an insecure bunch. (Should I say that??) Let's say SOME collectors are like that.
Look for this week's Angeleno Datebook on Saturday, September 24th.
Sarah Palin and Rep. Michelle Bachmann have recently been lambasting Gov. Rick Perry with the latest political whipping stick - "crony capitalism." The pair allege the Texas governor is guilty of "crony capitalism" because an executive decision of his created tens of thousands Texas teenage customers for Merck & Co., the maker of a cervical cancer vaccine and one of Perry's big campaign contributors.
But it was perhaps the disastrous collapse of California-based Solyndra Inc. - and the discovery that the solar power company's biggest equity investor, George Kaiser, bundled campaign contributions for candidate Barack Obama in 2008 - that has recently stirred the "crony capitalism" idea/term out of its cave in Transylvania. Now it stalks the land, a monster.
Likewise, "crony capitalism" was invoked this week by critics attacking the Obama administration for allegedly (this was gleaned from the Daily Beast) trying to influence an Air Force general's testimony before the FCC about LightSquared, a wireless broadband operator run by another one of Obama's big campaign contributors.
If some wizard could ban the phrase "crony capitalism" from the airwaves (where's the Catholic Church's Index when we need it?), the Fox News Channel would be virtually speechless. This is not to say that the idea, the concern, lacks merit. But if you start wading into these waters you'll find plenty of Republicans who have also wanted to pick "winners" and "losers" in the marketplace. The GOP ran into this same hypocrisy-quagmire when they railed against congressional earmarks a few years ago.
In fact, "crony capitalism" is just the derogatory term for "public-private partnerships" - the phrase used in polite society by elected officials as they try to sell us, for example, on how lucky we would be if the city of Los Angeles partnered with AEG to let the entertainment giant build a stadium on public land. The entire redevelopment of downtown LA is awash in such "public-private partnerships" - it all sounds so laudable.
Too often a "public-private partnership" is simply a euphemism for no-bid deals between government and some private, for-profit entity that's got close friends at City Hall, in Sacramento or at the White House. Often, the partnership does create a public benefit - and turns a profit for the entrepreneurs. And if it doesn't - well, then taxpayers often get soaked.
The development of the U.S. railroad system in the 19th century helped build a national economy, spurred industrialization and developed the West. It was an early example of a "private-public partnership." Our history is replete with them - try the monarchy-granted franchises to settle the New World (you think there was a bidding process there that would stand public scrutiny?) The concept makes sense. Government sometimes needs to step up and sanction risky for-profit ventures, subsidize them, nurture them with monopolies, in order to achieve some public good.
It's the execution that often fails. Too often these partnerships are ironed out in backrooms; a lazy media with attention deficit disorder won't focus on them; elected officials are too often so self-interested they can only gushingly embrace them; and the government lawyers and regulators who are supposed to vet the deals and monitor compliance are too often out-gunned by the for-profit players' clever Wall Street lawyers. Little wonder that the results can often be disappointing, if not disastrous.
Just remember this: today's "crony capitalism" was yesterday's "public-private partnership."
The U.S. government's $535 million bet on solar-energy darling Solyndra, Inc. was big. But LA Observed has learned that the feds have bet an even bigger pile of taxpayer chips on another green energy project in California - that would be BrightSource Energy, Inc.'s Ivanpah solar power farm in the Mojave Desert. That bet: $1.6 billion.
Yes, the US Department of Treasury's Federal Financing Bank - the same bank that's on the hook in the Solyndra meltdown - has agreed to loan $1.6 billion to Oakland-based Brightsource. In case you've forgotten, Solyndra is the manufacturer of cylindrical solar power devices that filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 6, endured a raid by FBI agents with search warrants, faced a hostile House committee and is now the whipping boy of Republicans because of its ties to the Obama administration.
The fallout from Solyndra definitely won't help President Obama's nomination of Californian John Bryson as commerce secretary, who is a BrightSource cheerleader. Senate Republicans in mid-July, before the Solyndra collapse, threatened to filibuster Bryson's nomination claiming his overly zealous (their characterization) support for green energy is anti-business. Now, there may be more reason for them to yank the reins because Bryson was chairman of the board of BrightSource, with a sizeable stock equity awards plan valued at $442,000 that sweetened his involvement in the company. On June 27, Bryson resigned from the BrightSource board, presumably to help clear the way for his appointment as commerce secretary.
Bryson has a talent for straddling two worlds. He has been both the head of the California Public Utilities Commission and the head of Edison International, the parent of Southern California Edison, a utility heavily regulated by the PUC. Bryson also helped co-found a prominent environmental group (Natural Resources Defense Council) and he sits on the board of Coda Automotive, the Santa Monica-based electric car company now partnering with Chinese financiers to build batteries for its Coda car.
Even before the Federal Financing Bank disbursed a dime to finance it, the Solyndra deal had critics who doubted the wisdom of sinking tax dollars into its giant, heavily automated Fremont plant. But the BrightSource deal is also not for the faint-hearted. BrightSource's SEC filing, dated April 22, read like a nightmare - at least to the unsophisticated. The company's S-1 (initial public offering) statement lists a number of risk factors - including ironically the possibility that its green-energy solar plant would threaten the habitat of the local desert tortoise and stir up an environmental kerfuffle - which it has. In its IPO filing the company notes negative public reaction to construction of its plant could create costly delays:
For example, Ivanpah has been, and continues to be, the subject of administrative and legal challenges from groups concerned with potential environmental impacts (e.g., impacts on the California desert tortoise and other wildlife species affected by Ivanpah as originally proposed), archaeological or cultural impacts or impacts on the natural beauty of public lands. We expect this type of opposition to continue as we develop and construct existing and future projects using our systems.
Other risk factors cited by BrightSource in its IPO filing:
We have generated substantial net losses and negative operating cash flows since our inception and expect to continue to do so for the foreseeable future as part of the development and construction of solar thermal energy projects using our systems...Our proprietary technology has a limited history....our future growth is dependent upon the successful implementation of Ivanpah, our first utility-scale solar thermal power project...We may not be able to finance the growth of our business, which we expect will require significant amounts of capital... We depend heavily on federal, state and local government support for renewable energy sources, which are subject to change...Whether it's another Solyndra, the BrightSource deal probably deserves more scrutiny. It is also entirely probable that BrightSource has not gotten all the money the feds agreed to lend it - at least not yet.
Monday the LA Times reported that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, plans to investigate government loan programs in light of the Solyndra debacle, and that the OC congressman claimed such programs might be "unfixable." Sounding like he's been drinking the GOP party-line on "crony capitalism," Issa told C-Span: "There's been this attitude that the government can step in and give money and pick winners and losers... we see that as a backdoor easy way to end up with government corruption."
The LA Times went on to put Issa's criticism in context.
A year ago, however, Issa seemed to support government loan guarantees, at least to the nuclear industry, which includes the San Onofre plant in his district. In an April 18, 2010, op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Issa called for government help, including loan guarantees, to a nuclear industry he contended had been hamstrung by the environmental movement. "That this kind of political obstruction could again end up destroying investments in nuclear power makes it necessary for federal loan guarantees to backstop potential private sector investments to restart nuclear energy development," he wrote.
In a front-page article Thursday LA Times readers learned Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy has blundered badly by choosing to fight a redistricting plan backed by influential Latino leaders, including the plan's author, Supervisor Gloria Molina.
The Times warned Yaroslavsky's choice was a "risky gambit" that would alienate Latino voters and could cripple his plans - if he had them - to run for mayor in 2013. By the story's third paragraph, Yaroslavsky's decision had been called not only a "risky gambit" but also a move that "could hurt (his) political future" or even - worse yet - "haunt his political prospects." By this time, it was clear Yaroslavsky should be placed on a political suicide-watch and seek out an exorcist.
But wait, Yaroslavsky a high-rolling risk-taker? Certainly he has not been afraid of controversy. His opposition to LAPD abuses (when bracing the LAPD was risky) and coastal oil drilling; his support for rent control and growth-limits. All divisive issues, and Yaroslavsky was in the front-lines. But had he ever crossed his liberal, Westside constituents? What about being a risk-taker at the ballot box? Not really. In fact, for years, Yaroslavsky's reputation has been that of a Hamlet, crippled by political inertia. He has held two offices in his life: councilman and supervisor. He has had only one risky fight - running for city council that first time in 1975. And the shaggy-headed Jewish 26-year-old really had little to lose in that battle - other than his political virginity. Ever since Zev has played it safe. In fact, some wondered if he'd sit out the 2013 mayor's race to succeed Antonio Villaraigosa, content to drift into retirement (he's termed out of his supervisor's seat in 2014). Yet there are serious signs Yaroslavky will throw his hat into the mayor's race; one of his most faithful liegemen, Rick Taylor, has said as much in quotes he's given the Times; and no one truly believes Taylor, a private political operator, says anything about Yaroslavsky unless it has his pal's full imprimatur.
Okay, that brings us to the Times' assurances that Yaroslavksy took leave of his political senses by opposing Molina's plan to dismantle his 3rd supervisorial district. From several Latino leaders, we heard in the Times piece, Yaroslavsky's decision would haunt him, have dire political consequences.
In Molina's redistricting kitchen, Yaroslavsky's 3rd district starts out as a pastrami sandwich but comes out a tamale, with a 50 percent Latino population district. The 3rd would lose the Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Westwood and all of the West San Fernando Valley as it's shoved eastward. With a little luck, it could - if adopted - provide the demographics for a 2nd Latino to be elected to the Board of Supervisors. That's Molina's game plan.
Some have wondered - why should Yaroslavsky care what happens to the 3rd? Term limits mean he can't run again for supervisor anyway. So what's the big deal?
But it can be argued Yaroslavsk's decision was not a mistake, not a Sophie's choice with no good results either way, but his best choice - especially if he is running for mayor. Publicly, Yaroslavsky says his choice was dictated by principle; he and his people have argued 3rd district constituents have a happy alignment of interests, constitute a "community" of sorts and that splintering "their" community would disenfranchise them, dilute their voice. There's truth to that. But the cold-blooded realpolitik here is: how would it go down if Yaroslavsky turned his back on his liberal constituents? A cardinal rule of politics: protect your base, by all means don't abandon it, especially if you're blessed with constituents who are deep-pocket campaign contributors, high-propensity voters who have an out-sized impact on city-wide elections and are disproportionately represented among the city's opinion-leaders. And the 3rd district is all of that. And more.
If we dare to get even more cold-blooded (warning: the following may be too graphic for anyone but adults), where is the great Latino vote-getter out there, running for mayor, who'll give Yaroslavsky fits at the polls for his opposition to Molina's plan? At this late date, it is highly unlikely there'll be a Latino-surnamed candidate of any stature on the ballot in March 2013. City council president Eric Garcetti will try to capitalize on his Spanish-speaking ability and his part-Latino ethnicity. But will he go so far as to embrace Molina's redistricting plan? He hasn't yet. Yaroslavsky's has probably calculated Garcetti won't play this card, nor will the other big-shots in the race - controller Wendy Greuel, councilwoman Jan Perry or businessman Austin Beutner, ex-deputy mayor to Villaraigosa.
So, Zev will probably be just fine as long as he is never caught publicly espousing any of the aforementioned-political calculations and sticks to the talking points outlined on Zev's Blog, the supervisor's richly-talented, taxpayer-supported internet tip-sheet on all things Zev.
On that website, Yaroslavsky has called the Molina-Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas plan (actually two plans) bad public policy and legally unnecessary.
"Both of the proposed maps create two districts in which Latinos would comprise more than half the voting-age citizens, instead of one such district now.
"But contrary to the arguments put forward by supporters of the proposed maps, their adoption is not required by this law. The Voting Rights Act requires an equal opportunity for minority groups; it does not require the creation of districts in which a single minority group comprises more than 50% of the voting age citizenry. The Federal courts have ruled that "fifty percent" districts are only required when voting is so racially polarized that non-minorities consistently vote against minority-preferred candidates to such an extent that those candidates are denied an equal opportunity to win."
And here's the kicker:
"Frankly, the notion that non-minorities won't vote for a minority candidate in L.A. County is antiquated. Los Angeles in 2011 is not the same as the Los Angeles of forty, thirty or even twenty years ago. Our county is politically and socially far more mature and broad-minded."
What Yaroslavsky doesn't say - can't say - is that if Molina gets her way, he would be a fish out of water, in a new district he tried to abort and no longer representing his core-constituency. That's not a comfortable place to be in if you are going to jump into a highly competitive mayor's race.
Solyndra, Inc. - the hottest name in scandal right now - was nothing if not ambitious. A lot has been made of the firm's $535 million loan guarantee from the Dept. of Energy, now in jeopardy after the company declared bankruptcy. And it's a controversy that keeps on giving.
A close look by LA Observed at the company's SEC filings shows that it also was seeking additional DOE loan guarantees of $469 million for Phase II of its so-called Fab 2 solar power manufacturing facility in Fremont. And, get this, DOE - according to Solyndra's Dec. 18, 2009 application for SEC approval to sell common stock - tentatively gave this 2nd loan application its approval. Here's the story right from Solyndra's own S-1:
"On September 11, 2009, we submitted Part 1 of an application for an approximately $469 million guaranteed loan to be utilized to finance the construction of Phase II. As with the financing facility for Phase I, the loan would be made by the Federal Financing Bank and guaranteed by the DOE. On November 4, 2009, we were notified by the DOE that our Part 1 application was complete and that Phase II was determined to be a Section 1703 eligible project and to have the credit subsidy cost for the project paid out of funds allocated under Section 1705. We submitted Part 2 of our loan guarantee application on November 17, 2009."
It's not clear just how far along this Phase II plan got before Solyndra went into bankruptcy. An internet search shows that the Phase II funding plan is like the proverbial tree that fell in the forest - and no one heard it. And there is no doubt that the Phase II financing plan was distinct from the much-talked about $535 million loan guarantee that was approved by DOE. The following language, also excerpted from the company's S-1 SEC filing, makes that clear:
"Phase I Financing
We were the first company to secure a guaranteed loan facility under Title XVII. On September 3, 2009, we and one of our subsidiaries, Solyndra Fab 2 LLC, entered into financing agreements with the Federal Financing Bank, a government corporation under the general supervision of the Secretary of the Treasury, and the DOE that provide for a $535 million loan to Solyndra Fab 2 LLC, which we refer to as the Fab 2 Borrower, that is guaranteed by the DOE. The estimated aggregate project costs of Phase I are approximately $733 million...."
So should taxpayers' count themselves lucky that Solyndra went bankrupt when it did - before the feds sank another $469 million into its solar power enterprise? Perhaps.
Solyndra's SEC filing - dry reading for sure - can be read in its entirety by clicking here.
For years Tim Rutten was one of the archbishops at the LA Times. Cerebral, magisterial, confident of his consortium with angels, Rutten's voice was heard on the Times editorial page, more recently from a pulpit on the front-page of Calendar. Who hasn't read Rutten and felt his large personality looming over their breakfast table...and wanting, at times, to yell back at him?
But Rutten has been defenestrated - fired; in the good old days, defenestration was a nasty way for a mob to dismiss its unwanted princes by literally throwing them out a window, to an uncertain fate on a cobbled street below. Rutten, we're happy to report, survived his fall, and his new job - if you could call it that - as of last Wednesday was to talk to two-dozen retired and out-of-work newsfolks. These aging, squinting, tottering greybeards belong to the quaintly-named Old Farts Society (is it refreshing to know that such entities really exist?). At this - one of the OFS's semi-regular luncheons, in Pasadena - Rutten was the dessert. A tart dessert at that.
Striking a scholarly pose with a gaggle of eye-glasses hanging from his neck, Rutten said his forced retirement left him with "a profound sense of relief" because he no longer had to "pretend to care for people (at the Times) for whom I had no respect." Harrrumph! But if Rutten were ill-humored who could blame him? He devoted his entire adult life to the Times, almost 40 years. And when the paper let him go, it was an anonymous HR employee (a "little girl" from the Chicago home office) who informed Rutten - a man who had chronicled and commented on Los Angeles' contemporary history - that he was now history himself. Defenestration. Brutal. Impersonal. And very, very corporate. (And before we forget, 30 other Times editorial workers were let go that same day, part of an incremental hollowing out of the Times that's been going on for several years).
When asked by the HR person if he needed counseling to help him adjust to unemployment, Rutten thundered - "what kind of counseling would that be - for suicide prevention?" At this, several wizened Old Farts tapped their canes on the floor in a show of empathy.
About the future of the Times? Rutten was not optimistic.
He told the OFS'ers he expects the New York Times to pick up the pieces of the LA Times' empire, one way or another.
And so it went. I had to leave early but if I had had time, I would have thanked Tim for one of his largely unsung contributions to readers.
In his own recent tribute to Rutten here in LA Observed, Bill Boyarsky recalled that Rutten was part of a team running the paper's coverage (under then-editor Michael Parks, Boyarsky was city editor) during the late 1990's. This team decided to ignore the paper's conventional way of story-telling when it came to investigative pieces. The Times' usual approach had been to tell an investigative story in one giant, mind-numbing novella that jumped from page to page. Who read those monsters and lived to tell about it? Why not, the iconoclasts argued, give the story all you can in one day, write up what you've got and put it the paper? Simple. If there's more to tell - well, there's another day to dig deeper into that same story and tell more about it again. And there's another day after that. That's how the Times city desk - of which Rutten was a big part - decided to handle the Rampart-LAPD scandal. More recently, the Bell story.
So, as Boyarsky told it, Rutten played a role in restoring this old-fashioned story-telling technique to the Times' signature big stories. This technique goes a long way toward restoring the wonder, the excitement, the suspense of picking up the paper each morning. We can all surely thank Tim for that.
PS: A shout-out to TV producer and author Pete Noyes (his book, The Real LA Confidential, now available on Kindle), a news legend in his own right, who was kind enough to invite me to the Old Farts Society event.
The Solyndra Inc. controversy saw a bi-partisan pile-on this morning as Rep. Henry Waxman "joined" (sort of) his GOP colleagues, to sharply scold the solar power company whose bankruptcy has put taxpayer loan guarantees of $535 million at potential risk and could - if Republicans can make their case - implicate the Obama White House in cutting corners to help Solyndra secure those guarantees.
In prepared remarks before a House investigating panel, Waxman said Solyndra's CEO personally assured him in July his company was in a "strong financial condition and in no danger of failing." CEO Brian Harrison even told him, Waxman said, Solyndra was on course to double its revenues in 2011. But now, Waxman continued, he was having a "hard time reconciling those representations" with the fact that on Sept. 6 Solyndra filed for bankruptcy and laid off 1,100 employees.
Republicans, who hope l'affaire Solyndra will reap big political dividends, were not spared by Waxman. While agreeing with their concerns about the Solyndra deal, Waxman criticized his GOP colleagues for drawing the wrong policy conclusion from the Solyndra controversy - i.e., that it proves the folly of federal government investments in green energy. If that conclusion were embraced and such investments were halted, Waxman warned it would be a "grievous blow to our future prosperity."
The West LA veteran congressman sharply noted that most of the Republicans on the House submcommittee are "science deniers" who don't believe in the danger of global warming and don't recognize the vital need for government financial aid to bolster alternative energy innovators who are trying to compete against the heavily-subsidized Chinese solar industry.
LA Observed Tuesday reported that the state of California also has some skin in the Solyndra debacle after having exempted the Fremont-based company from paying about $25 million in sales taxes on its purchase of manufacturing equipment used to build its innovative cylindrically-shaped solar "panels."
Waxman's remarks can also be seen on YouTube.
I met two-dozen "convergent journalists" the other day at USC. They are the children of the media's current crises, and their lot, their jobs, their future, should be of concern to anyone who believes media matters.
Don't get me wrong - I only have the highest admiration for the young, convergent journalists I met from USC's specialized master's program. And, no, they are not part of a paranormal cabal that gathers at the Tommy Trojan statue and howl madly at the harvest moon. Simply put, they are madly multi-tasking reporters, weaving together all of the new, converging threads of social media and news-talk into a bigger, more luxurious, more amorphous, journalism of the future. It could be all for the good....but still I'm concerned - concerned that today's young journalists are being forced by the cruel economics of our floundering, panicky profession to do too much communicating and not enough reporting, too much selling and not enough digging.
Not only must convergent journalists do stories but also they must produce them for multiple formats: as a video (which they shoot, edit, track and perform in) that goes on YouTube or Vimeo; as a microblog on Twitter; as a screed on Facebook. They must be adept at uploads, hyperlinks, downloads - indeed, s7$!*loads of stuff (and when I half-mastered a teletype in the Imperial Valley bureau of the San Diego Union I thought I was pretty tech-savvy!). With all this, where's the time to figure out what's happening at City Hall? To poke through - and go beyond - all the flotsam and press releases to find stories that raise hell, take names and kick out the jambs? I mentioned this concern to one of the young journalists afterward, Leslie Velez. "Seems to me you're being asked to be a jack-of-all-trades," I groaned. And she brightly chimed in: "And the master of none." So they get it. they know the pitfalls. Maybe that's half the battle won already. I hope so.
And then there's the alone-ness of these new journalists. Many of the USC students I met don't see themselves working in a newsroom (a hotbed of ideas where all the cross-pollinating and jiggling around in an enclosed, tense high-caffeine environment produces jokes, mutants and miracles and reinforces journalism values) or having a regular editor (who challenge and inspire their reporters even as they fret about syntax and lawsuits). Freelancers, that's what we would've called these "convergers" in the days of journalism 1.0. USC journalism program directors Michael Parks and Sasha Anawalt (my gracious hosts) say many of their students will have to form informal journalism collectives with other solitary journalists to get feedback on their stories, to check their facts, to bounce ideas off one another. But how sustainable, how reliable will these informal networks be?
Another worrisome point: as freelancers, they must be entrepreneurial, learn how to sell their stories, and then flog the hell out them once they're published to make sure their work gets maximum exposure in the media's increasingly atomized marketplace. USC master's degree candidate Veronica Villafane, a former colleague of mine, told me her goal is to find ways to monetize the new journalism forms - like making real money shooting stories posted on YouTube. None of this was a concern to the classic journalist of yore - leave that stuff to the damned bean-counters! Show me the way to City Hall!
But just going to City Hall now and working for a newspaper, radio or TV station that pays your expenses, gives you a steady salary and benefits, provides you with an insightful editor, a computer, a printer, a newsroom full of colleagues, a giant subscription platform to air your stories - it's increasingly no longer a valid dream. Increasingly it's only a hazy memory. The new kids on the block at USC are the future. Will somebody converge me already?
Were they deliberately fooled or just foolish? Three months ago, LA Observed has learned, California state officials toured the Solyndra, Inc. plant in Fremont to see what miracles were being wrought by the state's investment in Solyndra, widely touted as a green energy model. The official turistas later gushingly reported: "Staff was quite amused by the musical robots and robotic forklifts that tooled around the [Solyndra] production facility moving solar panels while playing music. Staff was advised that the robots had a number of tunes available in their repertoire." Wow! We're entrusting folks like these to safeguard our public investments?
And talk about tone-deaf - if the state officials had listened more closely they might have realized the music coming from the robots was actually the sound of Solyndra's swan song. On Sept. 6, after tapping into millions of dollars of tax benefits, Solyndra filed for bankruptcy. On top of that, FBI agents raided the company's headquarters, armed with a search warrant. That's never a good sign.
To date, the focus of the Solyndra story has been on the controversy surrounding the Obama administration's handling of the company's successful request to obtain $535 million in loan guarantees. Republican lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday in the nation's capital hope to score points by arguing Solyndra received favorable treatment from the Obama White House because Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser, a heavyweight Obama fund-raiser in 2008, was also a big investor in Solyndra.
But while all the political fireworks so far in the Solyndra debacle have been happening in Washington, D.C., it may be that we'll see some in California. It turns out that in a rare show of unity, both Reps and Dems in Sacramento, holding hands like a bunch of campfire girls, in March voted unamiously to provide Solyndra and scores of other California companies with substantial sales tax breaks when they purchased green-energy manufacturing equipment. SB-71 was the legislative vehicle for doing this, and its author was state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernanndo Valley. After SB-71 cleared, Solyndra was among the first in the state to ask a wonderfully obscure state agency, chaired by state treasurer Bill Lockyer, to certify its eligibility to receive an estimated $35 million in sales tax exemptions. No surprise, Lockyer and the board he chaired (CAEATFA - don't ask what it stands for!) quickly approved Solyndra's request. As of Aug. 1, the company had avoided paying $25 million in sales taxes.
Now, all this federal and state assistance could have looked smart. Not only would it incentivize the creation of jobs, but green jobs at that. A double whammy. But Solyndra went belly up and last week sent lay-off notices to its 1,100 employees. And those state officials who toured the Solyndra plant last June - they might have looked smart too if they had done their homework and not been so enamored by the cute, singing robots that they missed the big story under their nose.
And here's another question now emerging from the Solyndra story: how many of the good, high-paying green-jobs Solyndra created during its brief life were actually held by U.S. citizens? A private jobs website that monitors foreign worker hirings says Solyndra applied for 54 permits from the U.S. Dept. of Labor to hire H-1B workers (foreign professionals on visas) and green-card holders at its plant. To play it safe, LA Observed checked a DOL database and found that Solyndra during a one year period, ending Sept. 2010, filed applications to hire almost a dozen H-1B workers.
Edited version reposted due to a technical glitch
Today, our nation's civic, religious and media leaders mobilized the nation to engage in a national day of remembrance of 9-11.
With so much patriotism and emotion in the air, it is almost sacrilegious to say that "this is the day on which innumerable Americans ... will be tempted to go about boring other Americans to death with their reminiscences of where they were and exactly how they heard the news...." But wait! Before you reach for your pitchfork, let me say this quote did not come from a current day 9-11 commentator. No, that's someone writing on the 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. But, you ask, how could that author, Bill Henry, a KHJ radio newsman, writing in the LA Times on Dec. 7, 1951, scoff at his fellow citizens who dared recall Pearl Harbor? Surely, he was blackballed from polite society? Wasn't the LA Times that gave him a platform for his sneering views subsequently inundated with hate-mail? No, Henry and the Times felt no censure, no outrage. Both went on to flourish. But I suspect the two would have felt a blow-back today, if these same words had been written about our ten year anniversary memories of 9-11.
So, what's the difference? Why did Bill Henry get away with saying those things then? Because Americans had moved on ten years after Pearl Harbor - so argues UC Irvine professor Jon Weiner. Weiner, in an LA Times article recently pointed out that there were good reasons why 9-11's widely-recognized partner in infamy, Pearl Harbor, was barely remembered at all ten years later. Weiner argues that the nation's agenda in 1951 was actually to dis-remember Pearl Harbor for geo-political reasons: by 1951, Japan, the perpetrator of the day of infamy, was our ally and the U.S. was embroiled in an ugly conflict on the Korean peninsula. Dwelling on Dec. 7, ten years later, Weiner claims, would have distracted the nation from its new priorities.
But what Weiner does not touch on is why 9-11 is so widely remembered today. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind, as I fight my own tears and am bombarded with the images and memories of those who lost loved ones on 9-11 and of pictures and videos of the horror and heroism of those at ground zero that day:
The victims of 9-11 were all innocents, non-combatants. Pearl Harbor was a military base. The casualties were fighting men. Most of us, as non-combatants, probably identify better with the horror of someone losing their life at the office, trapped in falling elevators, jumping to their death holding hands with a fellow worker, making a final phone call to a loved one...experiencing a nightmare exploding out of the routine.
The images of 9-11 were so compelling and numerous in our media-soaked age that it is impossible not to remember. Pearl Harbor was just barely documented on film and in photos. Live TV made all of us participants in what happened on 9-11 almost as much as those who were in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, PA. that day.
Finally: We can't move on because our nation's leaders want us to stay invested in a war-footing. For the U.S. public to continue making sacrifices to fight wars that sometimes look like the endless combat in George Orwell 's 1984, it's important to have some of the fanfare and media-hype of Sept. 11, 2011. In 1951, our enemies had changed, from Japan and Germany to the Soviet Union and Red China. The 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was an inconvenient milestone.
But not so Sept. 11, 2011. Today, we are told by our leaders, like vice-president Joe Biden, speaking at the Pentagon services this morning, that our enemies remain the same ones who attacked us ten years ago and that our fight with these evil-doers isn't over yet even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. So we can only hope 9-11's 20th anniversary - if we are fortunate enough to have put these wars and strife behind us then - will be a more muted remembrance than the one we're having today.
In our singularly loud American way of celebrating and reflecting, we're all revving up for this weekend's anniversary of the events of 9/11. As usual, there's a glut of TV programming and pundit navel-gazing. The only thing missing is a mattress sale at Sit 'n Sleep.
We can't help it; humans are hard-wired to organize and wrangle our history. We believe we can make sense of a senseless world if only we can quantify it. Usually, we can't, but we still like to measure time by the interval between wars. Sometimes, we can, by measuring ourselves with a census, which, in the developed world, is usually in 10-year increments.
So here we are, at the 10-year milestone, recalling where we were, how we heard about the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. We all process things in our own way. Mine is remembering tiny, telling moments in the days immediately after 9/11 when we were raw and struggling with how we felt and how we were supposed to feel.
The day after the attacks, I was driving near my house when another driver abruptly pulled out of his driveway directly in front of me. I did not respond as I normally do, with cursing and exasperated hand gesturing. I simply braked, sighed and let him take the lead. At the next intersection, we pulled up to the stop sign abreast of each other. He was turning right, and I was continuing straight ahead.
We turned toward each other. ''I'm sorry,'' he mouthed, offering a penitent look. I nodded, mouthed ''OK,'' and drove off, wondering about the origins of the alien that suddenly inhabited my body.
Most of that week I found myself engaging in odd behavior: not judging witless TV news readers; sending sentimental e-mail to a cousin in New York I hadn't seen in decades; being patient when the cashier at the grocery store seemed to be moving in slow motion.
And when said store had not received its daily allotment of sushi, I was disappointed but uncharacteristically not annoyed at the delivery person's tardiness. I drove a couple blocks to see if the 7-Eleven nearby had received its supply. Normally, one doesn't associate sushi with 7-Eleven, but I happened to know that the same outfit that supplied premier fish to the pricey Wild Oats also supplied it to that modest 7-Eleven.
I asked the cashier, ''Have you received your sushi today?'' The response was a blank expression on his brown, Middle Eastern/South Asian face. I tried again. ''No sushi yet today?'' and got a mumbled, incomprehensible reply. ''Do you speak English?'' I asked, and although neither my question nor its tone was offensive, suddenly I wondered if I had blundered. If I had in no uncertain terms challenged the cashier's right to work at 7-Eleven; to be resident in this country; to be beyond suspicion for any social faux pas; to be anything other than a terrorist sympathizer.
The cashier's colleague, also a dark-skinned foreigner, rushed over. ''Can I help you?'' he asked, worried.
''Hi, have you gotten your sushi delivery yet today?'' I asked, with much more cheer than either the query or the circumstances demanded. Please, please, I hoped he also heard me say in those nine words, I have no problem with you or your colleague working at 7-Eleven. I don't think your religion is godless. I don't blame you for looking sort of like what we think terrorists look like. I just want to buy my lunch.
''No, not yet. Sorry.''
I smiled and said, ''Ok, thanks.''
After the terrorist attacks 10 years ago, we were all hypersensitive for a while. We were all careful for a while. That's what I remember.
Caveat: I'm not a financial reporter. But I was looking at the SEC filings this morning for Solyndra Inc. - that's the giant solar panel company, based in Fremont, raided Thursday by federal agents a few days after the firm filed for bankruptcy. The SEC documents I saw did NOT show that management, for example, was taking down inordinate amounts of compensation. Still, it would behoove all of our local TV stations to hie themselves to Fremont and do stories about Solyndra because it's got legs. Legs that look a lot like Jackie Johnson's on KCAL. So get with it, TV people.
The fall-out from the collapse of one of California's premiere green energy firms is a very big deal; Patt Morrison on her KPCC show Thursday did yeoman's work trying to put the Solyndra debacle in perspective, with an interview with Ronnie Green, reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.
Solyndra got a $535 million loan from the feds green energy program (this was a subset of the jobs program.) In his jobs speech only last night, the President continued to talk up the importance of re-establishing the U.S. as the birthplace, the incubator, for business innovation and green energy. We've heard this mantra for years in California, first from Gov. Schwarzenegger and more recently from Gov. Brown.
Now Solyndra, a key player in all this, goes belly-up, a thousand workers laid-off, all amid questions about what the company did with taxpayers' $535 million loan, whether the company obtained the loan on sweetheart terms and what it all mean for green energy development in California, in the U.S.? Republican critics are having a hey-day, and the breaking news is giving them comfort. It was reported this morning that government auditors have been hovering over Solyndra's board meetings for months...and that big investors in the firm were also big investors in Obama's presidential campaign.
California for years has tried to set the pace on green energy - starting with legislation mandating that the state's privately-owned utilities generate significant amounts of their electricity from green sources. Public utilities, run by politicians, looking for votes, and (sometimes) legacies, volunteered to step up.
Mayor Villaraigosa was one of these. Thus, the city of LA's agonizing debate in 2010 over new green energy charges - the same debate that triggered threats of LA City bankruptcy when DWP said it could not afford (if the city council wouldn't bow to its rate hike demands) to pay its annual tribute to the city's general fund budget.
During that controversy, I did a story - with former DWP president Nick Patsaouras providing support - about how the city of LA tied one hand behind its back (as it tried to meet ambitious clean energy goals for DWP) by deciding NOT to count the city's Hoover Dam-generated power (from turbines driven by falling water) as "clean energy." With that decision, the city put itself in a situation where it had to buy more clean energy - generally at a higher cost than Hoover Dam energy - to boost its green portfolio. That story had to come out. Now the story has to come out about Solyndra. Green energy can't be a sacred cow. Nor should it be a whipping boy.
I awakened this morning worried about my Facebook "living room." After all I have acquired some important guests as friends on Facebook, and Facebook is everybody's new living room, right?
What triggered my doubts, my concerns was the arrival, as a Facebook friend, of quiet, serious, thoughtful Austin Beutner who's running for mayor; he's a multi-zillionaire, has been Mayor Villaraigosa's go-to-guy when the plumbing goes out in the entire city (read - ex-head of DWP). Austin asked me yesterday - out of the blue - to be his friend (I can just see him now, tapping away at his computer, probably with one finger- guys like this normally have their agreements, aides-de-memoir, litigation, typed up by secretaries who use all their fingers; maybe they've even got typing robots!) Of course, I should be flattered that Austin would want to drop by and look around my Facebook living room. He joins a growing list of slumming high-hatters who've popped their heads into chez Schwada.
But I'm a little concerned about a culture clash: How will these new "quality" guests (hmmmm?) get along with my other Facebook friends? My Facebook living room has been a pretty cozy crowd, littered mostly with newshounds (including, dare I say it out-loud, a lot of blue-collar folks in the biz and not a few folks who should really be spending time in cork-lined rooms, not with Proust, but with Bart Simpson) - all fully capable of being supremely goofy, crude or - worse - banal. It's like when you were in high school. You had different cliques. The kids who were nerds, played chess and read Crime and Punishment. And then there was the crowd whose parents lived in trailer homes and threw open their beer-filled refrigerator to underage teenagers and, for kicks, this crowd would drive around the countryside with shotguns blowing up farmer's mailboxes (I hope the statute of limitations on this is well over). You couldn't mix the two cliques. Oil and water.
And this banal Facebook conversation-stuff is not something people of quality want to deal with. It's like you have a mayoral candidate in your Facebook living room, and your drunken childhood friend starts talking about his flat-tire on the freeway and how the AAA guy ripped off his bumper trying to tow it. Then, he slams down another beer, and turns to The Magnificent One and says, apropos of nothing, "Hey dude, you got a cigarette?" I mean things like this can happen on Facebook. My friends don't know the other guy at all. They can't see each other. No visual clues. No accents. Like the one guy can't see he's talking to someone wearing a Gorgio Armani sportcoat and dancing slippers (without socks), and has Yale Phi Beta Kappa key hanging on a gold chain from his belt (does this really happen?). After all, The Magnificent One could just be another one of Schwada's goof-ball friends.
The other day I watched some of this unfold in real time and I was horrified. Indeed, embarrassed. A friend on Facebook was actually describing in intimate detail, for all the world to read, just how difficult it is to make the transition going south and then west from the Hollywood Freeway to the 134. This was so mind-bogglingly mundane and idiotic that I wanted to de-friend this woman immediately but I couldn't find the plug-in, the download, the upload, the button, the whatever to terminate her. (Note to Facebook: You need to develop a clearly identifiable bright red "KILL" button on your site). And then, other friends chimed in and commented; in no time, there was this hideously long string of my friends commenting eagerly, sympathizing, almost drooling. It was so pathetic. I thought: my God, now I know how Stalin must have felt about all those wretched, annoying kulaks in the 1930's. What's to be done with all these peasants! They're just unteachable! Their muddy feet, their coarse manners - too much!
If Stalin was on Facebook, he'd know what to do. So borrowing from the Great Dictator, I'm putting all my Facebook friends on final notice, warning them that quality folks are now populating the Schwada-Facebook living room. So it's time clean up their act, step up, dudes and dudettes! Don't chew with your mouth open; sip, don't guzzle, your beer (craft beers only please); no double-dipping with the hors d'oeuvres and when you do have something to say, preface it with words, like "indeed" or "that's so charming" or "very clever of you mon petite chou-chou."
And as for topics: let's elevate them. Obama's jobs speech, good, especially if it's curated with hyperlinks to Robert Reich's personal website or to a Ben Bernacke quote found only in the New York Review of Books. The opening Thursday at the LA Louver gallery (a room of aging art mavens, talking to each other over "real drinks" and nibblies amid a pile of muddy-looking Leon Kousoff paintings, selling for over $200,000 each) - even better. Talk about your animals? Okay, as long as they're pedigreed (no trans-ethnic dogs allowed). Verboten: describing in real-time that you are shopping, especially if you're looking for a new transmission for your 2000 Huyandai Accent. Chronicling your purchase of Gucci bags or that your hair is being done by Helen Miren's coiffeur-ista - perhaps, but only if discussed in a fresh, inviting tone, with spirited language (and if it's a Kardashian hair-dresser, you must get very snotty).
I think you get the picture. Facebook friends, thank you for your cooperation, and please stop double-dipping the celery sticks. Where the hell do you think you are? That goes for you, too, Austin. Get your Cole-Hahn tassle-loafers off my cable-table!
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
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Eric Garcetti has made official what he told me he'd do a month ago, at a garden party in former councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski's digs in Brentwood. "Yes, I'll be running for mayor," he said to me as I sipped a mojito in a yard-full of politicos, City Hall types and statuary.
Garcetti , in glaringly white tennie-shoes, sipped a soft-drink under the watchful eye of his PR minder Julie Wong (who will surely vouch for me on her boss' statement). The council president sounded almost sheepish about his quest. Why I couldn't figure out.
Only moments earlier I'd asked the same question of Zev Yaroslavsky. I was sipping a mojito - maybe a different one - when I approached Zev, slightly off-putting in his Peter "Easy Rider" Fonda sunglasses with eerie reflective lens. His answer: the veteran member of the Board of Supervisors told me he'd be deciding within the next month if he'd run or not for mayor. His biggest asset, Yaroslavsky said: he's demonstrated adult leadership. Look at the county, he said. Unlike the city, it has not been hit hard by budget cuts thanks to the supervisor's thoughtful fiscal management. Boom. That's the ticket. But ditch the sunglasses, Zev.
BTW: We're in September now, Zev. So what's your final answer? Okay, September is still young, and possibly the supervisor is distracted by his clash with his colleague, supervisor Gloria Molina, over her redistricting plan to turn his 3rd district into the board's second majority-Latino district. That was the subject of lengthy hearing only this week (hundreds of citizens at an event covered by no TV cameras and by a handful of dazed print reporters). Yaroslavsky's camp says he's done wonders for the Latino community, that Tuesday's redistricting hearing - despite some media accounts to the contrary - contained a number of Latino speakers who praised Yaroslavsky's stewardship of the 3rd district and urged the board to leave Yaroslavsky and the 3rd alone - except for a tweak or two to the boundaries.
Also cruising Cindy's garden party - Wendy Greuel, the city controller and by some accounts a very formidable force in the mayor's race. Missing from that sun-dappled assemblage of political heavyweights - Councilwoman Jan Perry, the 3rd candidate for the mayor's job... the 4th being business guru Austin Beutner, who headed up the blue-ribbon panel that blessed the NFL stadium deal with AEG.
Questions for Garcetti: How will campaign "history" - as written by his opponents - treat his handling of the DWP rate hike in 2010? Also, speaking of DWP, Garcetti was pushing for creation of a ratepayer advocate whose job would be to review DWP rate hike proposals. But that position has not been filled - what's happening with that, Eric?
And what about Garcetti's positions on Mayor Villaraigosa's ticket-gate scandal and the reforms, still simmering in the City Ethics Commission pot, that would basically bar elected officials from accepting gifts of any value from folks doing business with the city. As the council's leader what's he done to get the gift-reform out of the Ethics Commission and on to the City Council floor where it must win approval to be enacted? And rent control?
Also, how does a progressive Democrat like Garcetti keep his cred with low-income renters when he, unexpectedly, voted to table a plan by rent control advocates to tighten the screws on landlords (this council decision, you will recall, actually set off a mini-riot in the council chambers, also in 2010).
Being youthful (40) and hip (he's Holywood's councilman, after all), can we expect to see photos of Garcetti on the campaign trail wearing one of those ubiquitous short-brimmed fedoras?
Edited for typos
In a world where people believe moon rocks are harboring aliens ("Apollo 18" is only a movie people!), that Elvis is being held hostage in an Afghan cave by Al Qaeda (I just made that up but it could, if repeated enough, gain currency), then it should come as no surprise that someone believes California's eminently forgettable former lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante ought to be the next U.S. ambassador to India.
But what is strange is that that someone is actually a U.S. congressman. Yes, it's now being reported U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, has penned a letter to President Obama recommending that Bustamante get the nod to represent U.S. interests in New Dehli.
Remember Bustamante's last, unfortunate outing in the public arena. That's when he ran for state Insurance Commissioner and found himself in a pickle by accepting $150,000 in campaign contributions from the insurance industry. It was such a political faux pas that Bustamante went nuclear: he said if were elected he would keep his pledge to cut insurance rates just as he had kept his promise to his family to lose weight. If memory is correct, he lost up to 70 lbs on his diet (his current weight? - we'll get back to you). This promise did not fly with Harvey Rosenfield, the godfather of Prop. 103, California's own iconic "third rail" of politics, who endorsed Bustamante's opponent - dare we say it, a Republican - Steve Poizner, the eventual winner in that 2006 race.
(It should be noted here that Bustamante, if he were to get the Obama nod and that of the U.S. Senate, would join a fairly august crowd of statesmen to head up U.S. interests in India; previous U.S. ambassadors to India include Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Chester Bowles and John Kenneth Galbraith).
My most vivid recollection of Sherman is when, running for congress in the 1980's, he handed me several Sherman for Congress" combs. Kissing babies, potholders, complimentary combs. All part of the election shtick. But Sherman is and was at the time a dome-top. Pretty much bald. The combs were supposed to be a joke.
Anyway, is this Bustamante-for-ambassador plan cut from the same cloth of humor? Not according to insiders who say Sherman is dead-serious. With redistricting having thrown him into a seat that is decidedly thick with Latino voters, Sherman has calculated that he needs help from a Latino (read - Bustamante) if he's going to survive next year's election. That election won't be the usual cakewalk for Sherman because redistricting has put him in the same bailiwick as his Democratic seatmate, U.S. Cong. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys. This is - how shall we say it? - one too many congressmen in one district. You get the picture. One of them has to go, and Bustamante is now a pawn in this game.
So, who says we need an NFL stadium downtown? We can get our fill of bone-crunching tackles watching the Sherman-Berman cage-fight.
Still missing: a copy of Sherman's letter recommending Bustamante and the former lieutenant governor's own take on this proposal. A quick search of the internet turned up no recent accounts of Bustamante's activities.
He was bent with age, a tan hat of the type favored by graybeards, on his head. His golf swing was wildly unconventional. He started with his club-head a foot behind the ball; at the top of his back-swing, he stepped forward and launched himself, almost like a pitcher stepping off the rubber, at his target.
You can see all kinds of eccentric golf swings at the Rancho Park 3-par course. It's a haven for senior citizen golfers, a verdant retreat for recession-and urban-weary Angelenos and a sometime-playground for noisy, punk kids with no etiquette and no game.
But it wasn't just the old man's golf swing that stood out. It was the tilt of his head, as if he were a punch-weary boxer looking up warily, through hooded eyes, at a world that had always given him a tough fight. A feather tickled my memory. Something about him looked familiar.
The old guy and his partner consistently played ahead of my son, Jack, and me. But at the tee box at number 7, we caught up with them. Suddenly I remembered. I called out to the old man as he grabbed the handle of his battered golf cart and was about to pull out.
He looked back. There was that old prizefighter's tilt of the head.
"You're the wild guy from City Hall. I remember you," I said.
"Leonard," he said, bringing his head up, a thin smile crossing his face. There was the red flush in his cheeks, the tough-guy voice. At the podium at Los Angeles City Council meetings, this guy, a miniature Mussolini of energy, with sweeping gestures and flaming rhetoric, had savaged City Hall as a Babylon of incompetence, self-dealing and waste.
After a pause, he gave up the rest of his name. "Shapiro." I wondered - was he testing me?
"John Schwada," I said. We shook hands.
"Yes, I remember," Shapiro said. "You did a little hell-raising yourself at City Hall. Heh. Heh. You got a pretty good write-up in The Times last week."
His partner pulled up short to listen.
"You're playing golf with a legend at City Hall," I said to the other guy. "Leonard, here, used to drive everybody nuts attacking city government. He was one of the original gadflies." Turning back to Shapiro, I said: "You had your own newspaper. The Observer, right?"
"No, it was actually the L.A. Observer. I gave it all up about ten years ago. But when I was going strong, I gave them hell. More often than not they often deserved it." Wasn't that a line from Harry Truman?
"So - how are you?"
"I'm 93 years old and still kicking," he growled. "It's been years since I've been to City Hall. It's not the same without (Councilman Ernani) Bernardi and (Councilman Joel) Wachs. They were a big help. They followed up on my stories and what I said in public comment. They were very sympathetic. It's not the same now."
I agreed. It's a different City Hall, that seems to matter less, a humorless fraternity of politically fearful champions of safe ideas. Shapiro grunted. Was he agreeing or just being agreeable? I couldn't tell.
Whatever. And with that, Shapiro turned away, to catch up with his companion, slowly walking to the green.
At the 8th hole, Jack and I were at the tee-box as Shapiro was hitting. His tee-shot banged into tree, plopped back onto the fairway and finally dribbled down a narrow, concrete-lined drainage ditch. "Leonard, you're in the gutter," I said. "But you've been there before - with the city council." Hah. Hah.
"Sometimes I had to get in the gutter with them to find out what they were doing." Then. "I'm taking another ball." Course rules don't allow for mulligans, but he took one anyway. This time he knocked a beauty, the ball landing pin high next to the green.
Two days later, I had breakfast at John O'Groats on Pico, just down the street from Rancho Park, with Joel, who's been around LA's local political scene for decades. "Guess who I saw," I said. "Leonard Shapiro."
"You're kidding. I thought he was dead."
"Maybe so. But if he is, then I was playing golf with his ghost. He was at Rancho. You should see his swing. Bizarre. But effective."
"Really? You know, he used to be a fixture at the county and then he just disappeared." Joel did a very passable imitation of one of Shapiro's podium-rants against "golden parachute" pensions for bureaucrats.
Then, I told Joel the rest of my Shapiro story:
When Jack and I finished our game and got to the parking lot at Rancho, I noticed Shapiro was still stowing his golf bag in the trunk of a car. I waved, and he motioned for me to join him. I did, and he was holding this miserable, sun-bleached, dog-eared newspaper.
"They called me the loudest man at City Hall," he said proudly, shoving the paper at me. "Look at this! Remember The Reader? I'm on the front-page!" Sure enough, on the cover of this tabloid, out of business since 1996, was a full-page photo of Shapiro's scowling mug. The headline says: "The Loudest Man at City Hall."
"Unbelieveable," I later told Joel. "Leonard must've had that old newspaper squirreled away in his car for years. It was faded. Falling apart. It looked like it was dug up from King Tut's tomb."
"Sic transit gloria," Joel said, shaking his head and taking another sip of coffee.
Then I remembered what Shapiro said after he hit his second tee-shot on the 8th hole, his mulligan. As he shoved his club into his bag, he gave me a fierce, challenging look and said: "When you're 93, you'll be lucky to hit a ball that good!"
And that's how I really want to remember Leonard Shapiro: A tough old nut, his fists up, ready to challenge all-comers. On the golf course. Or at City Hall.