How Los Angeles Thrust Itself to the Forefront of National Politics

As the city battles the White House on several fronts, a veteran observer takes stock

Earthquakes, riots, fires, celebrity trials, high-flying sports stars—L.A. is no stranger to being a national spectacle. But for the longest time, politics didn’t really factor into the identity of the city. That’s changing. Dramatically. In my more than 40 years of observing the region’s politics, I’ve seen nothing quite like the moment we’re in today.

A quick refresher. Two local Democrats—Burbank Representative Adam Schiff and Los Angeles Representative Maxine Waters—have been in the national spotlight for holding the Trump administration’s feet to the fire. City Attorney Mike Feuer successfully sued the administration for threatening to withhold federal money as punishment for so-called sanctuary cities, tweeting, “#news: We’re not going to allow #Trump & the #DOJ to hold #PublicSafety grants hostage in order to advance unconstitutional #immigration enforcement.” And Bakersfield GOP Representative Kevin McCarthy is a front-runner to become the Speaker of the House when Paul Ryan steps down, which would make him one of the most powerful leaders in Washington, D.C.

Then there’s the mayor: It’s no revelation to Angelenos that Eric Garcetti has ambitions beyond city hall—there’s been talk of his running for a higher office since he was elected in 2013. But now Garcetti is attracting some buzz as a presidential hopeful, thanks in part to his trips to early-primary states Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Usually those who come calling like that are governors, U.S. senators, vice presidents, or the occasional billionaire. That an L.A. mayor would dare to dream of the White House might seem audacious, even though California mayors have risen to higher office. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco. So was gubernatorial frontrunner Gavin Newsom. Senator and Governor Pete Wilson was mayor of San Diego.

But L.A. mayors haven’t had much luck with upward political mobility. Sam Yorty, Tom Bradley, Richard Riordan, and, most recently, Antonio Villaraigosa tried and failed to make the jump to higher office. Can Garcetti be the exception? Media-savvy, youthful, and both Latino and Jewish, he checks a lot of boxes. He gained national attention when L.A. became the first big city to pass the $15 minimum wage and picked up the 2028 Olympics. Given our homelessness and housing crises, the coverage won’t be entirely effusive if he does run, but at least it will be serious.

Even without a Garcetti run, L.A. is still going to be in the fight. After all, the county is deep-blue California’s largest population center and in lockstep with Sacramento on national matters. Take Feuer’s lawsuit: It’s among a couple dozen that California officials have directed at the Trump administration. But that’s not all. No part of the country has more at stake in today’s policy battles than L.A.

Start with immigration: According to the Pew Research Center, Los Angeles and Orange counties are home to nearly 10 percent of the country’s more than 11 million undocumented residents. A full-scale deportation program would shove Greater Los Angeles into the path of a social and political hurricane.

As for health care, 5 percent of all Medicaid recipients in the nation live in L.A. County—that’s roughly 4 million people. California vastly expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act. L.A. County health officials estimate that dismantling the ACA would jeopardize the more than 1.2 million county residents who received Medicaid through the act and would remove insurance subsidies from more than 300,000 others.

“Despite all this change, L.A. has continued to be known for lackluster voting. Garcetti may have won his 2017 reelection with 81 percent of the tally, but only 20 percent of those registered actually voted.”

The battlefront extends to the coastline, where the Trump administration wants to expand offshore oil drilling. Florida got a pass from the White House proposal; California did not. The waters of Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange counties are all possible locations for drilling operations that have been banned here for decades. That’s why Waters issued a statement declaring, “Trump’s blatant disregard for California’s coastal communities is heartless and cruel.”

And don’t forget air quality: As the nation’s smoggiest metropolitan area, Los Angeles is at the center of the battle to stop the administration from rolling back federal clean air regulations for automobiles and doing away with the state’s power to set its own fuel standards for car manufacturers.

Even a trade war could have a disproportionate effect in these parts. San Pedro and Long Beach are home to the nation’s largest port complex. The L.A. port estimates that 50 percent of the trade that passes through its terminals is related to China and that tariffs could have a drastic impact on jobs both locally and beyond. That’s not to mention what tariffs might do to exports of almonds, one of California’s top cash crops. A big reason Garcetti recently went to China was to keep another industry—tourism—from taking a hit from a trade war.

L.A.’S political scene could not be more different from what I found when I came here in 1974. Working as an intern for Mayor Tom Bradley, I discovered a city hall that operated in splendid nonpartisan isolation from the party politics of Washington and even from the state government in Sacramento.

The council chamber was filled with personalities, like 26-year-old upstart Zev Yaroslavsky; independent-minded Republican Joel Wachs; temperamental Art Snyder, who represented the Latino Eastside at a time when Latinos were shut out of council seats; environmental activist Marvin Braude; and Bradley ally David S. Cunningham Jr., for whom I became a staff member. Unlike today’s unified council, there were few enduring coalitions, and I got to witness the occasional red-hot verbal spat on the council floor, often between my boss and Snyder.

By the time I was a grad student working toward a Ph.D., some of my academic peers on the East Coast thought I was on a fool’s errand: Why not study a city with real politics like Chicago or New York? Party organizations here were weak, and the region as a whole was mindbogglingly fragmented: How could anyone explain a city with an independently elected school board, limits on mayoral authority, four cities within its borders, and 83 other municipalities around it with the power to frustrate city leaders?

My colleagues didn’t see the personalities I did. And they certainly didn’t appreciate the skills it took for local politicians—often political outsiders lacking connections—to reach generally uninvolved voters without being able to rely on big organizations; I valued how demographic boundaries were fluid enough to allow the formation of the historic interracial coalition that powered Bradley’s mayoralty to a record five terms. I stuck with it and even had a chance in the late 1990s to help simplify the city government as executive director of a charter commission. These days city hall may be a little less colorful, but it’s certainly better run and more professional.

To the extent that this region had a national impact, it was due to the Republicans outside Los Angeles in their impregnable bases of Orange and San Diego counties. SoCal hatched future Republican presidents Richard Nixon (a former senator) and Ronald Reagan (a former governor), as well as GOP governors Wilson, George Deukmejian, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Along the way, conservative counties provided key votes for the 1978 tax-limiting Proposition 13, a GOP favorite, and, as recently as 1994, the Wilsonbacked Proposition 187, which aimed to deny public services to undocumented residents.

It was Prop. 187, though, that ended the Republican era here, galvanizing Latino communities. As L.A.’s Latino population grew in numbers and voting strength, union organizers heavily recruited from it, giving Latinos political heft on a state level. Anthony Rendon, who represents southeast L.A. County, is state assembly Speaker, and Kevin de León, whose district is on L.A.’s Eastside, led the state senate before his current run for U.S. Senate. The shift made California blue, and its Democratic party base is now Los Angeles; even Orange County has become decidedly purple (witness the tight congressional race between longtime Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher and Democrat Harley Rouda).

Despite all this change, L.A. has continued to be known for lackluster voting. Garcetti may have won his 2017 reelection with 81 percent of the tally, but only 20 percent of those registered actually voted. In the 2014 midterm elections, L.A. County saw a smaller proportion of eligible voters cast ballots (31 percent) than any of the state’s other 57 counties. According to the California Civic Engagement Project, the participation of Latinos and young people hit record lows for a midterm.

Low turnout in November could have historic consequences. The 2018 midterm is shaping up as one of the most significant political events of modern times as Democrats try to win the 23 seats they need to gain control of the House. Seven House seats in California held by Republicans are vulnerable—two in the Central Valley and five in Orange, San Diego, and L.A. counties.

Matt Barreto is a professor of political science and Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA. When I ask him about the chances of Latino voters coming out in numbers this election, he says, “All the ingredients are there—a growing Latino population, record high rates of anger and frustration. So the final turnout depends on if candidates and campaigns reach out to Latinos, have a plan for Latino communities, and make Latino voters feel like they care about actually helping, not just receiving their votes on Election Day.”

And for Democrats, it’s not only a matter of mobilizing the base. Just as Republicans once managed to win support in areas like the San Fernando Valley, Democrats will have to win in more moderate places like Orange County. Republicans will be working hard to prevent that from happening by rousing their own base.

The outcome of this struggle has about as many unknowns as Garcetti’s presidential prospects. And whether people outside of L.A. take this opportunity to go beyond the usual spectacle-watching of a La-La Land literally gone to pot is as big a question as whether locals will actually vote.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L. A. and the author of three books on Los Angeles politics and government.

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