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LA Mayor's Race: Joe Cuts a Deal with Rick. Here's Why

GELFAND’S WORLD - Joe beat us to the punch.  Just as I was sending CityWatch an article on mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino, we received word that Joe is dropping out of the race.

You can read about it here. I've got two additional things to say as a result of that announcement. 

When I was first told that Joe has dropped out, my first question was whether he also endorsed anybody and, if so, whom? Remember that I didn't know the answer at that time. I figured that if Joe had endorsed nobody, that was fine, and would just signify that he knows he can't make it into the runoffs. If he were to endorse Karen Bass, that would be an indication that Joe sees something good about Bass. 

But if Joe were to endorse Rick Caruso, it would be an indication that Joe is looking for a high ranking appointment in city government when Caruso takes office. 

OK, maybe that's too cynical. After all, Caruso has the endorsement from one of the police groups, and Buscaino is an ex-cop. But that is pretty weak soup to justify an endorsement.

So then I read the story (linked above) and it's there in all clarity. Joe endorses Rick, and Rick says nice things about Joe. Rick says, "Los Angeles is suffering and working with Joe, I know we can clean up L.A." 

The dropping out and endorsement was coordinated with Caruso's campaign. If Joe gets appointed to a high paying job on the mayor's staff or becomes the General Manager of some city department, the quid pro quo will be obvious. 

My second thought 

I had written a piece (see below) that tries to give a fair evaluation of Buscaino's terms as the City Councilman for my part of town. I found fault with the way he failed to get a road rebuilt after it was lost to a landslide nearly eleven years ago. I compared the loss of Paseo del Mar to the way that the coast road through Big Sur is routinely repaired when it gets damaged (which is often). Definitely a negative for this one. 

I also gave Joe congratulations on the way he has fought to rid the town of the homeless camps. Many people disagree with his approach, but he has accomplished much of what he set out to do. 

We have 4 people running for Joe's soon-to-be-empty seat. I plan to evaluate the winner on these same issues plus a few more. It therefore seemed worthwhile to present the candidates and the readers with these gripes and complements. May the next City Council representative try to deal with the broken road and the city's structural deficit and all the other issues that our city will face. 

Anyway, here's that discussion over a now-obsolete candidacy and a few personal qualities of Joe's that speak well for him: 

Goals met and unmet, promises unkept 

Unlike some of my colleagues, including at least one other writer for these pages, I don't dislike Joe Buscaino. He's always seemed personable, likeable even. He's never raised his voice to me, and he has answered questions politely when he came to our neighborhood council meetings. 

One of my colleagues said it outright: "He seems sincere. I think he is sincere." 

There is one other positive thing. He was a police officer with the LAPD, and not only did his time on the streets, but was raised to Senior Lead Officer, where he represented the department to the public. 

Some of us will see that record of being a police officer as a mixed blessing, and I imagine that some of us may even see it as an unmitigated negative. Most of us, I would guess, see it as something of a mix. But you have to respect the fact that police officers put their wellbeing and health on the line when they go out on patrol. 

But what this has to do with leadership in a democratic process is another thing altogether. Police departments are inherently hierarchical and to a certain extent militaristic. 

This means that the former police officer who is newly elected to elective office has to learn not only a new set of rules but a new mindset. You get what you want not by barking out orders, but by asking politely and by having something to offer in the way of bargaining. 

So we've got Joe Buscaino's years in the LAPD and then his years on the L.A. City Council by which to judge him. What do they say about whether Buscaino would be a good mayor or not? 

Whether you get what you are trying for as a newly elected councilman, and how you get it -- by force of personality or by creative coalition building, or by corrupt scheming -- all of this bears on how we should judge someone who now seeks higher office. 

We should also agree that results matter, so we should consider the accomplishments and the failures alike. 

Eleven years of nothing along the coast road 

On November 20, 2011, there was a landslide along the cliffs that front the Pacific Ocean in San Pedro. A 600 foot section took out the coast road which is officially known as Paseo del Mar. Well, we should rephrase that as "was officially known as Paseo del Mar," because it hasn't been passable since then. There is a part of it up the coast and a part of it down the coast, but that center section is no more. 

So we're into the eleventh year of the slide, and the road remains closed and impassable. The slide possibly could have been bypassed early on -- by running a road partially through the nature preserve that goes inland from the coastal cliffs -- but this would have required a decision and the leadership to make it happen. 

Instead, we got that commonplace of government -- advisory committees and multiple studies. 

Buscaino appointed his own advisory committee while ignoring the fact that the local neighborhood council had created its own ad hoc committee. Interestingly enough, both committees decided that the road should be rebuilt, but it's been a long decade and construction has not yet started. 

It's true that there was a question early on about the causes of the landslide and how to avoid the road falling into the ocean once again. But the process most likely could have been speeded up. Instead, it has been allowed to remain stultified, and there is a real question as to whether the road will ever get rebuilt. 

Let's take a moment to consider why the road should have been rebuilt, and why the failure to get this expedited is a failure of leadership. San Pedro is flanked on the north by oil refineries (which can catch fire, leak toxic gases, or just blow up) and on the east by the Port of Los Angeles, which moves ships carrying potentially toxic substances and of course includes ships which can blow up at the dock, as one of them did a few decades ago. To the immediate west, it has a mountain peak. 

Moreover, there aren't a lot of ways to escape San Pedro if it were to become necessary -- like if one of those oil tanks caught fire, or the giant butane tanks started to leak -- and Paseo del Mar would have been one of only a few ways out for the people who live immediately adjacent to the coastal area. And of course there is always the possibility of a major earthquake that could make travel out of San Pedro through the usual northern route impossible. 

Let's consider a different example, that of the highway along the coast through Big Sur. As you can discover with a single click on Wikipedia, that highway has been closed 55 times due to mudslides and landslides. One major disruption took a couple of years to clear. A slide which involved millions of cubic feet of mud closed the road, and it took 3 months to get it back open -- a month to clear the slide and a couple more months to rebuild the road. 

So it is possible, at least sometimes, to get roads rebuilt or bypassed or just plain fixed in short order. We might also remember the freeway overpass that was broken by the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and which was rebuilt in short order. Of course Mayor Riordan did have leadership ability. 

There is one other issue that we might consider. After the Paseo del Mar landslide, it became evident that a few homeowners who lived immediately adjacent to the slide were actually in favor of the road staying closed. Simply put, they had been chronically bothered by noisy cars, speeders, and motorcycles and for once, they enjoyed a respite from all those things. They even managed to get the local neighborhood council to consider a motion to keep the road closed. The council was not willing to join them in what would have been a move to prevent the rest of the residents of Los Angeles from enjoying the view. 

It's not clear that Joe Buscaino was trying to carry water for that small group of wealthy land owners, but the net effect of his leadership, if you want to call it that, is that we have studies, we have motions advising the city to fix the road, and we have an environmental review process that goes back to the mid-teens. 

What we don't have is a road. 

Homelessness 

This is an area in which Buscaino has shown leadership. Some of my fellow contributors to CityWatch disagree with his approach, but you have to admit that he has had success both in the City Council and locally. Basically, Joe is trying to create a policy and process that the city has the right to control its own public spaces and sidewalks, and that to do so, we can scrape the tent cities from specific places and prevent them from coming back. It's interesting that although the idea was met with substantial resistance from elected officials early on, it seems to be catching on, at least in terms of campaign promises. Mayoral candidate Karen Bass promises to work "Ending street encampments and connecting unhoused individuals to shelter." This is a long ways from defending the right of the homeless to set up tents outside the main post office. 

Constituent Services 

This is colloquially defined as "Answer the phone." Or, for some of us, "Answer the @#$%^& phone!" It also means that somebody will listen to what you say (i.e.: what you want to complain about) and if possible, offer some help. Admittedly, there are complaints that don't go anywhere. You don't get to forbid your neighbor from parking on the public street for example. But in the past, staffers in City Council offices would listen and comment. Sometimes they would suggest that you go to a particular agency. Sometimes they would say, "Let me get on that, and I will get back to you." 

Joe Buscaino's office doesn't have a good reputation for constituent services. In a related matter, Joe hasn't been real good in maintaining relationships with the neighborhood councils in San Pedro, although he served as the LAPD Senior Lead Officer before he ran for the City Council, so he should be aware that the local residents like to be kept in the loop. There hasn't been much of a loop for quite a while. 

The everyday work of the City Council and that 800 pound gorilla 

Buscaino began his City Council career by winning an appointment to one of the important committees. He worked his way up to one of the higher levels at the City Council. That suggests an ability to wheel and deal, and some capability in the sausage making that is big city politics. We should give him credit for that. 

But there is still that 800 pound gorilla, which is the fact that felonies were being committed by City Council members while Buscaino has served in office. He does not appear to have said much about it while it was going on. Maybe he did in a way that was not available to the public, but that would be a monumental failure of leadership. It's hard for any currently seated City Council representative to argue his way out of that problem. They are all tarred with the same brush. As of now, it does not appear that any of the current City Council members have found a way to argue their way clear of the scandal, and the current polling levels suggest that a lot of the voters are punishing them for that reason. 

Addendum 

So that was the piece I originally submitted. In considering Joe's endorsement of Rick, I was also reminded of Eric Garcetti's election to his first term as mayor. The third place finisher in the primary had a bigger share of the vote than Buscaino seems to have, which means that the 3rd place finisher had a lot more to trade. He also represented, to some extent, a group of center-right voters, much more so than either of the finishers. Anyway, that candidate endorsed Garcetti, and Garcetti later appointed him to a high ranking position in city government. You could call it patronage if you like. If Buscaino gets a similarly high ranking appointment, you will know it is. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)