EASTSIDER-Over the holidays, I started reminiscing about “back in the day,” something I used to hate in my 20’s when “old people” did it. However…
I was thinking of a black union leader in LA named Walter Backstrom. He headed up the LA City Sanitation Workers Union for SEIU back in the day, and for some reason, he took a young union hothead under his wing. At the time, I was around twenty-six, working in Watts as a Social Worker and with the Social Workers Union – so proud of my UC Berkeley credentials.
Both Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley were running for Mayor of the City of Los Angeles at the time. After we tired of passing endless resolutions to get out of the Vietnam War, we backed Tom Bradley. After all, he was black and everyone seemed to think he was cool.
Bradley was cool, even though he was a high ranking police officer with tenuous actual ties to South Central LA. He was not universally perceived by the community as a nice guy. And Walter and Local 347 were backing Sam Yorty.
Anyhow, we got to talking when I discovered some Yorty backers slapping some pretty nasty bumper stickers on cars in Watts, making it look like Bradley was a black radical. Morally outraged, I asked Walter “how can this be?” I asked him, “how can you back a racist like Yorty?” I’ll always remember his reply. “Son,” he said, “Tom Bradley doesn’t need any more black support, but Sam Yorty does. I get paid to help my members.”
Backstrom represented the trash collection workers. They had hard jobs and bad working conditions. They needed all the help they could get, especially from City Hall.
Yorty went on to win, and I couldn’t help but notice that Local 347 got great contracts -- courtesy of Mayor Sam and wonderful access to City Hall. Walter Backstrom later went on to work for State Senator Bill Green and for Councilman Robert Farrell. We remained friends over the years. Local 347 always got good contracts for trash workers during those times. It was a lesson to me in the “good” RealPolitik.
My takeaway is this: Back then, the politicians were probably no cleaner than they are today, but the system had a network of relationships, built over time, that worked. No one wanted to do anything spectacularly stupid that would jeopardize those relationships -- with a few notable exceptions. It was a time for “grown-ups,” in the sense that everyone was clear about their stake in the game; your handshake really was your bond and most of the real political business got done over cocktails and food or in private meetings.
In Sacramento, where I did some occasional lobbying work for my union, special interests maintained individual full-time hired lobbyists. The big unions ran tabs at all the bars in town and the eateries like Frank Fats, David’s Brass Rail, and Posey’s. They kept hotel tabs at places like The Senator. While I was there, I never saw a politician pick up a tab or a lobbyist embarrass a politician. Believe me, in the evenings, in the joints with large tables that included the political class and us hangers on, it was the same deal: your word was your bond. And you didn’t talk or you never came back.
In those heady, and sometimes corrupt, days in the City and the State, elected officials were basically in for life -- unless they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar or with a seriously underage companion in public.
There were two plus sides to this system. First, this was a time of direct relationships between the special interests -- sometimes brokered through lobbyists, but often by direct one-on-one meetings. Those relationships lasted over decades. They imposed a degree of personal civility … boundaries that are nonexistent today.
The other plus side was that everybody had a stake in the game. The politicians tended to gravitate into areas of expertise during their long political careers. Water issues, zoning, taxes, mental health -- you name it -- they found a niche of expertise; they and their staffs became experts. And that expertise crossed party lines with regularity. Heck, they even read their bills!
There were characters like Phil Burton and George Moscone and Willie Brown. There were great Republicans like George Milias and Bob Beverly. And they all worked together most of the time. And everyone in the game knew where the practical limits were.
This worked for the players, even if the public was largely lost in space. The same held true for LA City Hall and the County of Los Angeles, although the County was seriously conservative and secretive compared to the rest of the jurisdictions I dealt with on a continuous basis.
Then, after a lot of scandals, along came term limits. The thinking was that you couldn’t get an elected official out of office without a crowbar and this was close to true! As a result, we got a new breed of folks who have no expertise in anything except getting elected to office and making a career out of moving up the rungs of the political ladder. Typically, this occurred at more expense and more to the detriment of the public than under the old system. Talk about unintended consequences! And today, you still can’t get them out with a crowbar.
These days, elected officials don’t even read most of the bills they author; votes are pretty much automatic, given the Democratic super majorities. Lost in this process is any pretense of subject matter expertise by these elected officials. It’s all about instant gratification.
The only relationships that exist are the transitory cash ones between elected officials and the lobbyists, developers, and, yes, the unions who have ponied up the money to keep them in the game. A handshake is good for a few weeks -- if you’re lucky -- and it’s all about what you are going to do for the incumbent now … now being defined as how what you want fits into their next office … public policy be damned.
Just look at the LA City Council and the career paths of the majority of these elected officials. Public property, which is theoretically owned by the people of the City of Los Angeles and is held in trust by these public servants, is treated as markers in a monopoly game, while they bounce from job to job.
My point is not to glamorize the old system or to bring back the good old days of a part-time California Legislature – even though you at least knew who bought who back then.
I want to encourage some serious thought about how we govern, and how to go about modifying our existing system so that there is some incentive for elected officials to actually know something about the issues they casually shop.
Land use issues are very complicated if you want to do more than simply sell your vote. Law enforcement issues are likewise very complicated. The second you drill down into the details and set up ‘filtering’ Commissions, it doesn’t seem to do a lot for either the communities we live in or the police themselves.
The same is true of a host of issues. For instance, water management at the State level. This requires both knowledgeable elected officials who have subject matter expertise, either their own or that of their paid staffs. “Dialing for dollars,” as evidenced in our current system, is not what we need or want.
So maybe, just maybe, we should take another look at term limits … and their implications.
(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
Vol 14 Issue 3
Pub: Jan 8, 2016