The City at Stake

The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles

Raphael J. Sonenshein
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The City at Stake
    Book Description:

    The City at Stake tells the dramatic story of how the nation's second-largest city completed a major reform of its government in the face of a deeply threatening movement for secession by the San Fernando Valley. How did Los Angeles, a diverse city with an image of unstructured politics and fragmented government, find a way to unify itself around a controversial set of reforms?

    Los Angeles government nearly collapsed in political bickering over charter reform, which generated the remarkable phenomenon of two competing charter reform commissions. Out of this nearly impossible tangle, reformers managed to knit a new city charter that greatly expanded institutions for citizen participation and addressed long-standing weaknesses in the role of the mayor. The new charter, pursued by a Republican mayor, won its greatest support from liberal whites who had long favored reform measures.

    Written by an urban scholar who played a key role in the charter reform process, the book offers both a theoretical perspective on the process of institutional reform in an age of diversity, and a firsthand, inside-the-box look at how major reform works.

    The new afterword by the author analyzes the 2005 election of Los Angeles's first modern Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, a milestone in the development of urban reform coalitions in an age of immigration and ethnic diversity.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4964-2
    Subjects: Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  7. PART ONE: The Dynamics of Urban Reform
      (pp. 3-13)

      In the face of global disorder, the fall of empires, the movement of peoples across national boundaries, and agitation for secession, can government adapt? Can government at all levels reform itself, or be reformed? Can it be flexible and improve its performance and responsiveness? Can government cope with diversity of race, ethnicity, class, religion, and place, and can it respond to the needs of disadvantaged and disenfranchised groups? Can government change its own institutional patterns in order to be more nimble and creative? What are the prospects for the reform of government in an age of diversity?

      It is not...

    • CHAPTER TWO Studying Los Angeles Politics
      (pp. 14-26)

      The study of urban politics has been dominated by the great partisan cities, especially New York City and Chicago. The history of the politics of the big cities of the East and Midwest is dominated by party machines and organizations. Reform there has often been the province of “silk stocking,” upper-status citizens.

      But the study of urban reform inevitably draws us westward. Reform has been far more influential in the West and Southwest than in the East and Midwest (Shefter 1983). By expanding our urban focus from traditional eastern and midwestern cities, we can explore settings in which reform is...

  8. PART TWO: The Roots of Los Angeles Charter Reform
    • CHAPTER THREE Reform, Los Angeles Style
      (pp. 29-56)

      A city whose early-twentieth-century leaders sought to create an oasis of clean government with an active citizenry became a city of detached residents with little connection to their city government. A city whose modern government was built on a landmark set of governmental reforms itself became highly resistant to reforms that would reduce that detachment. A city built on principles of good government generated a governance structure that later government reformers could not easily alter.

      The political history of modern Los Angeles has been marked by an enduring struggle to design a local democracy without political parties. The city’s government...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Richard Riordan and Conservative Reform
      (pp. 57-71)

      When charter reform reappeared in Los Angeles, it came as the city’s answer to the calls for secession from the San Fernando Valley, advocated by a Republican, reform-minded businessman-turned-Mayor, Richard Riordan. The calls for structural reform were coming from a conservative leader in response to the alienation of the most conservative part of town.

      The movement for secession and Riordan’s desire for more formal mayoral authority generated the energy and political strength to revive the long-standing effort at charter reform. There had been increasing talk of charter reform sparked by Bradley and Galanter’s Charter Reform Study Group and by a...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Valley Secession and the Suburban Revolt
      (pp. 72-83)

      The secession movement in the San Fernando Valley emerged out of a broad conservative political effort linking tax revolts, the battle against school busing, and the defense of the suburban ideal. Secession indirectly breathed life into the struggling good government movement in Los Angeles. Yet because of its conservative identity, secession would have to struggle to win the hearts and minds of the more liberal reform community of Los Angeles.

      The San Fernando Valley became a part of Los Angeles during the struggle to bring water to Los Angeles at the turn of the twentieth century. As Los Angeles grew...

      (pp. 84-92)

      The link between secession and charter reform was made by a Riordan ally in the Valley, David Fleming. A wealthy attorney sympathetic to secession, Fleming argued that a better city charter would help reduce the calls for secession. In so doing, Fleming helped activate a hard-fought debate between competing visions of Los Angeles reform.

      Armed with his idea to make charter reform the answer to secession, Fleming called Mike Feuer, the newly elected representative of the affluent and influential fifth district. Feuer’s district rested half on the Westside and half in the San Fernando Valley. Like the equally affluent eleventh...

  9. PART THREE: The Battle over the Charter
    • CHAPTER SEVEN The 1997 Municipal Elections and the Politics of Charter Reform
      (pp. 95-103)

      In April 1997, the voters reshaped charter reform. Riordan won a smashing reelection victory, Latino participation surged, a massive school bond issue was passed, and Riordan’s elected charter reform commission won voter approval.

      The principal feature of the election was Riordan’s sweeping reelection. Running against a liberal opponent, Democratic state senator Tom Hayden, Riordan dominated the voting in all but the African American community. The likelihood that Riordan would be emboldened to move forcefully on his reform agenda, not only in the charter but with school reform, was greatly magnified.

      Riordan’s victory established a framework for charter reform by reinforcing...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Charter Reform Commissions
      (pp. 104-109)

      For two years, two commissions in Los Angeles pursued charter reform, each with its own assets, liabilities, and base of support. The situation only reinforced the view that in this fragmented city, even a good-government policy like charter reform will inevitably fall apart.

      The charter battles were fought on two fields: the inside game and the outside game. The inside game was the taut, edgy battle over the structure of the central government, hard fought between Mayor Riordan and the city council. The outside game concerned the relationship between the central government and the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. The fields...

      (pp. 110-122)

      From the beginning to the end of charter reform, the process was driven ahead and at other times nearly derailed by Richard Riordan’s desire to increase mayoral authority in the city charter. Unlike the New York City charter reform of 1986–89, which was driven by a federal court order declaring the Board of Estimate unconstitutional, the Los Angeles charter reform was essentially driven by political, not legal, pressure. And the political actor whose agenda set the tone for support and opposition was Riordan. Had Riordan decided to withdraw from the process, charter reform would have undoubtedly ground to a...

      (pp. 123-129)

      In one aspect of the inside game of charter reform, the roles of initiator of reform and protector of the status quo were reversed. The nature of reform as a contested value was demonstrated. On police reform, liberal forces were on the attack, moving to increase civilian oversight of the LAPD. Not surprisingly for a law-and-order mayor whose base of support rested in the conservative San Fernando Valley, Riordan resisted the charge for police reform.

      In an era when reform was the leading edge of a revived, white-led conservatism, police reform provided a reminder that the liberal coalition and its...

      (pp. 130-148)

      The fundamental issue of charter reform for the community was not the power of the mayor. Participation—the outside game—was the key to public interest in the charter reform debate. The roots of the charter reform battle came from the secession movement, which was far more concerned about decentralizing power than about the roles of actors within the central government. Any charter reform that failed to deal with these democratic issues would be doomed to failure or irrelevance.

      Low participation had become a characteristic feature of Los Angeles politics. The mixture of great geographic size and lack of connection...

  10. PART FOUR: The Unified Charter
    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Creation of the Unified Charter
      (pp. 151-162)

      On July 13, 1998, the Los Angeles Times carried a story by reporter Jim Newton (1998a) that compared and contrasted the working styles of the appointed and elected charter reform commissions. The story brought into public view for the first time their long-standing differences about the government of Los Angeles. What had been an insider discussion for many months was now out in print. Based on interviews with commissioners and staff members from both commissions, the Times story served to drive the commissions even farther apart.

      In the Times article, the two chairs defended their commissions. Newton noted, “The elected...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Fall and Rise of the Unified Charter
      (pp. 163-184)

      On the evening of January 5, 1999, the auditorium at the Department of Water and Power was packed. A long line of speakers waited to be heard. The unified charter had developed a great constituency by this time, including business, labor, civil rights and other civic organizations.

      One by one, members of key interest groups trooped to the microphone to call on the elected commission to approve the unified charter. Only Mayor Riordan spoke against it, and called on the elected commission to hold its ground.

      Chemerinsky felt that he had a majority for the unified charter. Under great pressure...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Campaign for the Unified Charter
      (pp. 185-206)

      After all their battles over charter reform, the mayor, both commissions, and a broad civic coalition ended up in the same camp. The city council ended up in lonely and ineffective opposition, with unenthusiastic backing from labor. The mayor-council conflict that had bedeviled charter reform held its form to the very end. No circumstance, no set of compromises or agreements could bridge the conflict between mayor and council.

      By the time the campaign got under way, three councilmembers supported the charter: Feuer, Miscikowski, and Wachs. The council districts of those who supported the charter (five, eleven, two) were precisely the...

  11. PART FIVE: The Battle over Secession
    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Implementation
      (pp. 209-214)

      With the passage of charter reform, Los Angeles had developed a coherent civic response to the fundamental challenge represented by secession. But would it be enough? Would Riordan’s success in winning charter reform reduce his battles with the city council? Would the focus on mayoral authority overshadow the new participatory structures essential to making the case for keeping the city together? And would the implementation phase, as has so often happened with reforms, be the burial ground of reform and the seedbed of frustration that might energize secessionists?

      Just as the creation of the charter reflected warring views of reform,...

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN The 2001 Municipal Elections
      (pp. 215-226)

      The 2001 municipal elections once again reshuffled the deck of secession. City attorney James K. Hahn, supported by African Americans and white moderate and conservative voters, won the mayoralty against a strong Latino challenger, Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn would have to fight the climactic battle of secession in November 2002 with a shaky, new coalition that was untested and raw. Like the charter coalition, it would be yet another ad hoc alliance that might not live to fight another day.

      After a decade of political reform in Los Angeles, the terrain of Los Angeles politics had changed. Secession would soon be...

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Vote on Secession
      (pp. 227-238)

      In the aftermath of the charter reform election of 1999 and the mayoral race of 2001, the city faced secession head-on. An election was set for November 2002 that would determine whether the city would be carved into at least two pieces.

      With the adoption of charter reform and the popular idea of neighborhood councils, city leaders had a major tool in building their antisecession coalition. City leaders now had the high ground of reform. The new mayor, James K. Hahn, could and did argue that the city was already reforming and that secession would be unnecessary and indeed dangerous....

  12. PART SIX: The Future of Urban Reform
      (pp. 241-250)

      A city with great diversity but relatively little social capital met a mortal threat of secession and vanquished it. In a two-pronged effort, city leaders generated a significant set of governmental reforms and won approval from the voters. Then under a different mayor, with a new and shaky coalition, city leaders ran a unified, dominant effort to defeat secession in a citywide vote. Leadership unity was a key variable in the construction of both coalitions, as mayors found ways to surmount their own conflicts with other key power brokers in the city. Those who sought to keep the city together...

      (pp. 251-266)

      Under severe stress, the city of Los Angeles undertook a major institutional reform. Studies of institutional structure and social capital would have suggested great difficulty for Los Angeles in carrying this enterprise through. A fragmented institutional framework, a low visibility political culture, high levels of demographic diversity, and relatively few grass-roots political organizations characterize Los Angeles. The combination should present major obstacles to the development of “civic capacity.”

      And yet, despite these obstacles, Los Angeles succeeded in a complete overhaul of its governing charter and, even more significantly, in creating a wholly new framework for resident participation. How did it...

  13. APPENDIX ONE Summary of the Charter Proposal
    (pp. 267-274)
  14. APPENDIX TWO Using Ecological Inference Model to Verify Results
    (pp. 275-278)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 279-292)
  16. Afterword: Reform, Diversity, and the 2005 Election of Antonio Villaraigosa
    (pp. 293-306)

    When The City at Stake was published in 2004, I speculated about the connection between diversity and reform in an age of immigration. A compelling hint emerged in the recall on charges of corruption of Latino elected officials in South Gate, California, by a largely Latino electorate. In 2005, that prospect emerged even more clearly with the election of Antonio Villaraigosa, the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than 130 years. The unity and enthusiasm of Latino voters, combined with the philosophy and images of reform, carried him to victory.

    A theme of this book has been that...

  17. Index
    (pp. 307-320)