Urban Agenda -- 21st Century Political Renewal


Reprinted w/permission-Washington Post Writers Group & the artist

Building a pro-city platform and Urban Agenda for the next Presidential campaign & locally.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

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

Published by H-Urban@h-net.msu.edu (August 2007)

Raphael Sonenshein. The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle for Los Angeles. Updated edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press,2006. xxi + 306 pp. Maps, tables, notes, bibliography, afterword, index. $57.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-691-11590-7; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 0-691-12603-8.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Laura Barraclough, Department of Liberal Studies, Antioch University

Los Angeles: The Next Chapter in Sonenshein's Tour de Force of Los Angeles Politics

Historically, in cities dominated by machine politics like Boston and New York, urban elites used reform to effectively disenfranchise immigrant and minority voters. Yet in this comprehensive, compelling, and meticulously researched study, Sonenshein argues that reform does not inherently belong to either conservatives or liberals, but "rather is a contested value of great importance" (p. 262). His primary goal in this masterful study of charter reform in Los Angeles is to recover a concern with institutional structure among political scientists and to re-conceptualize reform as a potentially powerful tool for progressive politics.

The author suggests that understandings of reform as an elitist tool are rooted in regional bias and limited scholarly attention to urban politics in the U.S. West and Southwest. In cities like Los Angeles, characterized by nonpartisan elections, low levels of political organization, and the dispersal of government authority, reform has been far more influential "not just as the province of the 'good government' crowd, but as the game itself"(p. 15). Under such conditions, the battle is not between reformers and party machines, but between competing visions of reform, such as the quest for business-like efficiency versus the struggle for minority representation. Western and southwestern cities thus provide excellent places in which to analyze how civic visions and coalitions are built and sustained in spite--or perhaps because of--these conditions.

The text is composed of nineteen short chapters, organized into six sections that trace the origins, process, and results of charter reform. Chapter 3 merits particular attention as one of the few chapters that could stand alone, perhaps for use in an undergraduate course. It shows how years ofcharter amendments created a confusing, contradictory institutional structure and built general consensus on the need for systematic and comprehensive reform--specifically, an enhanced role for the mayor, greater control of elected officials over departments and commissions, and increased democratic participation for ordinary citizens.

The convergence of two forces--the election of Mayor Richard Riordan and the threat of San Fernando Valley secession--made charter reform viable for the first time in decades. In 1997, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to appoint a commission to draft a new city charter, but insisted that the council have right of review before the charter went before the voters. Incensed, Mayor Riordan financed a proposition to create an elected commission that could take its charter straight to the voters, which voters passed that same year. For two years, the commissions worked separately towards the same goal, and each was subject to powerful influences--the appointed commission to the city council, and the elected commission to the mayor and to organized labor. According to Sonenshein: "From the start, the two commissions were like competing siblings. Both had a mission that would have made more sense with only one commission, and each operated with an eye on the other" (pp. 105-106).

The author demonstrates that the leadership exhibited by the chairs of the two commissions was a major factor contributing to the ultimate success ofcharter reform. From the beginning, both chairs believed there had to be a single charter, and eventually decided to work together with the support of a joint conference committee to identify and make recommendations on all disagreements between the two commissions. Once united, the two commissions occupied the high ground of the charter reform debate, and the mayor and the city council were faced with the decision to either support the unified charter or appear opposed to popular reforms.

Voters approved the unified charter in June 1999 by a margin of 60 percent. The new charter expanded mayoral authority significantly, created a system of advisory neighborhood councils, and instituted area planning commissions. Two reforms that had once been on the table--a larger city council and administrative decentralization, such as a borough system--did not succeed. The new charter dissolved support for San Fernando Valley secession, which voters resoundingly rejected in 2002, and facilitated the resolution of the scandal involving the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department and the statewide recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

The study raises a number of important questions for the study of coalition-building in diverse cities. Few are better equipped to venturea nswers to these questions than Sonenshein, whose earlier study of Mayor Tom Bradley's coalition of African American and white Jewish voters is canonical in the scholarly field of Los Angeles and urban politics. [1] Sonenshein shows that charter reform ultimately succeeded in Los Angeles despite the city's diversity, fragmentation, and low social capital. To explain this outcome, he develops a model of interracial coalitions that takes into account the importance of interests, ideology, and leadership.

Sonenshein posits that "reform constituencies" support reform coalitions because of their beliefs about government and civic life, and that this ideology, rather than narrowly defined self-interest, is crucial to institutional change. He argues that "[i]n reducing all political action to self-interest we risk missing something important about civic capacity and civic participation. To many ordinary people who are not political actors except as voters and observers, what is right and wrong in government is quite important" (p. 264). Jewish voters on the west side of Los Angeles overwhelmingly supported the new charter, even though they generally felt well served by city government. He suggests that Latino immigrants may similarly provide the ideological as well as practical impetus for reform, which was partly confirmed by the 2005 election of Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's first Latino mayor in over 150 years, which Sonenshein considers in the afterword of the 2006 edition.

The City at Stake is full of useful charts, tables, and maps, as well as an exceptional appendix that summarizes the new charter's provisions. Sonenshein's bibliography is likewise a valuable reference. The book is appropriate for graduate-level courses in urban politics or public policy and would be of interest to a popular audience with specialized interests in urban and public affairs. Because of its exhaustive and sometimes overwhelming level of detail, the book would not be a good choice for most undergraduates or non-specialists. The book's discussion of the San Fernando Valley secession movement, though adequate, is presented here primarily as an impetus for charter reform; researchers interested in an in-depth study may be disappointed. Similarly, though Sonenshein raises interesting questions about civic participation among Latino immigrants, he ventures only superficial answers that are best supplemented by other recent studies.[2]

By far the most interesting and unique aspect of this book derives from Sonenshein's role as executive director of the appointed charter commission. He had access to the key players in Los Angeles politics, whose interviews form the backbone to this book. The study is peppered with Sonenshein's candid interpretations of the people and events that influenced the outcomes of charter reform, secession, and municipal elections. The following excerpt is typical: "I have often thought since then that finding the high ground was the key to making charter reform succeed, but I had never really felt the high ground until that nineteen to zero vote. We had done the right thing, and in so doing had restored the faith of the people in the room, and also outside it, that Los Angeles government could be reformed" (p. 166). Sonenshein's observations enable the reader to enter the often inaccessible world of city politics through a privileged and trusted insider's eye.

Written in an accessible, engaging style, the study feels more like a memoir or political autobiography than a scholarly monograph. Together with his earlier study, The City at Stake is the definitive study of urban politics in LosAngeles.

Notes[1]. Raphael Sonenshein, Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[2]. Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer, and Peter Dreier, The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (Berkeley, Calif.:University of California Press, 2005).

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 07, 2007

DCGuide to Accessing Elected and Appointed Officials

From Susie Cambria of DC Action for Children via e-mail:

DC Action for Children recently updated its “Guide to Accessing Elected and Appointed Officials” and it is available on-line. This is a great tool – it has all the information about elected officials and executive branch agencies all in one place. If you would like a hard copy, call 234-9404 or e-mail dcaction@dckids. org with your name and address.

Labels: , ,

Capacity building training in Maryland

From an e-list:

Democracy for Maryland, a statewide progressive political non-profit, is sponsoring a training workshop and social mixer on Saturday, June 16th. For those inerested in gaining a voice in local and state political affairs, give some serious thought to attending, as the speakers, program and networking opportunities are excellent.

Event: Progressive Training Workshop and Networking Mixer
Date/Time: Saturday, June 16, 2:00 - 6:00 p.m.
Rockville Crowne Plaza Hotel

Purpose: Hands-on training for those interested in working on legislative initiatives in the MD General Assembly, or other projects that involve message framing and development, citizen lobbying and volunteer organizing. Produced by: Democracy for Maryland


Module 1: Cindy Boersma, Legislative Director, MD-ACLU, Interactive session focused on strategies and techniques for successful citizen lobbying in Annapolis.

Module 2: State Senator Jamie Raskin, Citizen-lobbying from a legislator's perspective.

In addition, Sen. Raskin, also a professor of Constitutional Law, will discuss specific initiatives to expand meaningful citizen participation in our democratic institutions.

Module 3: Dr. Jeffrey Feldman, Author. Discussion on the use of 'framing' in message development.

Dr. Feldman will also conduct a book-signing for his latest work, Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (And Win Elections).

Networking Mixer: 5:00 - 6:00 pm
Enjoy selected beers and wine from our hosted bar while you 'talk shop' with fellow activists and speakers. To obtain tickets for this event in advance,
go to the event website. Seating is limited and expected to sell out.
This is the kind of stuff progressives need to be doing in DC. I think people have the bar thing down, but not the efforts for focused capacity building advocacy and building a progressive urban political agenda within the city.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Proportional voting suggestions in a column by Neal Peirce

Peirce suggests:

1. Proportional voting for representatives.
2. "Three seat" legislative districts.
3. Direct election of the president (dumping the Electoral College).
4. A single six-year term for the President.

By Neal Peirce
Washington Post Writers Syndicate

Can we make it last -- the wave of good feeling, bipartisanship, shared patriotism -- that infused President Ford’s funeral?

For a while, perhaps. One may hope that the ascendant Capitol Hill Democrats will grant the vanquished Republicans some of the minority party rights that dimmed in recent years. Partisans of every stripe may remember, at least for a while, Gerald Ford’s good-humored steadiness, his pragmatic and moderate voice.

But is there any way to diminish the forces that so easily demean our public dialogue -- bitter special interest politics, the corrupting influence of campaign cash, the demonizing of opponents, the lure of attack ads?

Across grassroots America, there are some hints of hope. In Minneapolis, Minn., and Oakland, Calif., in Davis, Calif., and Pierce County, Wash., voters last November approved “instant runoff” or “proportional representation” election measures.

Under instant runoff, voters make their first, second and third choice among candidates for an office. As opposed to “winner take all,” where the leading candidate, even with less than a majority, gets elected, instant runoff allows immediate recounts of voters’ second (or third) choices until there’s a majority count. Because voters’ backup choices are potentially important, narrowly partisan campaigns become bad politics.

Closely allied is the system of proportional voting where several officials get selected from a field in a single district or city. Steven Hill of “FairVote” and others are now recommending three-seat legislative districts both for legislatures and congressional seats.
Maryland does this now. I'm not sure if the way that politics works there is any different.
Illinois used the proportional system to pull a heavily divided state together after the Civil War and until 1980. Voters could cast all their three votes for one candidate, or distribute them as they chose. Result: any candidate who got over 25 percent was likely to win. Republican areas usually had a few Democratic legislators, and vice-versa, making legislative partisanship less acute, bipartisan coalitions commonplace.

In the spirit of Gerald Ford, couldn’t we experiment much more broadly with such alternative systems -- American democracy updated to represent our many voices, races, economic groups, in a 21st century world? The opportunities should be rich, the time ripe, for our 50 state legislatures and local governments to experiment freely and broadly in this field.

Ford, it’s worth noting, was a vigorous, life-long supporter of electoral reform. As minority leader of the U.S. House, he voted for the historic Voting Rights Act in 1965. After the ill-starred 2000 election, he joined with former President Jimmy Carter to co-chair a national commission on electoral reform, laying the groundwork for the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Ford and Carter also recommended making Election Day a national holiday and restoring full voting rights to ex-felons.

For decades, Ford supported abolishing the electoral college and giving the people the right to vote directly for president. Both the American Bar Association and Gallup Polls, he noted on the House floor in 1969, supported a direct vote. “If we do not” adopt a direct vote amendment, said Ford, “it is my honest opinion that the people will be let down.”

As indeed the people were let down in 2000, when the archaic electoral college vote system awarded the presidency to the presidential candidate who trailed his opponent by 539,893 votes in the nationwide count.

There’s another reform we might consider in these times: a single six-year term for president. President Lyndon Johnson’s former press secretary, George Reedy, put me onto the idea some years ago. And while I can’t find any evidence that Gerald Ford supported it, proponents over the years have included the first and greatest Chief Justice, John Marshall, not to mention President Andrew Jackson and statesmen ranging from Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton to Everett Dirksen, Mike Mansfield and George Aiken.

Why a six-year term? The incredible challenges of today’s presidency are so great that a Chief Executive should be running for the history books -- not another term.

Nothing can or should take politics out of the presidency: political persuasion is key to gaining national consensus, compelling congressional action, forging global alliances.

But a six-year term should be sufficient to each president to make his (or her) singular contributions. And limiting that person to one term would relieve us of the unseemly spectacle of presidents using and misusing their immense powers to muscle obscene amounts of campaign dollars out of self-interested contributors, or even descending into the depths of Watergate-style abuse.

Think of it this way. With a direct vote for president in 2000, we’d almost surely not be bogged down in the disastrously ill-advised Iraq war. And with a single six-year presidential term, we’d be preparing for the inauguration of a brand new president two weeks from now.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Conservatives' Vision of an America without Cities

is an article from Public Eye, based on a review of the book Welcome to the Homeland: A Journey to the Heart of America's Conservative Rural Rebellion by Brian Mann.

Ironically, this is the same argument that fueled the Garden Cities and other suburban development movements--the view of the city (somewhat justifiably) as a cesspool, teeming with immigrants (read: people different from me), loose morals, crime, dirty, noisy, and dangerous.

It's a bit more complicated than that. And the story captures the nuances.

The story references a story from the Stranger, which I reprinted in the Urban Agenda blog, "THE URBAN ARCHIPELAGO by The Editors of The Stranger."
It is a screed written after the November 2004 election. But look what happened in November 2006. I wouldn't claim that a Democratic or more humane mandate was set--after all, if George Allen wasn't a doofus during the campaign, there's a good chance he would have won and the Senate wouldn't have a Democratic majority (maybe Lieberman would have jumped to the Republicans besides).

But despite this blog entry that discusses the suburban majority in Congress, "The suburbs are now the majority in the House of Representatives" also from Urban Agenda, the November election results have demonstrated to urban dwellers that we can't be so smug and dismissive of the suburbs, that in many respects, we are comrades in arms.

Like trying to make the connection between historic preservation and the demonstrated interest in the home (even though many people, particularly those of the property rights persuasion, see preservation rules as a hindrance), we cityfolk need to make better links with our rediscovered friends in the suburb.

(As I mentioned in a long meeting on Sunday, the suburbs are populated with many people that still have strong ties to the city, maybe one or two generations back, but they are still around--though dying off--and reachable. See this blog entry from 2005, "Interesting City attitude-Suburban attitude survey in Metro Detroit," which discusses a Detroit News survey with the same finding.)

I mean, who would have guessed Charles County Maryland would have gone Democrat? (See "Elections Sharpen Region's Profile," subtitled "Democrats Look to Annapolis, Washington," and "Breaking Away from Neighbors," both from the Washington Post.)

Index Keywords: ;

Saturday, October 28, 2006

How ordinary, organized citizens can seize political power

(reprinted from Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space)
Today's Chicago Sun-Times has an op-ed by Mike Gecan, of the national staff of the Industrial Areas Foundation,* the community organizing entity created by Saul Alinsky, about how:

...[D]irect citizen organizing and dramatic public action is steadily losing ground to other political approaches. What authors Ben Ginsberg and Martin Shefter called Politics by Other Means rules the roost these days. That politics includes legislative investigations, judicial proceedings and media revelations. We would add a fourth form -- celebrities adopting causes -- to the list. ...

The problem is that the general public has only one real role in each of these events: the role of spectator. We watch the U.S. attorney. We follow the trials. We line up to get a glimpse of a star. The message to citizens is that the action is somewhere else: in the smoke-filled room; in the whispered phone call of a fixer; in the cubicles of the federal prosecutor; in the studios of the stars. Not on your block. Not in your neighborhood or subdivision. Not in your workplace.

So, the more traditional politics falls short, the more ''politics by other means'' will fill the vacuum. The more ''politics by other means'' fills the vacuum, the more disconnected and passive the public becomes. How to get out of this cycle? The first way is for organized citizens to continue to analyze the issues that affect their lives and to make that analysis public. ...

The second way is to keep doing what the 1,500 leaders of United Power will be doing today: gathering in a public setting, doing public business, pressing candidates for public commitments. No winks. No nods. No back-room anything. And the third way is to continue to exercise the democratic muscle of voting. Without these three habits -- analysis, public engagement and electoral participation -- it won't matter what the prosecutors and movie stars do. The center of our democratic life will continue to shrink. And the politics of the future will bear little resemblance to the world invented by our Founding Fathers and protected from extinction by the greatest president of all, Abraham Lincoln.

He's a man who modeled the kind of politics you'll find in the auditorium at Trinity High School in River Forest Sunday afternoon. And he's the person who knew what the goal of political life could be and should be: ''to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.''

What Gecan calls the three habits of "analysis, public engagement, and electoral participation" are foundational principles of the approach espoused by this blog.

See "Study: Housing costs force moves" from the Chicago Tribune about the study mentioned above.

(Note that the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has been pretty successful garnering similar ink in the Washington Post, see "Separation Between Rich, Poor Widening in D.C., Study Finds," although I would aver that it appears as if the Washington Post and other area newspapers report less on press conferences and similar activities, by either national advocacy groups or local advocacy groups. When I first came to the city, and worked for a consumer advocacy group, we could count on newspapers and local television coverage of our various press conferences. This is less the case today.)

* In DC, the very effective Washington Interfaith Network is an IAF affiliate.

Index Keywords:

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Equity in the City

Originally uploaded by Daquella manera.
(Mexico City)


Originally uploaded by Daquella manera.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Rocky Anderson, a possible pro-urban presidential candidate?

This blog entry appeared originally in Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space.

Rob Snyder sent this along, a speech by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson about the U.S. role in Iraq and the current leadership by the President of the United States and his Administration. It was given yesterday.

I have a companion blog, Urban Agenda, that is supposed to be dedicated to creating a progressive urban agenda and a campaign to run a candidate in the presidential primaries on a pro-urban political platform.

It's been hard to find good candidates. Mayor Riley of Charleston is a bit old; John Norquist, ex-mayor of Milwaukee, has some baggage. But both are pro-city. Mayor Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City came to my notice from a blogreader.

This speech today is quite interesting. "Tell us the truth...." A pretty compelling speech. I'd take him over many other candidates!

Video of the Speech.

Text of the Speech.

Also see this article from the Salt Lake City Deseret News, "Thousands gather in Salt Lake City to protest, praise Bush."

The protest was held in conjunction with the American Legion's annual meeting held in the city. (Given the strong Republican nature of the State of Utah, this is quite interesting...)

Interesting that this speech merits one paragraph in an article in today's Washington Post, Bush Takes His Case to Veterans, subtitled "War in Iraq Depicted as One Against Radical Islamic Terrorism."

It turns out that yesterday's Baltimore Sun had a longer story with a photo, that ran on page A2 (although I didn't read the paper til this morning...). It's from the LA Times, "Mayor leads anti-war protest ahead of Bush's visit to Utah: Republicans launch ad campaign denouncing Salt Lake City official." From the article:

The Utah Republican Party sponsored radio advertisements around the state denouncing the mayor and those advocating what the party calls "cut-and-run" tactics in Iraq. The mayor's office hired three temporary workers to answer the more than 1,600 calls it received over two days. Anderson's spokesman said the Republican radio campaign stirred up not just opposition, but also new demonstrations of support for the mayor's anti-Bush views.

The city's position as a Democratic island in a very Republican state notwithstanding, the controversy underscores the extreme sensitivity surrounding the war - not just in more typically liberal communities but in a state where the National Guard has contributed heavily to the force in Iraq, and one that gave Bush 71 percent of its vote two years ago.

No mention, it appears, in the New York Times.

Anderson gave a strong speech. Not mealy-mouthed at all. From the speech:

"We are here today because of our values. We love our country. We cherish the freedoms and liberties of our country. And we don't call those who speak out against our nations leaders, unpatriotic or unamerican or appeasers of fascists as we heard from our incompetent Secretary of Defense yesterday. We have good wholesome, family values."
Anti-President Bush rally, Salt Lake City
Thousands of protestors march down State Street to the Utah federal building during an anti-President Bush rally Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006, in Salt Lake City. They presented the offices of senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, and Rep. Rob Bishop, all R-Utah, with a symbolic indictment of President Bush and Congress for the war in Iraq. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

Index Keywords: