An Architect of L.A. Government Looks Forward and Back

Zev Yaroslavsky on How Politics Have Changed in Los Angeles in the Last 40 Years

Auto Draft | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Photo by Aaron Salcido.

Los Angeles has changed, declared Zev Yaroslavsky, a man who has played a major role in shaping the city’s politics in the last 40 years, during a Zócalo Public Square event last night.

“We’re finding more and more people moving into Los Angeles who are earning high salaries and they’re gentrifying neighborhoods and driving people who are of lower income out of the city, and out of the county for that matter. It’s a fact and it’s happening, and it’s one of the great challenges that we have. So nothing ever stands still and things are changing,” Yaroslavsky told a full house at Cross Campus in downtown Los Angeles. They had gathered to hear the former Los Angeles County Supervisor reflect on Los Angeles’ past and present.

During the wide-ranging conversation, which touched on housing, homelessness, and public transportation, Yaroslavsky took time to look backward. “When I entered the city council, there were five Republicans on the city council and two Democrats who voted like Republicans, and it [was a] different ballgame then. I don’t want to say it was better, but first of all, we had debates on the council. We actually had divided votes.”

Speaking of the Los Angeles City Council of the last 25 years, Yaroslavsky called its decisions “basically consensus.” “And it can be consensus,” he said, “because it’s almost like a one-party state. In those days, everybody was different.”

The evening’s conversation, titled “How Can L.A. Use Its Past to Build a Brighter Future?,” was moderated by Zócalo’s Joe Mathews, who asked Yaroslavsky what the politician would tell his 26-year-old self if he were running for city council for the first time today, instead of in 1975. “Would you tell him to run?” Mathews asked.

Yaroslavsky countered that his early ambition had been to be a congressional staffer on Capitol Hill. But when a window opened up to run for the council after Ed Edelman got elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, he threw his hat in the ring—supported by $1,000 loans from his mother-in-law and a few friends. “My wife and I talked about it, and she said, if you’re going to do it, now’s the time to do it. We don’t have any kids, you can take a leave of absence from your job, and then, when you lose, you can go back to work,” Yaroslavsky recalled.

At the time, he said, he had been admitted to business school. He applied for and was granted a deferment to delay his studies until after the election. That was the plan, at least. “Funny thing happened on my way to my MBA. I got elected,” he said.

When Yaroslavsky was sworn in by Tom Bradley, he remembers the mayor saying: “You are now part of the establishment.” He pushed back. “I may be part of the establishment but the establishment is not part of me.”

Describing himself as the quintessential anti-establishment candidate—“my hair was not above my ears, my clothes were baggy, my car was smashed up”—he won. The climate was right. President Nixon had recently resigned from office, and Los Angeles was primed for change.

When Yaroslavsky was sworn in by Tom Bradley, he remembers the mayor saying: “You are now part of the establishment.” He pushed back. “I may be part of the establishment but the establishment is not part of me.”

Yaroslavsky turned to his favorite quote, by 19th-century British historian Lord Thomas Macaulay—“No man is fit to govern great societies who hesitates about disobliging the few who have access to him, for the sake of the many whom he will never see”—as his mandate. “That became, basically, not the Ten Commandments, it became the One Commandment. To me and my staff—and I had a great staff—we were always about the people we would never see. And that was about as anti-establishment as you can get.”

But, Mathews asked, could an outsider’s candidate like you get elected today? “You’d need richer friends, right?”

“Money is necessary, but it’s not sufficient, as we see every election,” Yaroslavsky said, pointing to politicians such as councilmember David Ryu, who represents Los Angeles’ Fourth District. “He’s a Korean American who won in a district that is close to 90 percent Anglo, [and he] represents Sherman Oaks, Sunset Plaza, Hancock Park. If he had asked me for my advice, I would have said probably not the district you’d want to run in. But he did. He snuck in in the runoff as I did when I first ran … I said knock on every door you can knock on and meet as many people as you can.” Ryu did that, Yaroslavsky said, “sometimes going to the same door twice, and he was able to win.”

Switching to housing and homelessness (an “easy, non-controversial topic,” Mathews joked), Mathews asked Yaroslavsky if he had any regrets about legislation such as Proposition U, a ballot initiative that he coauthored with councilmember Marvin Braude in 1986. Critics have declared the initiative, which aimed to limit commercial development as part of a backlash against the rise of massive buildings like the Beverly Center, the Westside Pavilion, and the Fujita Building, as one of the reasons Los Angeles has a housing shortage.

“Absolutely not,” Yaroslavsky said. “Prop U had absolutely nothing to do with residential housing,” he said. “The reason we put Prop U on the ballot, and the reason it resonated with the public and it passed with 70 percent of the vote in L.A., is not because of residential. It was because of commercial development.”

During a question-and-answer session with the audience, Yaroslavsky was asked about what to do when locals don’t want homeless people in their neighborhoods but are unwilling to build new housing—the so-called “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, phenomenon.

“From 2007 to the time I left office, we built nearly 1,000 housing units for homeless people, for chronically mentally ill homeless persons—and never had a NIMBY problem,” Yaroslavsky said. “Why? Because if you want to make a statement then you try to make a homeless housing project in Bel Air. Or a drug rehab facility in Bel Air. Then you’ll be in court for 10 years. If you want to solve the problem, you’ve got to be more intelligent about how you do it.” Instead, he worked with non-profits like Step Up on Second, on whose board he now sits, to buy motels and hotels and repurpose them as housing. In addition to being cost-effective, he says, “the great thing about motels is that they are in every community in Los Angeles.”

Repurposing these motels and hotels while working on longer-term solutions, he says, is the way forward “if we want to solve the problem and not make a statement.”

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