- Terelle Jerricks
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
The last thing you might expect from Los Angeles’ first Latino mayor in the modern era is a civil rights lawsuit—and that very well may be the last thing he leaves behind.
The Natural Resources Defense Council senior lawyer David Pettit warned the Los Angeles City Council about such a lawsuit shortly before it approved BNSF Railway’s off-dock railyard project, whose worst impact, fell on “neighboring low income communities of color” (See “LA Approves SCIG: Lawsuits Ahead?”), Pettit noted. This makes the project ripe for legal challenge as a case of environmental racism.
Few in the policy community see this as a characteristic indictment of outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, however.
Joe Lyou, president and CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air, saw Pettit’s comment as highlighting an inconsistency.
“Villaraigosa has an admirable record on the environment and with labor and with business and technology development,” Lyou said. “He’s done some really good things in those fields …. And this is something that the environmental community and the community members who are being put at risk by this project see as completely inconsistent with that record.
“He’s been a champion for a lot of environmental, and environmental justice causes …. This certainly puts a stain on that record.”
“He’s done an amazing job,” said community activist Ken Melendez, one of Villaraigosa’s strongest supporters. “He’s done more in 8 years for air, for terminal improvements, for community projects and, like I said, balancing the port with the community… than in the previous 100.” Capping everything else, Melendez noted, “He put Wilmington on the map with that park,” roughly doubling the amount of park space in Wilmington, completing a project which activists have been pushing for decades. It’s an assessment that’s hard to dispute. And yet, to get the park built, other Wilmington dreams—such as extensive wetlands restoration—had to be scaled back or abandoned entirely.”
Such contradictions are characteristic of the realities of running a big city in today’s neoliberal world order, the very same realities that incoming Mayor Eric Garcetti will also face.
“We’ve seen some tremendous progress” under Villaraigosa on a number of fronts, said Patricia Castellanos, deputy director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. In particular, “We had huge success with the clean trucks program as far as he could take it…. There’ve been some legal bumps along the way, but I don’t think it’s any fault of his…. The legal bumps in the road have been the result of the trucking industry blocking progress both on the enivironmental front and on the labor front.”
The clean trucks program was the highwater mark of policy that was strongly pro-labor and pro-environment, but its labor protections were struck down by a federal appeals court—a further indication of mayoral constraints.
“We live in a global world…. LA is a microcosm of changes the entire United States is going to be facing as a result of globalization and the world we live in,” said labor lawyer and progressive philanthropist Diane Middleton, who strongly supported Eric Garcetti’s mayor campaign. “I don’t think the mayor of LA is going to substantially impact any of those questions,” she said, realistically, before making a crucial pivot.
“On the other hand, if I truly believed there was no impact to be had, I would not have worked as hard as I did, or rallied as many people as I could to support Garcetti,” she said. “I do believe the individual makes a difference in history, and I do think Eric Garcetti is going to make a difference as mayor—but you have to put it in that context.”
And, the context of neo-liberalism is a devastating one for progressives. As British economist Umair Haque tweeted over Memorial Day weekend, “Neoliberalism is the great failure of liberalism. It’s toxic set of negative sum trade offs are tearing liberalism apart.”
This is evident in the long-running battles, which have frequently pitted environmental and labor activists against one another in the Harbor Area—as it did with the BNSF railyard—even though longshore workers face the worst pollution exposure on the one hand, and environmentalists haven’t opposed growth per se on the other. With international capital calling the shots, neither labor nor environmental activists are in a position to fight on terms of their own choosing—and that defines one of the major challenges facing Mayor-elect Garcetti, just as it faced outgoing Mayor Villaraigosa.
Although Middleton strongly backs the BNSF railyard project, she said she had “great respect” for the NRDC and Angelo Logan, of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, which opposed the project. She echoed sentiments expressed by Harbor Commission Vice President David Arian, who sit on Middleton’s foundation board, at the time of the commission vote that approved the project. But even the most enlightened attitudes cannot dissolve the material contradictions Los Angeles faces, along with its new mayor.
“It’s taking small steps forward that’s going to make a difference … and how many people you mobilize to follow you,” Middleton said. “I think Eric has the ability to do that.”
She cited two main reasons for her optimistic analysis of Garcetti: First, that he’s smart, fact-based and open to input from all parties. Second, that he is progressive, meaning he’s concerned with “what is in interest of the majority of working people in the city of LA…some very high percentage—85 or 90 or 95 percent of the people.”
One major obstacle in the neoliberal worldview is the devaluing of science, filtered through the corrupting multilevel influence of money in politics. Environmental and public health science have routinely been heavily discounted in port-related policy processes, as happened again with the BNSF railyard project.
“Not only will the BNSF SCIG yard add to air pollution, but the project’s environmental review by the Port of LA completely ignores all the latest environmental health research,” said Andrea Hricko, professor of preventive medicine at USC. “The research demonstrates that those living and going to school in close proximity to traffic-related pollution suffer adverse health effects,” she explained.
And she’s not alone. Fourteen faculty members from USC, UCLA and UC Irvine signed a letter to the Los Angeles City Council criticizing the port’s environmental impact report for the same reasons.
Hricko praised Villaraigosa on other matters.
“More mass transit and bike lanes – good for health and the environment – are a landmark accomplishment for the Mayor,” she said.
But the SCIG decision process clearly shows the limits of mayoral political will—as well as the conceptual limits that come from the neoliberal policy world.
Hricko argues that the BNSF decision was typical of how transportation decisions are made, legitimately evaluating impacts on jobs and the economy, but failing to integrate health effects research. Historically, such adverse human health effects are viewed as mere “externalities,” Hricko said, rather than as considerations that are equal to, or sometimes more important than, the impacts of a project on the economy.
Ideological limits aren’t the only thing constraining what mayors can do. There’s the very nature of the job, said Doug Epperhart, a past president of Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, who’s gone on to represent the Harbor Area on the Board of Neighborhoods Commissioners.
“Nobody wants to back into a pothole rutted street every day,” Epperhart said. “That’s the fundamental stuff mayors have to deal with,” and it makes the job unlike that of any other elected official.
There’s room for vision, of course—but potholes are something average voters can’t avoid—and ultimately neither can mayors. When it does come to vision, Epperhart cites a number of other constraints that other officials also encounter such as bureaucracy, an extremely diverse population, and the diffusion of political power. All of these combine to put a premium on the mayor’s ability to focus what resources he does have, and to calibrate his efforts in terms of time and scope.
“The million trees initiative was a nice idea,” he said, “But maybe it should have been 200,000 trees. a more achievable goal.”
Melendez takes the opposite view on this particular example. Arguing that aiming high was necessary to grab attention and motivate broad involvement.
“You put a goal high, and maybe you only plant 300,000, but those 300,000 weren’t there before,” Melendez said. “That’s the achievement.”
Whichever view you subscribe to, it serves to underscore the strategic challenge involved.
Looking forward to what Garcetti might accomplish, there was broad agreement that continued progress on living standards and the environment were to be expected. At the port, there’s a clear progression, from Mayor James Hahn’s goal of “no net increase” in pollution to significant reductions with the Clean Air Action plan under Villaraigosa, and the need for zero emissions technology in the future.
“We have to make sure the infrastructure investments are made in a way that makes the port and freight movement system as close to zero emission as possible,” said Lyou, who also sits on the Air Quality Management District board. “We cannot achieve our air quality regulatory requirements, we cannot protect community members from the pollution at the ports, unless we go to as close to zero emissions as possible and we have the opportunity to do that.”
Castellanos agrees, and adds a labor component as well.
“We would support the goal of getting to zero emissions, but want to ensure that the jobs created from that would be good middle class jobs that were available for our local residents,” she said.
There’s also concern about a democracy deficit, with the port’s hasty dismantling of the Port Community Advisory Committee.
“I would fully expect that the new mayor will take extraordinary efforts to have a transparent and informed process at the port and to listen to the community,” Lyou said. “He certainly doesn’t want to get off on the wrong foot on that issue…. It would be foolish not to put into place some sort of process for community members and environmental activists to communicate with the mayor on this issue.”
Finally, what signs should people look for to see where Garcetti is headed? Virtually everyone agreed—look to his appointments.
“You’re as good as the advice you get,” was how Middleton put it. “So one of the first things we’re going to know about Eric is who does he surround himself with.”