- Greggory Moore
By Greggory Moore
What do you get when you take nine high-profile, powerful people whose job it is to work together for the common good and have a third of them compete for a single, even higher-profile and more powerful position?
If that’s the setup of a joke, you’ll have to wait until April 8 for the punchline, because this is exactly what is happening right now on the Long Beach City Council. No fewer than three councilmembers—Robert Garcia (1st District), Suja Lowenthal (2nd District), and Gerrie Schipske (5th District)—are in it to win it, with the brass ring being a one-way ticket to succeed Bob Foster as mayor of the 36th most populous city in the United States.
If you cannot imagine that such a scenario might interfere with the council conducting the business of the people, you need an imagination transplant. Not only are all three competing for votes in general, but in many respects for overlapping demographics as well: all three are Democrats; Garcia and Schipske are gay, while Lowenthal has been a strong ally of the LGBT community; Garcia and Lowenthal are both in the 35-to-44 age group and represent the two downtown council districts; etc.
Probably no one is in a better position to appreciate the potential issues that may arise from Long Beach’s political Thunderdome (“Three council members enter, one council member leaves [as mayor]!”) than the trio’s council cohort, past and present.
“I haven’t seen any factionalism so far,” says 7th District Councilmember James Johnson, a so-far-so-good sentiment expressed by most of the current council members. “When you’re in City Hall, you have a job to do, and everyone is expected to do it with professionalism.”
Third District Councilmember Gary DeLong concurs, though with a dose of pessimism—or realism, depending on how you view it.
“So far everyone’s been behaving themselves, and there have not been any conflicts. So far it’s been business as usual,” he says. “Could things change as we get closer to the April election? They certainly could. […] If councilmembers start giving endorsements to one person or the other. If that starts happening, I think there could develop a chasm.
DeLong says it’s not for nothing that campaign season is also known as “the silly season.”
“You will see people running for office all of a sudden start putting silly items on the city council calendar,” he prognosticates. “That will definitely happen. You know, there’ll be an agenda item to appease this group, and an agenda item to appease that group. And that’s unfortunate.”
Eighth District Councilmember Al Austin says that, although it’s too early in the game to comment on any seismic shifts in the council ground, already he finds himself mindful of the political calculus at work.
“I’m a little more cognizant now on what I bring forward [and] what I sign on to,” he says. “[…] It’s a hot political climate right now. You have to be little bit more cautious and judicious. […] When a city councilmember puts something on the agenda, we’re trying to get other city councilmembers to sign on. With that said, you may be asking someone to sign on and not someone else, which may be disruptive. I don’t want to get into that kind of dynamic.”
Not surprisingly, the former councilmembers with whom I spoke have a slightly more critical take on the situation.
After joking that he was about to file papers to run for mayor, “because I don’t want to be left behind,” former 9th District Councilmember and current Los Angeles County Housing Commission Chair Val Lerch sounds a theme that is echoed by many observers: that from now until the election there will be a lot of second-guessing of the motives of the three mayoral candidates.
“You’re going to have to start questioning that every time these three people make any decisions,” Lerch says. “Are they [making a given decision] because of the city, or did they do it because it would advance their political careers?”
Lerch says that he would not have run for mayor while serving his district as councilmember.
“I thought about running for mayor […] but that was after I left office,” he says.
“I wasn’t going to leave a [council] seat empty or cause a special election—which could happen with at least one of the three [seats of councilmembers who are running for mayor]. I’m a guy who went into city politics to help my neighbors, help my community, help my city. That was my driving force all the way along.”
Former 7th District Councilmember Tonia Reyes Uranga, presently a candidate for the 70th Assembly District, sees the current electoral situation in Long Beach as an unusual opportunity for those who are displeased with the status quo to effect a change, considering that, along with the mayoralty, five council seats—those in the odd-numbered districts—are up for grabs, with Garcia, DeLong, and Schipske termed-out, while Steven Neal (9th District) is running for the 64th Assembly District.
“From a community perspective, I think [having so many open seats] is a great opportunity for change in the city,” she says. “Anyone who has a concern about the city working or not working, [this situation presents] a good opportunity to get involved politically, get the vote out, and run candidates who are really understanding of [the voters’] issues. […] Everyone who complains about Long Beach, this is their time. Jump in and find a candidate that reflects your values or some of the issues you care about, and go after them and get them elected. That’s what I’ve been telling people. [The voters] can possibly change the entire face of Long Beach.”
But Uranga also recognizes the potential problems such a busy election season presents.
“I think this [situation] has the potential to [cause] a stalemate or freeze the council,” she says. “Usually you don’t get a lot of things passed anyway during an election year, but it’s going to be even worse when you have people positioning. It’s going to be harder to get five votes—or six, [which is] veto-proof. The hardest part of governing is to have everyone in campaign mode. Priorities are elsewhere. But that’s how it is.”
Uranga says that part of “campaign mode” is also public image-shaping.
“It shouldn’t be about getting credit,” she says of governing. “It should be about getting things done for the community. But politics is politics. And like I said, election years are terrible for getting anything done. You don’t want to offend anyone that you have to work with or you need a vote from. So it’s just tough. [… A]ll nine [councilmembers] should be looking at what the city as a whole needs. But in reality, when you have three [councilmembers] running for mayor, certain constituencies are going to be given a little bit more [attention] than others based on how they support [the candidates], unfortunately.”
Fourth District Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell says that although he has no problem with his councilmates’ quest to lead Long Beach, he understands the potential for the scenario to turn problematic—and that if it does, he will not hesitate to note it publicly.
“I think what you’re asking me is whether [the mayoral race] is impacting the [council] meetings. Stand by for further updates,” he chuckles. “It’s early. I’m not afraid to call someone out if they’re grandstanding on an issue. Have I seen a lot of it so far? No. Do I think I’ve seen some of it? Yes. […] If it’s going to become a hindrance, you can be sure I’ll call anyone out on it. […] We have an obligation to the office we hold [as councilmembers], and if someone seeking another office hinders that obligation, I will note it publicly. But I think they’ve been pretty good thus far. It’s challenging for them, too. We have a duty to balance [the Fiscal Year 2014] budget; we have a duty to provide services to the people; we don’t have a duty to politic for another office from the dais.”
The consensus so far seems to be something along the lines of: Hope for the best, but be ready for the worst. What actually unfolds in this drama will be up to the political players themselves. In early 2014 we’ll catch up with our interviewees to get their takes on how the game is playing out.