Saturday, May 25, 2024

City Hall’s New Class Learns Campaigning Has Little In Common With the Job

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Tim McOsker spent much of 2022 doing what most people would consider a real grind. As a candidate for the 15th District City Council seat, he attended copious community meetings, backyard get-togethers, and neighborhood coffee meetings where he would detail his political vision and outline his platform and priorities—again and again. The simple goal was to persuade District 15’s voters to choose him, one resident at a time.

But that was just the start. He also paraded before a bevy of bodies seeking endorsements. Perhaps most grueling were the hours on the phone, asking friends and associates to contribute money toward his quest to replace Joe Buscaino, who after two terms was giving up the seat that represents Watts, San Pedro, Wilmington, and other neighborhoods.

McOsker probably had an easier path and a better understanding of the process than most candidates. His family was historically engaged in the civic life of San Pedro, the heart of the district and its primary economic engine, the Port of Los Angeles. Additionally, he gets how local government works as he has spent time in the office of the city attorney and later served as chief of staff to Mayor Jim Hahn.

Although McOsker raised more than $1 million during the electoral cycle and won fairly easily—he grabbed 64% percent of the vote in the November runoff against Danielle Sandoval—he is quickly learning that, once your name is etched on the office door, the demands are different.

“When one is running for office, you’re meeting with the entire district. You’re meeting with a diverse set of folks, and you have all the diversity of interests and concerns, and you absolutely have to be consistent with every group and articulate your vision,” McOsker said the other week when he spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum.

“You articulate a vision, and then you become the councilmember, and the implementation of the vision means that now you have another campaign. You step into City Hall and you have departments and employees and other Council members and all folks with perfectly legitimate and honest interests, but then you have to work through everybody, collegially, and figure out how to implement that vision,” he added, summing it up by saying, “It’s really two different campaigns.”

This is one of the great overlooked aspects of political life in Los Angeles, and something every member of the elected class of 2022 has to face: The job of being an elected official is a completely different beast than running for office.

This may seem obvious. But that doesn’t make the challenge any easier. During a campaign, candidates have copious supporters who express their adoration and who will work or volunteer to push the campaign across the finish line. Get there, and many of those supporters want you to get things done—quickly.

City Hall is a minefield and it takes most new arrivals a couple of years to begin to get good at the gig. And it becomes more complex the higher one goes—Eric Garcetti frequently said that even his six years as Council president didn’t fully prepare him for the tasks of the mayor.

The current breadth of change is magnifying this truth: The 2022 election cycle brought five new Council members—each of whom has about a quarter-million constituents—as well as a new mayor, city attorney, and city controller. A lot of these officeholders are starting from scratch. As McOsker indicates, everyone has to figure out how to build coalitions and operate collegially with those who may have different views.

It’s always fun to see how newbies staff up. Victorious candidates often initially surround themselves with people who helped get them elected, operating on the idea that a shared vision will pay off. But if I had a dollar for each time a key campaign operative became a new pol’s chief of staff, then I could (probably) buy one of those really expensive smoothies.

Yet many times, that chief of staff or high-ranking staff member is replaced within months; vision is quickly trumped by functionality and what any arrival in any office needs more than someone who shares their view is an individual who can help them navigate City Hall. Ideally, this is someone who also has relationships with the power players who predate their arrival—this includes the general managers and heads of the more than 40 city departments and bureaus. It’s the GMs, especially, who can make an elected official’s job easier or more difficult.

Then there’s another obvious but still vitally important fact: After their inauguration, every officeholder represents a lot of Angelenos who didn’t vote for them, and those individuals can’t be overlooked, ignored, or punished. This cuts, no matter one’s political bent—progressive Hugo Soto-Martinez received about 38,000 votes in November but he also has to represent the 28,000 people who picked his opponent, now-former District 13 rep Mitch O’Farrell, as well as the tens of thousands of residents who never bothered to cast a ballot. In the race for the Westside District 11 seat, Traci Park, a moderate Democrat, earned 51,000 votes. That’s a lot of backing, but 47,000 people selected her opponent, left-leaning Erin Darling.

Yet the most important challenge probably occurs when these fresh faces in City Hall take a step back. Political identity plays a big role in campaigns and when crafting policy, but many Angelenos only take note of who is in office when they need services. They’ll raise holy hell if the councilmember ignores their neighborhood group, or does not have a functional top-down organization where field reps respond swiftly to calls. Nothing turns voters against their representative faster than feeling they are not being heard.

It turns out that when it comes to things like trimming trees, filling potholes, and removing a junked car from in front of someone’s home, ideology doesn’t matter—results do.

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