OPINION: A Different Kind of Exit Poll

by Jim O’Sullivan, President of the MMRA

The March mayoral primary is behind us having only motivated 21% of registered voters to cast a ballot for Mayor. That means over 1.4 million registered voters didn’t vote. That’s a staggering number of people that refused to participate in our most fundamental right: to choose those who will represent us. It begs the question, what’s going on?

Political pundits have offered all sorts reasons for the “no-shows” at the polls, from voter burnout after the presidential elections to candidates too boring to generate interest or negative campaigns that turned voters off. Maybe that figures into it a bit, but does it explain why 79% of the registered voters in Los Angeles didn’t vote? I don’t think so.

I’ve always voted, no matter what. I’ve voted for Democrats, Independents, Republicans and probably a few Libertarians. In Los Angeles I have rarely been excited about the candidate I end up voting for, but that has never bothered me because I always subscribed to the “lesser of two evils” theory. I could always find something in one of the candidates that sufficiently elevated them above the other enough to allow me to cast my vote. Now that the primary is over I’m looking at the two candidates left standing and a terrible thought has crept into my thinking: what if in the City of Angels there is no lesser evil?

A good argument can be made that the two mayoral candidates left standing are equally complicit in driving the City to the edge of bankruptcy, so is there any difference between them? Actually, I think there could be – but the real question should be: do either one of them have the guts, ability and independence to turn this mess around? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

At a recent political roast Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa teased the two remaining candidates, Wendy Gruel and Eric Garcetti, about the I.B.E.W. (the union representing the Department of Water and Power workers). The I.B.E.W. spent millions on Greuel’s behalf. Garcetti’s campaign has complained that Greuel would not be independent from I.B.E.W. boss Brian D’Arcy.

At the roast the Mayor quipped about Gruel that: “She’d fit perfectly in Brian D’Arcy’s pocket, right where Eric wants to be.”

Unfortunately, for many of us who closely follow the goings on at City Hall, Mayor Villaraigosa hit the nail squarely on the head.

Candidates know that unions can deliver thousands of volunteers to get out the vote. Politicians prefer to win elections – and, understandably, they are predisposed to favor those who help them get elected. As a result the needs of the residents and neighborhoods end up getting the short end of the stick. Simply put, politicians don’t worry about the voters who don’t show up at the polls.

The MMRA does worry about it. We are a non-partisan organization. Our purpose is to be “a squeaky wheel” and fight for the services and policies that preserve the quality of life for the residents of the Miracle Mile. We’ll work with anyone, regardless of their political affiliation, to achieve the best interests of our community. But I can’t help but think that the reason our residents are so civically engaged has to do with scale. We have a keen sense of place. Our strong connection to our community motivates us to take the trouble and the time to participate. And perhaps the overwhelming scale of a city as large as Los Angeles is so huge and complex and frustrating – the special interests and bureaucracy so deeply entrenched – that the vast majority of the voters just can’t find a personal connection to an entity that is too big to be managed, let alone changed.

Maybe the way to make voters more responsible is to give them a city that is more responsive to their needs – a bunch of new cities, that is. Smaller cities, cities that better serve their communities. Cities like Santa Monica, Culver City, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills – properly scaled cities that enable a sense of place and foster connection.

Sadly, Los Angeles is a collapsing star and our best (and only) hope is that a new galaxy of cities can be created from its implosion. Perhaps the 79% percent of registered voters who didn’t vote were actually voting for something after all.

[The opinions expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect the official positions of the MMRA.]