Never say anything important to anybody, I once heard a Chicago politician say, without presuming that they’re wearing a wire.
I know some Los Angeles City Council members who should have followed that advice before talking trash about some of their fellow Democrats.
Our best ideas often come out of freewheeling discussions. Unfortunately, so do some of our worst inclinations.
In an uproar that reached all the way to President Joe Biden’s White House, the City Council members who can be heard in an audio recording reported in the Los Angeles Times probably wish their private conversation had stayed private.
The central figures in this October 2021 conversation were City Council President Nury Martinez – who has since resigned from the council – and two fellow council members, as well as a labor ally.
They talked about a range of subjects, including the city’s once-in-10-years redistricting process. But much of what they said was grounded in a couple of faulty although widely held ideas.
I’m talking about the assumption that politics, the art of managing power relationships, is mostly about tribes – which, if you’re not careful, can lead you down the road to deeply held prejudices and outright racism.
This is hardly a new hazard. Rather, it is well grounded in decades of navigations and manipulations by a multitude of racial, religious, ethnic and other demographic groups jockeying for power in U.S.cities.
You can hear it in Martinez’s voice as she denigrates a colleague because “he’s with the Blacks.”
Right. My memory flashed back to Harold Washington’s ultimately successful campaign in 1983 to become Chicago’s first Black mayor.
At a meeting of precinct captains, then-Ald. Eddie Vrdolyak, who was from the very ethnic and white Southeast Side, was caught on a radio reporter’s mic rallying the crowd to get behind incumbent Mayor Jayne Byrne.
“It’s a racial thing. Don’t kid yourself,” he said. “I’m calling on you to save your city, to save your precinct. We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.”
Many credit that sound bite with turning the election toward Washington in those final days of the primary campaign. Washington calculated that a coalition across racial and ethnic lines was the best way to win. Good for him and good for the city. The city was already divided enough along racial lines.
Ethnic politics are a reality of urban life, especially for groups that are trying to carve out a place for themselves in our ethnic jigsaw puzzle. But the pieces of that puzzle are not rigid. Neighborhoods and communities must constantly reach out with Los Angeleno Rodney King’s famous question: “Can we all get along?”
Los Angeles is proud of its image as a city of people too cool to hate. But Martinez, as captured in the recording, sounds like she’s out to grab all the clout she can and redraw council districts to benefit Latino leaders.
That’s politics, but it doesn’t pay to be too bold and clumsy about it – or forget that you can often gain more ground through coalitions than open warfare.
For now, her saga appears to be over. Martinez, the council’s first Hispanic female president, apologized in a statement to the Los Angeles Times: “In a moment of intense frustration and anger, I let the situation get the best of me and I hold myself accountable for these comments. For that I am sorry.”
She also resigned as president and later stepped down from her seat altogether.
And before Republicans could take cheap shots at so-called liberal wokeness, the White House used the occasion to jab Republicans for their treatment of racism allegations within their own party.
“Here’s the difference between Democrats and MAGA Republicans: When a Democrat says something racist or antisemitic, ... we hold Democrats accountable,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “When a MAGA Republican says something racist and/or antisemitic, they are embraced by cheering crowds and become celebrated and sought after.”
Redistricting predictably brings partisan arguments as the parties jockey to carve out more districts for themselves. Yet demographic change brings new disputes over fair representation for groups that have grown faster than others. But neither party should want to be divided by factional splits within their own party.
Since the 1992 riots that followed King’s recorded beating by police, their numbers are increasingly underrepresented by the land most of them occupy. They deserve more, and I’m sure they’ll get it, if they don’t destroy the goodwill alliances they need first.
Yes, we can all get along, but we have to work at it.
—Email Clarence Page at email@example.com.