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National Editorials & Columns

Voters Dribble In

As I write this, it is Election Day in the nation’s second largest city.

Ho hum. Worry not. It’s not as if it were the Oscars or the Golden Globes, or even the Writers Guild Awards. Believe me, there are no traffic jams. Nothing has been preempted.

No, this is just an election for Los Angeles mayor, school board, city council and a decision about whether to raise the sales tax to 9.5 percent. Just that.

And no one is paying attention. One poll worker described the traffic as “painfully slow.”

According to Dan Schnur, who runs the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and the USC/LA Times poll, “Voters don’t appear to have very strong feelings about anyone who’s running or anything they’re talking about.”

If all politics is local, and in so many ways it is, then what we have here is very simple. No politics.

Don’t get me wrong: There is certainly “stuff” out there. I got stuck in traffic Saturday night, and spent more than an hour listening to the news/traffic station to try to figure out why. I didn’t, but I heard endless political ads, many of which left me yearning for more news on traffic.

This is not, contrary to the impression given by endless photos of politicians at Hollywood fundraisers, a very political city to begin with. It confused me when I got here twenty-something years ago from Boston, where sports and politics dominate every conversation. I worried about how long it would take to fit into the political network; after all, in Boston, people still ask you what you did in the ‘80 campaign. I needn’t have worried. At the next mayoral inauguration, I found myself in the third row, behind the family. It would have taken decades to do that in Boston. Where is everyone, I asked myself.

On the freeway. The joke, I later learned, is that if you want anyone to pay attention to a civic event, you need to place it on a highway during rush hour, preferably as part of a car chase. None of the Los Angeles television stations have bureaus in Sacramento, the state capitol, which tells you the problem isn’t just about City Hall. To be sure, this is a Democratic city, even though Richard Riordan, a Republican, is one of the most popular (and still active) mayors in recent history. On the usual ideological spectrum, you don’t get the kind of partisan debate we’re used to seeing on cable news. But there are issues, important ones, real and not manufactured for entertainment ones, about schools and jobs and the infrastructure that collapses on us periodically.

So why no politics?

Because we drive cars and don’t get crammed together every day in buses and subways like people do in other cities? Because we live in a sort of suburban sprawl where people only meet their neighbors when we all go outside in an earthquake? Because our celebrities are movie stars, not mere politicos who can no longer get free tickets to the big events? Because elected officials in this town have so few jobs to give away, thanks to the do-gooders in the last century who thought civil service would keep the city clean? Because we have a weak mayor, a parochial city council, and our major decision-making occurs in a county board of supervisors (a system of divided powers that defies explanation and undermines accountability)?

Sure. All of the above. But all those things have been true for a long time, even as interest in politics — low to begin with — has dropped even further. I hope I’m wrong, but it feels like the disgust at everything going on in Washington has trickled down to just plain apathy when it comes to what’s happening closer to home. California leads the nation in so many things — from agriculture to style. My fear, lately, is that it is also leading the nation towards unmitigated apathy about politics.

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