Picking up the phone and paying attention
A mentor back in high school advised me, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Goodness, how those words are ringing in my ears years later, for it is the crux of rotten political representation. Political negligence starts in the smallest of things.
LA is a hodge-podge place, and I’ve spent the last several weeks mixing into the melting pot of small-business owners, apartment complex managers, residents, senior citizens, political consultants and professors. Yet out of that intense variety of people has come a single, resounding, eye-opening frustration: “They never returned my phone call.” That is, their local representatives never got back to them when something needed attention. It’s been incredibly eye-opening (ear-opening?) to hear this one thing, over and over and over again, on different days from very different people around the city. Their representative gave them all the cold shoulder. It’s insane and feels like a script from a sitcom, but it stopped being comical after the dozenth person.
This awareness of being ignored comes in numerous forms. The owner of a hugely popular bakery was explaining to my boss and me yesterday how a major ground-up campaign to start up a “Little Paris” to revitalize West Pico Blvd’s fading commercial district had once had the support of a network of local businesses, as well as the French consulate, only to disappear in the weirdly prolonged non-response of the councilmember’s office. Similarly, “The district office literally never got back to us about installing streetlights on this street.” Or, “I followed up with the neighborhood councils about the thousand-dollar checks they were promised a few years back, and they never got them. The checks never came!” I know, at first glance these local things seem so small. Why would anyone else care? And yet these are the devilish details that define the friendliness of a commercial zone or the safety of a residential neighborhood, the decrepit-ness of sidewalks and the entire look and feel of a place. They define the community, which define the city.
Another example of political negligence showed up today in the story of a veteran political consultant, who explained to me at length that [councilmember] was a “turd” (I’m serious, he said that!). I had to laugh, but also had to know why. Apparently it had taken this man five concerted years to get a response from the top local officials about extending a traffic light change on a major intersection because a woman had been hit crossing the crosswalk for longer than the seven seconds it took for the light to change from red to green. “I personally walked the [councilmember]’s top officer across the crosswalk to show her how dangerous this single traffic light was, how simple it would be to change it… I mean, imagine if you were an elderly person. And it took five years.” That one traffic light.
In isolation, these examples are nothing. No local representative can fix every problem, return every call, address every complaint. I’m under no illusions here. What makes them significant is their repetition, over and over and over again, from local residents asking of their representative, Seriously, how long is their lunch break? Where did they go?
To a few friends, I’ve taken to saying that I’m learning what political corruption looks like in real life. I mean, I’ve heard all the huge stories, like most of us have. (There was a fascinating one on NPR three years back about the huge patent-filing companies that have fake empty offices and zero staff tucked away in some random quiet office building where no one works, and that exist solely to file lawsuits against tiny patent-breakers. Then there’s that creepy part in George Packer’s The Unwinding explaining how many of the middleman loan offices that gave out bad loans before the 2008 recession have disappeared and can’t be tracked by borrowers or reporters.) I read those stories and get freaked out, learn a bit more about bad governance or practices, and bring them up with friends for an excited half-hour debate over dinner. Now, all of a sudden, these distant realities are becoming real. Now, I head downtown and stand on top of a patch of grass the size of my bathroom and am told by a City official on their safe, non-work email account that $17.5 million taxpayer dollars contributed to this supposedly “public plaza and park” a few years ago… Or I chat with a few high school teenagers who ask what’s up with the abandoned apartment building down the block, because wasn’t something supposed to happen there recently? And that’s when I get it. This is what it looks like, what political negligence really looks like, in real life. It;s the blueprints, drawn up by the real estate developer and stamped by city council, that show a suspiciously shrinking sketch for the park; it is the trash piled up behind fences for years and years with the In Construction signs still tied on. My understanding of “political corruption” has developed from a huge national scandal into something far more relatable, starting with something as simple as ignoring phone calls from residents with a question or suggestion about their neighborhood. I don’t even need to get into the rumors of relationships with real estate developers to say that that’s political representation corrupted. Citizens literally have no voice in their community if their representative never condescends to pick up their call.
Oh, my naïveté, that I should even be surprised at this! One of my relatives has assured me that the political world is where most nice things in life get screwed up, not fixed, for pete’s sake; thus it’s better to enter business. I also know that in Asia, skyscraper levels of corruption are at least out in the open and acknowledged instead of cleaned up and seen as shocking so that “Americans still think their system works better than everyone else’s,” as one business owner puffed. And earlier this week, a close Chinese friend told me that where she comes from, negligence-corruption is kindergarten stuff, like gravity or arithmetic. She wondered how anyone could really say the Chinese way of government or the American way of government was better than the other, given the similarity of the economic and political issues both systems face, and there’s a compelling topic for debate. (And this is off-topic, but I enjoyed this recent NPR article publicizing how, thanks to China, the world is learning that economic prosperity does not belong to democracy alone.)
All of this political disappointment, up close and personal, makes hope shine unbelievably bright, and the stark realization that I’m working for someone with a drastically different approach to local politics. I’ve been in the room while some experienced political mentors look at her like she’s crazy for campaigning the way she’s campaigning. It’s at very close levels of working with her that I’ve seen what people-oriented civil service in policy and politics can look like, when when nobody’s looking, no media is watching, no Tweets are being drafted. The tiny acts of good will and conscientious concern that my boss shows for the people we meet on the street add up into something almost earth-shattering given the paragraphs above. It’s jarring. I can also see that my entry into city politics is probably rare, and feeding my trust in a system that people say has not a single/nada/zip redeeming factor and so deserves to be totally ignored. But, as I hope you’ll agree, integrity shines really brightly. It’s hard to ignore when it’s there, doing its thing, and boy is it productive.
I’m learning that there are radically different alternatives of character in politics (as in every other arena of society) that reveal themselves in the smallest of habits, behaviors and practices… like picking up the phone. As my mentor back in high school advised me, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Goodness, how those words are ringing in my ears years later, for it is the crux of that gem of political integrity. Political integrity starts in the smallest of things. I see why it’s worth fighting for.