An audience of more than 50 supporters and advocates for the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs came together Wednesday night for the final Dean's Associates salon event of the academic year.
The event — hosted at the home of UCLA Luskin Advisory Board member Michael Mahdesian UP '83 and his wife Natalie — featured a discussion on the Los Angeles mayoral election with commentary from Dean Franklin D. Gilliam Jr. and UCLA Luskin Senior Fellow Jim Newton, editor-at-large at the Los Angeles Times.
The evening served as a chance to engage new audiences with the policy analysis and political observation found at UCLA Luskin. Following a reception with hors d'oeuvres catered by Natalie, the guests took their places in rows of seats set up on the rear patio, with a cool breeze flowing down the Santa Monica Mountains.
The discussion about L.A. local politics centered, ironically, on why there is so little discussion of local politics in L.A. Only 21 percent of registered voters participated in the March 5 primary election, and many local pundits have raised concerns that residents lack a sense of civic engagement. The panelists approached the issue by looking at the structure of the city's government, much of which dates back to Progressive Era reforms implemented in the early 1900s.
"The mayor's office as we see it today has its roots in a political tradition that was deeply skeptical of politics," Newton said. "It's designed to depoliticize government." Past mayors, such as Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa, have "sent off mixed signals about whether this is an office to be coveted," he said.
"It all adds up to an office that has a lot of people confused about what it does and why anyone would want it," he added.
There were few predictions of an eventual winner in the race, but the conversation touched on many aspects of the contest that have gained attention in local media. City Controller Wendy Greuel's alignment with the Department of Water & Power's labor union could be both a blessing and a curse, Newton said. "Greuel benefits from the outside ad spending, but [City Councilman Eric] Garcetti has an issue -- he can say she's bought and paid for by the unions," Newton said.
Moreover, while labor unions are "the one group that's known to get out the vote" on election day, Newton said, the neighborhoods and voters they will be canvassing are polling more heavily for Garcetti. Greuel's "got the mechanism to turn people out, but she may not be able to deliver them as votes so much as voters," he said.
Despite the reported voter apathy, the conversation kept the audience engaged well past its scheduled end time, with a vibrant Q&A session bringing up issues of party affiliation, transportation and the female vote. By the time the evening came to a close, the crowd was buzzing with enthusiasm about the ideas under discussion.
The event was the latest in a series of intimate gatherings sponsored by the School this academic year. Previous discussions have included such topics as Southern California traffic, L.A. County's foster-care system and an address on California's economy by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.