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03/03/2011: "Boxed In: a Critique and an Endorsement"
I live in Los Angeles, as many of you know, in City Council District 4, which is on the ballot in next Tuesday's election. The incumbent, Tom La Bonge, has been in his seat since 2001 and worked as district deputy to the prior council member before that. The upcoming term is the last one he may serve under the term limits rules. He's being challenged by Tomás O' Grady, a previously little-known landlord and green-living enthusiast, and Stephen Box, an independent producer, community organizer, and bike activist well-known in the Los Angeles bike scene.

You'd think my choice would be obvious, especially as I'm personally acquainted with Box, but it hasn't been easy--although I'll say up front that I am intending to vote for him next Tuesday.

I have not been pleased with La Bonge for some time now; he is full of friendly bluster and obviously understands that a Reaganesque affability is his greatest asset, but has done little concrete except to climb onto bandwagons that others have gotten rolling and wave and smile to the cheers of the crowd. He does genuinely love bicycling--and he also genuinely loves big corporations and developers, which has not always been good for urban cycling or neighborhood life. He truly loves the city of Los Angeles, there is no doubt of that--but he hasn't been all that good for it, or for the district. (The segment of 4th Street that I constantly rag about in this blog is entirely within District 4 and has been in abominable condition throughout La Bonge's tenure.)

O'Grady seems to have no program except for unspecified "cost cutting," and cost-cutting alone never saved a business or a city; his responses to newspaper and forum survey questions have, like La Bonge's, consisted mostly of studiously vague rambles about what a good guy he is and how much he loves us.

Again, my choice should be clear--but it wasn't.

Along with his undeniable intelligence, and a firm grasp of the city's administrative procedures and its dark maze of funding and spending practices, Box brings some negatives to the podium.

He has a tendency to use ad hominem attacks and diversionary anger in argument--something that may be effective for a gadfly working from outside to stimulate action, but far less so in a member of a collegial body that has to achieve consensus in a huge and astonishingly diverse city such as LA. (I must say, though, that in last night's forum in Park La Brea, which Gina and I pedaled to through a delightful light spring rain, he took only the most modest digs at La Bonge, none of which was out of line under the circumstances.)

His past unwillingness to compromise could, if carried forward should he win, stall the process in council, and leads me to worry that in reaching for pie in the sky, he'll neglect putting bread on the table. ("The perfect is the enemy of the good.")

He shares with La Bonge a tendency to take more credit than is due him for accomplishments largely driven by others in our community--and this has alienated some hardworking and effective players in the local advocacy scene, making the sum total of our efforts less effective.

Nevertheless, while Box is not my "ideal" choice, he is by far the best of the three candidates for this position.

He knows the city and how it works, showing a grasp of civic mechanics that seems far to outstrip that of the veteran La Bonge; he has knocked a couple of bricks out of the walls of complacency and obscurity that afflict our administration; and he will shake up a city council that has spent far too much time sitting on its hands the past couple of decades, slowly dawdling into the future while other cities rush past us at bullet-train speeds.

He supports neighborhood empowerment, intelligent transportation infrastructure, transparency in governance, and the small businesses that are the lifeblood of any city. Working from outside, with little money and while simultaneously operating his own small business, he has already done great good on the ground, pushing all the while against the institutional inertia that has characterized city government here for far too long.

Come Tuesday, he'll get my vote.

And if he doesn't work out, there'll be another Tuesday four years hence.

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