Lessons from L.A.'s Progressive Coalitions

The Next L.A.: The Struggle for a Livable City, by Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer and Peter Dreier, University of California Press, 2005, 279 pp. $21.95 (paperback).


Alliance building is one of the most challenging tasks confronting advocates of affordable housing and community development. Advocates alone rarely have the muscle to change policy or move a controversial project proposal through a planning or redevelopment process. So, housing developers and community development organizations reach out to potential allies, frequently on an ad hoc basis.

Housing and community development advocates in Los Angeles adopted a different approach in the late 1990s. They joined a broad-based coalition in the difficult process of hammering out a multi-issue progressive agenda, and then they worked together to pursue not just housing goals but an array of policy recommendations related to parks and open space, transportation, labor and race relations, and other concerns not typically tackled by people focused on affordable housing. And their approach appeared to work: L.A. subsequently created the nation’s largest municipal affordable housing trust fund and redrew its zoning ordinance to allow multifamily apartments above retail space on the broad boulevards crisscrossing the city.

Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer and Peter Dreier chart the growth and impact of this coalition in their enlightening recent book, The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City. The authors, scholar-activists from Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, were at the center of the largely successful attempt to bring together a disparate array of activists and organizations in a new civic left. At its most lively, this book provides an intelligent insider’s account of the construction of Progressive Los Angeles Network, or PLAN, and the emergence of a powerful labor-Latino bloc that provides progressive L.A. with much of its heart and soul. But the book offers readers more, including details of a grassroots-driven progressive agenda and a revealing social and political history. This history, including the collapse of the old civic elite, the failure of top-down agenda-setting during the 1990s and the collapse of heavy industry, set the stage for a progressive revival in the late 1990s.

The authors identify several key actors in this drama, notably Jackie Goldberg, a former city council member and current state legislator, who worked tirelessly to pull together “various (and sometimes conflicting) strands of the progressive community.” But central to the narrative and to the birth of a muscular progressive movement was the overlapping emergence of a newly militant and Latino-led countywide labor movement with the early achievements of a new generation of Latino political leaders. Aided by longtime Los Angeles political journalist Harold Meyerson (a contributor to one chapter), the authors tell this story well, highlighting the growing importance of service unions to the local labor movement; the bold leadership of Miguel Contreras, head of the county labor federation until his death earlier this year; and the entry of left-wing activists, including former labor organizers Gil Cedillo and Antonio Villaraigosa, into electoral politics.

The authors don’t shy away from discussing problems and challenges tied to the centrality of the labor-Latino alliance. They discuss, for example, the chasm between older African American leaders (such as Rep. Maxine Waters) and the new progressive movement, and the continuing battles between nationalists and progressives for leadership in the Latino community. But they are optimistic that alliance-oriented progressive politics can triumph over racial or ethnic nationalism in black and Latino politics.

Unfortunately, the authors wrote before this year’s mayoral election provided the municipal left with a new set of challenges and opportunities. In a reversal of the 2001 outcome, Villaraigosa defeated James Hahn, a mainstream Democrat, in a runoff election. Villaraigosa, a long-time champion of the disadvantaged, won in part by building bridges to elements of the black leadership and parts of the white community that had opposed him before. The organized progressive coalition, however, split with the county federation of labor and some activists backing Hahn this time around. The incumbent, a mediocre mayor at best, had delivered on key promises to the union movement, and Contreras and his allies returned the favor. They could not, however, deliver the votes, as large numbers of unionists stuck by Villaraigosa. How effectively the progressive alliance regroups will likely have a major impact on what Villaraigosa is able to accomplish as mayor, and it would be useful to be able to consider the authors’ perspective on these recent developments.

Instead, Villaraigosa’s original high-profile bid for mayor provides a centerpiece to the book. The 2001 election drew attention to the growing capacity of Los Angeles’s municipal left. Running with the support of the county federation of labor (Contreras engineered the endorsement by the narrowest of margins); the big janitors, healthcare workers and hotel employees unions; and an array of community organizations, the former speaker of the state Assembly helped shift the city’s policy debate to the left and in favor of previously marginalized populations.

After Villaraigosa’s defeat, the city’s progressive movement focused on pursuit of its agenda, moving the city to create the trust fund to finance affordable housing development and to tie approval for major development projects – for example, Phase II of the Staples Center project – to concessions on community benefits such as affordable housing, living-wage jobs, parks and other public amenities. They also joined with the mayor and several of his union supporters in leading the campaign against San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession. Ironically, these very successes would provide the reason for labor and some other members of the coalition to back Hahn in 2005.

L.A.’s progressives continued to work together in the wake of defeat because of a networking effort spearheaded by the authors’ Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, a role they downplay here. Acting as a secretariat, the institute helped pull together PLAN, a coalition of labor unions, community groups, environmentalists, clergy, academics and others to meet the challenge of drafting a collective vision for the city’s future. Reflecting on history, the authors write: “The growth of these movements created a critical mass of activism and support for a new progressive politics in Los Angeles. Missing, however, were the links between the different movements necessary to develop a broader, integrated perspective regarding the policy changes needed to make the region more livable and democratic.”

PLAN largely succeeded in crafting a detailed agenda that addresses a range of housing, environmental, transportation and land use, labor, political and economic development issues, and in building a sense of commonality that had been missing in the progressive circles of Los Angeles. PLAN’s institutional future is uncertain, but its impact can still be felt. Last year, for example, many of the groups that were involved in creating PLAN’s agenda worked together to defeat a ballot measure in the overwhelmingly black and Latino L.A. County city of Inglewood that would have exempted a Wal-Mart anchored retail development from established planning and regulatory processes.

The Inglewood campaign showed maturing of the progressive coalition in the aftermath of the 2001 election. Most important, it demonstrated the ability of African-American and Latino leaders and activists to bond together on an issue of common concern despite tensions in the recent past. Campaigns such as this suggest that a common agenda and shared vision will, in the end, prove more important to LA’s progressives than short-term electoral differences.

Despite the current challenges, Los Angeles offers a strategy for building and institutionalizing a civic left, one that housing advocates and other progressives can learn from, and The Next Los Angeles provides a good starting point for any serious student of forward-looking municipal politics.

Editor’s Note
Now that Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles, what do progressives need to do to assure their work produces results and what lessons does his victory provide to advocates in other cities? You’ll find some of the answers in two recent articles by Peter Dreier at thenation.com and commondreams.org:

“Villaraigosa’s Challenge: Governing Los Angeles in the Bush and Schwarzenegger Era”
www.commondreams.org/views05/0528-23.htm

“Can a City Be Progressive?”
www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050704&s=dreier

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