This is a TPR exclusive interview of a new arrival to Los Angeles, an especially well-informed political and humanistic observer of local government, TJ Plunkitt, a direct descendant of the infamous George Washington Plunkitt. It is important to note that this transcript of our conversation with TJ is the first of what will be a series of uncensored conversations about Los Angeles governance.
"At the very least, LA is ripe for investigative reporting, gushing good government types who while not necessarily dominating the polls make for good grist to the wanting, waning media. Those mayoral forums this campaign season though repetitive have been, for me at least, very revealing. Consistent with my forefather’s values, I would classify each as forums for uncovering opportunities for good graft or getting in line for a comfortable job." -TJ Plunkitt
The Planning Report, in its quest to offer a balanced view of an evolving Southern California governance and politics, is ever on the alert for individuals with particular informed perspectives open to be interviewed in a question and answer format. It was therefore fortuitous that lunching late at a communal table in the chaste cafeteria at Metro headquarters downtown, we made the random acquaintance of someone who identified himself as Thomas Jefferson Plunkitt. As the particular name hinted, and we guessed, the forthright Plunkitt, when questioned, turned out to be a direct descendant of the infamous George Washington Plunkitt (GW).
A leader of the so-called Tammany Society that held sway over New York City’s raw political scene in the post Civil War period, the senior Plunkitt among other achievements drew salaries in a year simultaneously from four public offices. He eventually retired a millionaire, explaining to an inquiring press that, “I’ve seen my opportunities, and I took em,” a quote that has echoed in political circles for decades. Known for his candor, a series of interviews he offered in his waning years perched on a bootblack stand in a New York County courthouse were collected by an enterprising journalist in a book that in time became a classic of insights into local government, plainly entitled “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” and included such chapters as “The Curse of Civic Service Reform,” and ”Honest Graft and Dishonest Graft.”
TPR wondered what sagacity might have been passed on to the young 30 year old and personable Plunkitt, who preferred to be addressed informally as TJ. But first, in keeping with the city’s cult of congeniality, we wanted to know what had brought TJ to Los Angeles.
TJ spoke in a stilted accent hinting of his New York City Hell’s Kitchen past and his Los Angeles Silver Lake present: I am a privileged observer. Thanks to my revered (in some circles) family enjoying the spoils of our forefather’s lawful profiteering, I’m a recipient of a generous travel study grant from the Plunkitt Institute for Government Studies, which I assure you is not some counterfeit conceit or a degree'd university's honey pot. My investigative thesis, frankly, is to substantiate and vindicate my great, great, great grandfather’s contention that city governments are employment more than service agencies, and thus, that a bloated bureaucracy is critical to the health of cities and in particular that pensions are the mother’s milk of public service. Don't be misled by my candor here, I’m not a zealous union spokesperson, a ravenous pension fund sycophant, nor an aberrant tenured academic, though all have their appeal to me. No, invigorated by my inheritance, I just intuitively appreciate human nature and reject the naiveté of so-called reformers.
TPR: So what brings you to Los Angeles?
TJ: LA is a municipal construct obviously going through reevaluation, this being an election year, with finance and operations prime topics. They might make for boring thesis, challenging the comprehension of our young wonks and maladroit media, but it is the oil on which government runs.
At the very least, LA is ripe for investigative reporting, gushing good government types who while not necessarily dominating the polls make for good grist to the wanting, waning media. Those mayoral forums this campaign season though repetitive have been, for me at least, very revealing. Consistent with my forefather’s values, I would classify each as forums for uncovering opportunities for good graft or getting in line for a comfortable job.
TPR: You are obviously not in the Metro Cafeteria today for a Meet & Greet. Why are you here?
TJ: I found the cafeteria to be one of the rare places in LA where if dressed down as a bureaucrat, nursing a tea bag for several hot cuppas, you can pick up valuable insights while lingering among the scattered noshers without becoming suspect. A pricey Westside Starbucks this is not. Even the most eagled-eyed HR employee would have a difficult time sorting the scores of METRO employees on their extended coffee breaks from the wannabes and wastrels. And though the food in the cafeteria may be questionable, the prices are unquestionably reasonable, an important consideration for someone like me who has not yet cozened up to mooch a meal from one of the many consultants hovering here.
By the way, you can tell them apart because they are the ones carrying the reams of paperwork and plans under one arm while shaking hands with the other, and falsely smiling. Metro employees, more comfortable within their own skins, can be generally identified by the off-rack smocks and shirts recommended in the agency’s antediluvian dress code. For the latter, there is no need to be a Gatsby.
TPR: So much for show and pretense. We at TPR are more interested in your view of the city’s finances, which at this time is being described by informed observers as “fragile" and in need of structural reform.
Of course they, the "informed intelligentsia," are going to say that. What would they be doing if not writing memos to each other and attending conferences vexed about the fiscal crisis and the sloth of public employees? As GW would observe, think of the crisis as a piece of raw meat being thrown into a cage of hungry tigers. And who are these tigers in a tie and jacket? These are people who don’t really work for the city; they work for a self-serving department or bureau, sitting in front of their triple screens looking at numbers all day, sending emails back and forth. What are they going to say, that the structural debt has been improving? There is a narcissistic obsession by elected officials in the city today with image; getting anything done is secondary.
And if you haven’t noticed, people don’t live in the city, they live in neighborhoods, where the pressing issue is if the garbage is being pricked up, whether there's a functioning bathroom at the school; and whether the streets are safe, even though some of the sidewalks are a mess. If there were any more pressing problems, you would think more people would vote. GW would say... good politics is all about understanding and positively affecting the real life issues of one's true constituents.
As for my study, in keeping with one of the many popular truisms passed down generation to generation in my family, I am following the mother's milk of politics, money, and these days it seems to be squirreled away at the MTA and DWP. There are no bootblack stands such as where GW used to hold court, but I thought I’d pick up a lot attending the Metro board meetings and lounging on the third floor here, and over at the 15th floor of the DWP building and at City Hall, when the City Council is meeting.
Let me share one of my early observations. Layoffs not withstanding, the rats are not leaving the good ship public service, while the mice continue to scamper aboard to learn how to be rats. Another family adage is: when at the end of the rope make a knot. My observation these days is that the knots are becoming more Gordian, as as pettifogging municipal managers work at crossing “T”s and dotting the “I”s, are guided by the rule that “good deeds bring no rewards."
TPR: We hear a lot about civil service reform, which your forefather called a curse. Any other GW Plunkitt values you think might be pertinent to Los Angeles?
TJ: Actually they go beyond LA for it has been my family’s experience in both the public and private sectors, that, despite the academic and posh wine and cheese soirees, in municipalities such as LA, “A” people hire “A” people, “B” people hire “C” people, with the result most institutions, agencies and whatever and wherever these days, are awash in a sea of “C"s. Government officials and senior management might talk endlessly at TED conferences and amongst themselves about seeking diversity and out-of-the-box thinking, but ultimately they hire someone like themselves who make them feel comfortable. Vanity, which in Los Angeles I observed subjugates all, except where a mix of power and greed dominate. It is this little understood human trait - that frustrates reformers; that really fires the engines of local government.
TPR: Can we end this interview with any specific advice for our readers?
TJ: Do you remember the one word of wisdom whispered to young Ben played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie, “The Graduate”?
TJ: Yes, but it is now “infrastructure.” If you hadn’t noticed, the city is crumbling. How we address this makes for wonderful opportunities. And as GW declared, when opportunities present themselves, you have to take advantage of 'em. LA is not much different from New York City, or Moscow, or Mexico City. And the weather here is so much more pleasant.