May 1, 2002 - From the May, 2002 issue

Becerra: Secession Will Negatively Impact L.A. In D.C.

With his experience in Washington, Sacramento, and L.A., Congressmember Xavier Becerra has a unique background to analyze the current debate re: governance and local empowerment in L.A. TPR is pleased to provide its readers with this candid view of governance and the possible ramifications of secession.

Xavier Becerra

Congressman Becerra, the L.A. economy is demonstrating greater strength and resiliency than that of the country as a whole. Yet despite that relative prosperity, the region is on the brink of a major social and political split. How do you assess the state of the city from your post in Washington? And how does the secession debate resonate in DC in the midst of the national considerations that you must entertain?

Look at the City of Los Angeles from a macro-level and you will see a city transitioning from a dispersed suburban area to a true metropolis with more dynamism, more energy, more talent and more opportunity than any place in the world. That evolution requires a change of mentality locally, and requires a recognition and acceptance federally. Neither of them have come.

As a result, we have a city with the tools and knowledge to build a tremendous economic engine, but one that lacks the ability to harness constituencies in a unified manner. Because of that, our tremendous tools and knowledge are not being translated into effective and "real" plans.

The problem is that people in Washington don't realize that the lack of a unified vision or voice is causing cities like Los Angeles to have growing pains-a trend reflected in the secession debate. And because Washington is so disconnected from these events, it simply can't (or doesn't want to) make sense of them.

The only way to address the misunderstanding and lack of interest in Washington is to unify and come together to deal with these issues collectively. If the advocates of splitting Los Angeles would examine these issues, they would realize that the dismembering of L.A. is not in the best interest for us as Angelenos because it disperses the talents and energies of Los Angeles.

You talk about the misunderstanding of L.A. in Washington. Many argue that the California Congressional delegation is fractured and that is the reason why L.A. and other California constituencies are misunderstood and do not have the ability to connect the dots. Give our readers some insight into whether or not California has the capacity to represent its interests in Washington and the Legislature.

Los Angeles is a microcosm of California. And both have similar difficulties when it comes to aligning constituencies behind a unified message.

We may be one state, but given our size, diversity and economy, we could easily be many more. When you think of trying to get a unified voice out of our delegation in those terms, one sees that it is a very difficult task. The interests of Northern, Southern and Central California are very different, but to govern effectively, we must find a way to overcome that tension. The answer is not splitting California into different states, the answer is learning and working within the current system to look at issues and connect the dots between constituencies.

You allude to the difficulties California has because of its size. But Texas, while not identical, has a number of similar attributes and is able to craft a unified and coherent message in Washington. Why is that?

Throughout Texas' history, they have adopted the attitude that they were "Texans first, Americans second." That mindset has made it easier for them to advocate for change with a common vision, particularly when they could rally around their very oil-based economy. However, because their economy is now more diversified they are actually seeing some difficulty in trying to speak with the same unified voice. Regardless of the differences, the historic ability of Texas to prioritize state issues over all others is incredibly helpful when forming a vision in Washington.

Another problem with trying to prioritize a common vision for California is that many of our delegates are not on the correct Committees to push the funding and priorities that we need? Do you see any change in Washington with the elevation of Congresswoman Pelosi to a leadership position?

The elevation of Nancy Pelosi to a leadership role really shows the nation, "the face of California." She is articulate, respected, experienced and tough. She represents this state very well and is an extremely powerful person when it comes to raising money and projecting a message. She will really elevate the Democratic message nationally and that will be a great win for California. Her rise helps fill the dearth of leadership California has dealt with since the retirement of Vic Fazio.

That void caused by Fazio's retirement has been enormous. Vic always pushed for a unified vision for California. And because he had imbedded himself into so much of both state and national politics, he was able to wield an enormous amount of power. Had he not retired, I believe he would have been the next Democratic Speaker.

And on the Republican side, who do you rely on to deliver for California?

In terms of the Republicans, David Dreier and Jerry Lewis would be the top ones that we turn to. There are others who are beginning to work their way up, not merely in terms of seniority, but in terms of influence within the Republican conference. So there are a number of people who we will be turning to more and more as the Bush Administration progresses.

Xavier, let me blend these threads together. We've talked about the historic lack of a unified vision for California in Washington. But you say that there is a burgeoning movement to overcome that lack of voice. Let's say we had our act together, and we spoke in a unified voice. How would we benefit? What would happen?


The benefits would be an increased and coordinated investment plan for schools, transportation and housing. And there is no place with a bigger upside or more opportunity than Los Angeles when it comes to taking advantage of underdeveloped and underutilized parcels of land to foster revitalization. That coordinated effort could begin to create an opportunity to translate the talent and expertise I mentioned above into a smart, cohesive plan to take opportunities and transform them into action.

Now, our sister-publication Metro Investment Report and the local newspapers have reported on the fragile state of County finances. It seems like this situation will impede your plans for comprehensive infrastructure investment. As someone fairly knowledgeable about these issues, how can we get out of the fiscal crunch that the health care system puts the County in?

We can no longer, as a nation, continue to subsidize employers who are unwilling to: 1) Provide benefits to their employees; or 2) Pay employees a wage that will not allow them to afford health care insurance.

In L.A. specifically, our county health care system is so dispersed and disorganized that it has never managed to get a grip on how to best provide service. The County must learn to use its money efficiently.

The federal government has given us a waiver for 6 years. We should have established a way to integrate health centers into our communities by now. We should have found a way to move the bulk of the work away from the primary level. But we haven't. The County simply hasn't moved quick enough. So we still find folks using the emergency room to get their primary care.

Now part of that is because they don't have health insurance, but part of it is that we just don't have the right infrastructure in place to allow people to go to community clinics without getting ripped off.

Those are the two principal problems. And unfortunately, when this waiver finishes, I see no indications from the White House that we will get another reprieve from the federal government.

Let's take that perception of County governance and turn it toward City governance. Your campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles ended a little more than a year ago. Given your descriptions of governance, what's needed to be responsive to what you heard when you went door-to-door and what you know has to be done in the way of infrastructure, planning and delivery of services?

I believe that the first task the current city administration should have undertaken was a government audit. The city does some things well, but it has grown so large, that San Pedro-which is connected to Downtown by only a thin line on a map-no longer feels like it is part of Los Angeles. You can't effectively address the needs of all a city's residents before you know where your deficits are. You have to have a full account of what's going right and what's going wrong in order to effectively address where money should be directed and what departments, agencies and staff positions need to be filled. That should have been done long ago.

Another issue is that the city leaders should have sat down with the School Board and figured out not merely where there were sites available to locate the next 50 schools, but where demographers believed that people who would work in those schools-teachers, administrators, janitors, etc.-will live. Those estimates could have been used to really use schools as tools to minimize commutes, focus on community development and improve quality of life.

A suggestion that hearkens back to the Charter Reform movement is receiving renewed interest from L.A.'s new politicians. The Borough model for Los Angeles would keep the city intact as a region-state but provide some governmental units with more teeth than neighborhood councils. What are your thoughts about that?

The Borough idea has a lot of merit, particularly here in Los Angeles. Los Angeles must have a way to keep people feeling connected. How do you keep areas like San Pedro, West Hills, etc. believing that they are part of this bigger area? The best way to do that is to have a governance system that not only lets you hear directly from the neighborhoods, but a system that prioritizes the maintenance and repair of neighborhood infrastructure so that the City Council and the Mayor can focus on the greater global issues. Boroughs would provide constituents with a direct voice in government because they offer residents a direct connection with the money allocated to a specific area. And because they will be linked to the money, they will have enormous control over what happens.

You've spent time in Sacramento, Washington and you ran for local office here as Mayor. Most people can't discern the difference between which level of government delivers the services. But you now know which level. Does it matter which level of government delivers the service? Is the architecture of governance question relevant to the way you see the best delivery of services to the public?

I'm always asked to fill a pothole and put up a stop sign. But as a federal elected official, I do not have the authority to task local government responsibility.

When you go into neighborhoods, what you find is people yearning to know where they can go to connect the dots and find out who really fills potholes. Now they should simply be able to go directly to their City Councilperson, but people don't feel like they have any connection with them. That's why the Borough system could help, it could give people a place to voice their concerns, especially in a place as large as Los Angeles.


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