LA Public Library Shades of LA collection
City Councilman Art Snyder with Father Juan Santilla at Santa Teresita Church in Boyle Heights, 1984.
If I could go back to a decisive point in the past that would help me better understand Los Angeles political history, it might be to 1940, in a forlorn little homestead in the far San Fernando Valley, where a sharp little 3rd grader named Art Snyder would be arguing politics with his leftist father. Art saw in his parent everything he was not going to be -- a half-educated man living hand to mouth in a tiny home improvised out of an abandoned street car, with visions of prosperity for all imposed on his own reality of abject poverty.
What I would have liked to have heard was the kid's own vision of a just society, something I never heard him speak of in the thirty years that I knew the man. But I think I saw it in the 14th Los Angeles City Council District during his 18 years in office, from 1967 to 1985.
Snyder had a law degree from USC and served as an officer in the Marines. He could have done a lot of things with those credentials to make himself a pile of money, but instead he took a job in the office of eastside 14th District Councilman John Holland, whom he succeeded in 1967 as representative of one of the city's poorest areas.
"When I looked out on my district from City Hall one night," he told me, "it looked like a huge lake. There were no streetlights, it was all dark."
Snyder vowed to change this. He put his unsurpassed negotiating and politicking skills to work to wring from the city every possible benefit he could for his district, particularly the neglected and increasingly Latino southern portion that included El Sereno and Boyle Heights. Senior centers, swimming pools, parks, tennis courts, housing, libraries, cultural and learning centers. And, of course, streetlights. He wooed his Hispanic constituents like the husband of a wayward wife, striving in the knowledge that they could leave him at a moment's notice. "A councilman is really just a glorified plumber," he said. "You go in and fix whatever needs fixing."
He also learned Spanish -- on the city's dime -- and became so fluent that, during one campaign debate, he translated questions that his opponent, Steve Rodriguez, could not comprehend. He did the easy stuff--like marching in a gold-chased red sombrero at the head of Cinco de Mayo parades. And then he did the hard stuff, like hosting in a 14th District park building an important show of Mexican muralist David Alfonso Siqueiros' paintings that LACMA had reportedly turned down.
In 1982, Los Angeles Magazine concluded Snyder's district had the best city services of any of all Los Angeles' 15 districts.
At the same time, he had become City Hall's favorite scapegrace. In 1973, he reportedly eloped with a 19-year-old council staffer. A hung jury saved him from a drunk-driving conviction. He survived multiple recall bids. In 1983, he won a runoff against Rodriguez by three votes.
Then, beyond his visible peccadillos, the downtown establishment decided to bear down on him. The DA's office leaked, via City News Service, information about an investigation of a sexual molestation of his daughter. The charge turned out to have no merit, but probably doomed him in his intensely family-minded core constituency. In 1985, he announced his decision to step down from office to practice law. He was succeeded by Richard Alatorre, the first Latino in the council since Ed Roybal's 1962 departure. The era of East L.A.'s Gringo Godfather had ended.
But not his colorful career. His law practice evolved into a lobbying concern. His problem was a concurrent swerve in public political ethics, in part inspired by then Mayor Tom Bradley's legal problems, and in part by Snyder's own council antics (such as trying to sneak through a major council pay raise on a blind item slated for passage on 1985's June election day). The City Ethics Commission was formed, instantly to become, under its first director, Ben Bycel, lawyer-lobbyist Snyder's mortal foe. Investigations contended that Snyder had laundered thousands in campaign contributions to a variety of politician clients; Snyder even had the brass to allegedly assign his own law firm's employees to smurf the money around: one in particular made total contributions that were multiple times her annual salary.
"She's a very shrewd investor," Snyder explained. Snyder dodged jail time as his felony charges were turned into misdemeanors. But in 2001, after a long review, the state bar suspended his law license for half a year and gave him three more years of probation, in return for an admission of "moral turpitude."
But Snyder was already moving into a new career phase--as his business card put it, as a (sic) "restaranteur." With his Taiwan-born wife Delia, he opened Asian-themed eateries in Las Vegas. In his last years, he reinstituted the Tiki bar Don the Beachcomber in Huntington Beach, over whose premises he presided glowingly in his final months, before his peaceful death in his sleep this week at 79.
Sadly, despite his invitation, I never made it down there to bask in his glow over a pupu platter. But I recalled his much earlier fictional hospitality toward me and the rest of the City Hall Press: a bogus 1980s item on his heavily padded City Hall expense accounts. It was close to $1,000 for Christmas "Champagne for the Press." Of course, there never was any such thing. But I raise a glass of this fictitious fizz to your memory, Arthur K. Snyder. There will never be another like you.
Which is in some ways, too bad.