Before he was elected to the L.A. City Council in the mid-1960s, and went on to become the city's longest serving councilman, John Ferraro was an insurance salesman. He joined a council that included Gilbert Lindsay, who had worked his way up from being a City Hall janitor. And Jackie Goldberg was a teacher before she was elected in the ‘90s. But things are different these days.
Because of term limits, Sacramento veterans are increasingly seeking local office. Seven of the L.A. council’s current 15 members formerly served in the state Assembly or Senate. (There's also a considerable salary difference: California legislators are paid slightly more than $95,000 annually; L.A. City Council members receive just under $179,000.)
According to former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, such experience could lead to the sort of back room dealing that's common at the State Capitol.
"The real impact of having so many people from Sacramento is they’re all used to making their alliances," Galanter said.
Rather than focusing on what’s best for their districts, she said, council members are incentivized to make deals with one another and go along with the will of the council president — not unlike how they would follow the lead of the Assembly Speaker or Senate President pro Tem. She says this is a big change from when she served on the council in the 1980s and ‘90s.
"By and large I could predict how they might react to a certain issue but I couldn’t [say], ‘This is this person’s politics.’ But with nobody would I have said, 'This person is completely loyal to John Ferraro,'" she said.
But L.A.’s newly elected councilmen see it differently. Councilman Bob Blumenfield used to represent the West San Fernando Valley in Sacramento. He says that for too long, the 15 council members have gone in different directions. He believes experience in the state capitol brings discipline to the local government
"The city needs to operate as a team. We can’t just be 15 different fiefdoms," Blumenfield said.
Councilman Gil Cedillo agrees. He spent six years in the Assembly and eight years in the Senate. He notes that, up north, there’s a legislative calendar and a more structured vetting process for policy issues. In City Hall, anyone can introduce a motion at any time.
"In the capitol, we’re kind of like marathon runners. We’re like long-distance runners and here we’re like 50-yard sprinters," Cedillo said.
According to Cedillo, the council members with Sacramento experience bring important relationships with them, like having the governor just a phone call away. When one of his council colleagues was dealing with a development in Hollywood, Cedillo said he was able to call state officials to get the project moving.
"I don’t think that existed before," Cedillo said. "In fact, I’m pretty sure it did not exist but when you have such a large body of former state legislators on the council, it expands exponentially the power of the council to get its job done."
It’s a clash between the bread-and-butter of local politics – such as filling potholes and trimming trees – and the big picture ideas that are required at the state level. Dan Schnur, who runs the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, says it’s a transition for lawmakers who are used to having constituents live hundreds of miles away. Now, they live across the street.
"They knock on your door or they stop you in the grocery store or they come to your council meeting," Schnur said. "And it’s messier and it can be frustrating and it can be aggravating and it can dramatically slow down the process but it’s also democracy in a much more pure form."
Galanter believes the most successful local politicians are the ones who focus on quality-of-life issues that impact voters.
"A lot of things I did had some impact on city policy but they were done to solve a particular problem on the ground, in the district," Galanter said. "That’s really different from Sacramento [where] you have to keep your hands off the stuff that’s on the ground."
And figuring that out might not depend on the council members’ backgrounds, according to Schnur.
"Some of them will do well and some will do poorly, but that’s not going to happen simply because they came from Sacramento," he said. "It’s because they’re either smart people willing to adapt – or because they’re not."