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How much power comes with being LA's mayor?

Former Los Angeles Mayor James Toberman served six one-year terms in the late 19th Century.
Former Los Angeles Mayor James Toberman served six one-year terms in the late 19th Century.
Former Los Angeles Mayor James Toberman served six one-year terms in the late 19th Century.
Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge on the balcony atop City Hall.

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Atop City Hall, in what’s known as the Tom Bradley Tower, portraits of L.A. mayors adorn the walls.  Councilman Tom LaBonge, as usual, can hardly contain his excitement.
“Its Toberman! James Toberman,” LaBonge exclaims.

LaBonge, the city’s unofficial historian, reads the plaque below the man with a bushy white handlebar mustache who served six, one-year terms in the late 19th century.

“He got Main Street paved for the first time," says LaBonge, "and he turned out a new electrical system.”

But in the pantheon of best-known big city mayors in the United States, historians often point elsewhere. They cite Chicago’s Richard Daley and New York’s Fiorello La Guardia.  

It's easy to understand why, says Raphe Sonenshein, director of Cal State L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute. They wielded more power.

“The mayor of New York can’t quite throw you out the window,” Sonenshein says. “But short of that, the mayor just stands astride the city government of New York like a Roman emperor.”

In New York and Chicago, the mayor controls the schools and public health systems. Not so in L.A.  

Large city councils with 51 and 50 members, respectively, have less power in the Big Apple and the Windy City. L.A.’s 15 council members, who represent a quarter-million people each, sometimes run their districts like fiefdoms.

That’s especially true when it comes to land use, where the council generally follows the wishes of the local councilperson — not the mayor.  

“This is really, really in control of the council office,” says Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Deputy Chief of Staff Larry Frank. “Where there’s not alignment with the council office, it’s very, very hard to move a land use issue.”

The mayor’s influence over development further eroded with the demise of the Community Redevelopment Agency, Frank said.

Just how important are development issues in the city?

“In L.A., it’s the big issue," Frank said. "And if you want to see how that works, look at donations to candidates.”

The mayor of Los Angeles does have specific powers to advance his agenda – powers enhanced by voters in the city charter in 1999.

He or she hires and fires 40 general managers, including the police chief; appoints more than 300 city commissioners, including those who oversee the Department of Water and Power; controls four of the seven members on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board; proposes the city budget; and represents L.A. in Sacramento and Washington D.C.

But Frank, who’s been with Villaraigosa for his entire eight-year tenure, says persuasion may be any mayor’s greatest power — behind closed doors and publicly in the media.  And that takes more than just good talking.

“Narrative is important,” Frank said.  “What is your life story that brings you to this moment?”

For example, Villaraigosa, a high school dropout, effectively argued for public education reform. He used his bully pulpit to raise millions of dollars for independent schools and to elect a majority of the Los Angeles Unified School District board. He essentially chose the last two school superintendents, even though he doesn’t have that power directly.

Another example: Villaraigosa welcomed half-a-million immigrant-rights marchers to City Hall, conveying legitimacy to the movement, and he's a national spokesman on the issue.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan’s moment came after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, says Robin Kramer, who served as chief of staff to both Riordan and Villaraigosa.

“Mayor Riordan galvanized this community and its leadership,” Kramer said. “The mayor of L.A. brings a sense of urgency to the work.”

Not everyone always feels the same, Kramer said. “Many of the systems and processes at City Hall remain antiquated and slow.”

L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Gary Toebben says budget deficits may limit choices for a mayor today, but he’s never bought the argument that L.A. mayors are weak.
“I believe that has been used over the years as an excuse,” he says. “The mayor has tremendous power in our city.”

Toebben said a mayor has the ability to set priorities beyond the city, pointing to Villaraigosa’s successful campaign for a countywide tax to fund public transit and subsequent push for expedited federal funding.

The limits on mayoral power are the result of California’s progressive era early in the 20th century.  Those limits mean successful mayors must avoid a top-down leadership style and focus on building relationships, said political scientist Sonenshein.

“In Los Angeles, mayors have to learn to be horizontal, and how to deal with people who can say ‘no’ to them.”

He points to L.A.’s most famous mayor — Tom Bradley, who served from 1973-93 — as the best example of a leader who understood how to use power.

“Bradley spent a long time accumulating relationships and levers of trusted alliances through the city,” Sonenshein says. “After a while, it was awfully hard to say no to him – not because he could do something to you, but because he had this network of relationships.”

Bradley’s portrait is among those on Councilman LaBonge’s tour on the 26th floor of City Hall.  He leads the way to the balcony outside.

“Look up at Mount Wilson. See the lights," he said. "That’s what they named after the mayor. Mount Wilson.”

That’s Benjamin Wilson — L.A.’s second mayor, who served in the mid-1850s. They may not name mountains after L.A. mayors anymore, but that doesn’t mean they can’t reach high peaks.

“And look. There’s Eaton Canyon, Hazard Park, Rowan Avenue,” LaBonge said.

Places named for mayors Frederick Eaton, Henry Hazard, and Thomas Rowan.