SANTA BARBARA, CA — Let’s get an understatement out of the way: Your average citizen of Los Angeles is not a politics and policy junkie. The stoner Angeleno who finds Election Day sort of, like, hard to remember is a character so enduring that even Cheech and Chong have riffed on the theme. And while reality may not quite conform to the stereotype, given the city’s reputation for civic apathy, and the budget pressures legacy media organizations continue to face, the Los Angeles Times might have been excused this year if it pared back a bit on coverage of a local election that did not include any national names.
Instead, the Times has put obvious, and commendable, effort and resources into outlining what’s at stake in city and school board races, explaining how management of the city has gone astray, and trying—by way of education, exhortation, and even plain old shaming—to get Los Angeles engaged with local elections. The news coverage has been intensive by any measure, with eight reporters—some political veterans just returned from covering the 2012 presidential race, some drawn from local government beats—devoting the bulk of their time to the campaign. That’s not to mention significant contributions from the Times’s data desk and enterprise reporters, says Rich Connell, the former investigative reporter turned city-county bureau chief who is directing the paper’s coverage of the election, the first round of which took place on March 5. (A mayoral runoff between City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel is set for May 21.)
Connell attributes the focus to two factors: the Times’s tradition of heavy coverage of city elections, and decisions by what he calls “the masthead editors” to continue that tradition as part of a more general refocusing of the paper’s resources on California.
A high point of the paper’s local election efforts was a front-page column by Steve Lopez, published the day after the election, that got in the collective face of Los Angeles voters. It started this way:
Mark the date, remember the day.
On March 5, 2013, Los Angeles redefined apathy.
A measly 16% of the city’s registered voters — or perhaps around 20% once all the mail-in ballots are counted — turned out in an election with the following things at stake:
How much we pay in sales tax, who controls the nation’s second-largest school district, who might fill nine City Council seats and three community college board positions, and who will serve as city attorney, city controller and mayor.
This is late-night TV joke territory, as in:
“Election officials were stunned in Los Angeles on Tuesday when 16% of the city’s voters cast ballots. They couldn’t believe that many people knew there was an election.”
The column was one in a remarkable series. Between late January and the March 5 election, Lopez saucily called for a mayor worthy of LA; sternly told mayoral candidates that they were dodging major budget issues; scored an interview with low-key union boss Brian D’Arcy, who’s at the center of the money-and-manpower influence game behind the mayoral race; explained how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $1 million donation to a “pro-reform” group was distorting Los Angeles school board races with “junk ads”; and dragged readers to the Korean Resource Center, which has been working—fairly successfully, it seems—to increase voter turnout in the city’s Korean community.
In decades past, of course, cityside news columnists would have been expected to focus on local elections during local election season. But Steve Lopez is not your average cityside columnist. Lopez is a bona fide star, the guy who wrote the book, The Soloist, that became the movie in which Robert Downey Jr. plays far-from-average cityside news columnist Steve Lopez. And this is Los Angeles, the city that by reputation couldn’t care less about municipal government. And the election was happening smack in the middle of Academy Awards season.
And Steve Lopez is covering the … mayor’s race? Yes, and happily.
“There’s great drama in local politics like this,” Lopez said. “One of the great things about L.A. is it’s just an inspired mess.”