Zev’s Los Angeles

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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Zev’s Los Angeles
Political memoirs generally fall into at least one of two categories, boasting or tattling—the first motivated by vanity, the second by revenge. Zev’s Los Angeles,’ subtitled “From Boyle Heights to the Halls of Power,” falls into a third category: teaching, motivated instead by the desire to impart knowledge, wisdom, and experience. Also, maybe “inspiring,” as in encouraging young people to consider politics and elective office as an admirable and productive career choice. His book has just been published by a small academic press specializing in scholarly and scientific works, as well as Jewish and Slavic studies. It’s the perfect literary home for this son of two Ukrainian immigrant Hebrew teachers, a lifelong Jewish community activist, a budding scholar who once pursued graduate studies in British Imperial History, and currently the director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and Department of History. Zev’s project is close to my heart, and my account here won’t be totally objective, so let’s get the disclaimer out of the way. My maternal grandparents were also Ukrainian immigrants, and my father and brother both enjoyed long careers in academia.I’ve known Zev since I first interviewed him as a hard-charging Los Angeles City Councilmember back in 1981 at the beginning of my broadcast journalism career. A little over a decade later, I joined his County Supervisor staff and served for his entire 20-year tenure there. He was, frankly, a great boss for whom I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect and admiration. Smart, ethical, hard-working, great politics. And one hell of a raconteur. What’s not to like? Much of this book is lived history for me, and for a good third of it, a lot of the time I was in “the room where it happens.” With apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda, I have a good idea of how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made, how the parties get to “Yes,” the pieces sacrificed in every game of chess. And I don’t “just assume that it happens.” It’s tremendously hard, tedious, frustrating, and sometimes unrewarding work. For elected officials, the press and public focus understandably but erroneously on the perks, power, and privileges of public office, rather than the stress, lack of privacy, complex policy questions, and heavy responsibilities that also are inescapably part of the mix. This is not to complain; Zev would be first to admit that this is what he, and we, signed up for. But like so many successful performers and athletes, a huge amount of effort, training, and discipline goes into making it look easy and effortless—even for born politicians like Zev, who instinctively acquired the skills and chutzpah (“self-confidence,” let’s say) from an early age. One other essential personal quality he developed that too many politicians never do, and has been a saving grace: humility, the honesty and comfort level to identify and acknowledge what you don’t know, and perhaps even more importantly, to recognize and openly admit mistakes. An infallibility complex is a terrible curse, born of obtuseness and insecurity, and it’s especially ruinous for journalists and politicians. Not only has Zev tolerated, even welcomed, dissenting views among staff, I heard him ruefully confess—on the record, sometimes in public speeches—to occasional errors, misjudgments, and regrets over things not accomplished. I’ve worked for bosses who refused to acknowledge or admit mistakes, who “never apologize,” a stance as unrealistic as it is unhealthy. Zev’s memoir is roughly divided into three sections. First, his family background, of sturdy immigrant stock, an account of separately losing both his parents at a relatively young age before he even achieved political office, and his older sister Shimona, who stepped in to support him—and with whom he remains extremely close, despite her longtime residence and family ties in Israel. There is much rich detail about his Ukrainian ancestors, his parents (for whom both his son, a Superior Court judge, and daughter, a social worker, are named), and his emerging political activism against the Vietnam War and on behalf of oppressed Soviet Jewry. Second, his 19-year tenure as a leader on the Los Angeles City Council, beginning with an insider’s account of his upset victory in 1975 over two well-known “establishment” candidates, one of them a former incumbent attempting a comeback and the other a staff aide and heavy favorite of the highly popular mayor, Tom Bradley. Here his prodigious research skills and near-photographic memory give us plenty of granular detail about various political battles and controversies, and his emerging mastery of fiscal and budgetary policy, planning and land use, transportation, and police reform. The third section, covering his five terms on the County Board of Supervisors, was a real spin in the time machine for me. It’s an eerie feeling, seeing more than half of one’s life and career entombed in the pages of a history book. Though unavoidably simplified and abbreviated, Zev’s account of so many major issues and challenges tracks closely with my own memories, and there’s no exaggeration or embellishment here; quite the opposite. The major accomplishments—funding and building out the Westside subway Purple Line, the Expo light-rail line from downtown to Santa Monica, the Orange Line busway across the San Fernando Valley, constructing Disney Hall, initiating major capital project improvements at the County Museum of Art, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Ford Amphitheatre, revamping King-Drew Medical Center, purchasing and protecting vast tracts of environmentally precious wilderness lands—entailed weeks, months, even years of determined effort and sometimes only fitful progress before achieving success. And those are just the things you can see and visit; initiating or improving County programs often flew under the media radar, experienced and appreciated mainly by residents who utilized and depended on the services, but only very few others. Zev was personally engaged in so much at the County, in fact, that I quickly compiled my own supplemental list of issues and achievements he was principally involved in that go unmentioned in the book, as well as some conspicuous policy shortcomings. These include the failure to replace Men’s Central Jail, reining in a rogue sheriff’s department, overhauling the County’s probation and child welfare departments, and improving the County’s response to homelessness, untreated mental illness, and substance abuse. But this is not to lay blame at his door alone; he tried mightily, and more than eight years after he left office, today’s Board has hardly fared any better in successfully addressing these critical issues. I thought I knew Zev and his record reasonably well before I joined his staff in 1994, but two important things I subsequently learned really stand out. The knock I’d always heard was that despite his progressive credentials, Zev was never quite aggressive enough. To the activists, he was too timid to really engage, too eager to compromise and sacrifice principles just to close the deal. But they were quite wrong. In truth, he was a master of timing, able to both spot and seize genuine opportunities, while exercising the discipline to sit back and wait when his finely tuned political instincts told him the moment wasn’t ripe. He repeatedly demonstrated bold thinking and decisive action when it counted, and the historical record—only some of which is recounted in this memoir—bears that out. Finally, I had never met his wife Barbara before I began working for him, but soon realized what a force of nature (and nurture) she was. As he acknowledges throughout the book, particularly in a long and loving introduction and conclusion, she had been the wind beneath his wings from their first date in 1967 until her untimely passing from a West Nile viral infection 51 years later. She was truly the matriarch of our office, and frequently called us individually with ideas and suggestions that were usually interesting and sound. Indeed, perhaps inspired by Barbara and his sister Shimona, he always relied on smart, strong women throughout his political career, and they were great colleagues. The best compliment I ever got during my County tenure came from a senior deputy in a fellow Supervisor’s office. “Everybody on the eighth floor (where our offices were located in the County Hall of Administration) knows that Zev has always had the best staff,” he told me. “I mean, you guys are the New York Yankees.” This memoir reminds me why it had been such a privilege to play for Zev’s team.
Joel Bellman

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