New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice: A Structural Explanation

Tomorrow, Los Angeles voters go to the polls to elect a new Mayor.  (At least a few of them, anyway: current estimates predict onyl 25% turnout, about which more later).  In September, New Yorkers will do the same.  And depending upon the way things turn out, political and cultural reporters could have a field day.

If Christine Quinn and Wendy Greuel win in their respective cities, we will have female mayors of both cities for the first time.  And the press will have a lot of fun with it, because the two women seem to epitomize their cities’ personalities.  Quinn is famously nasty and vicious, character traits she is now trying to ameliorate at least publicly.  Much less famously, but just as truly, Greuel is quite nice: I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, and you can’t deny that she is personally a very nice person.

And if you think about it, that is true more broadly.  If Anthony Weiner runs for NYC mayor, we’ll get another jerk trying to get to Gracie Mansion.  Greuel’s rival, Eric Garcetti, whom I’ve also known for a long time, is likewise very friendly and nice.  Even the campaign by realistic standards has been pretty tame.

If you think about New York mayors, they are hardly aiming for Mr. Congeniality: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and even Michael Bloomberg aren’t necessarily the sort of person you’d want to hang out with.  But on the left coast, Tom Bradley almost epitomized mellow moderation; Antonio Villaraigosa is probably too personally charming for his own good; Jim Hahn might not have been the sharpest pencil in the cup but is a genuiunely nice guy; even Richard Riordan is pretty friendly and cordial.  David Dinkins, of course, was notably polite and courtly — and seemed out of his element because of it.

Why is this?  Is it just New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice?  Maybe, but perhaps this is something bigger going on here.

New York mayors wield vast power.  They control huge departments, manage an enormous budget, and dominate the city politically.  New York City comprises five different county governments and thus contains the counties’ power.  The New York mayor’s problem is keeping control over the whole thing, not to mention corralling a notoriously-fractious urban political party (and sometimes more than that if they have the Liberal or Conservative endorsement).  The Mayor also plays a major role in appointing the Board of Education.  Hizzoner has to knock heads to get anything done.

In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the Mayor is relatively weak.  Los Angeles city government is dominated by civil service personnel, whom the Mayor can’t just order around.  Before 1992, this was even the case with the Police Department: I distinctly remember my east coast friends saying to me, “If Tom Bradley hates Daryl Gates so much, why doesn’t he just fire him?”  Answer: he couldn’t.  And he still can’t: the police chief has a five-year term.  Even with other departments, the Mayor can’t appoint dozens and dozens of officials: instead, he appoints usually five-member volunteer commissioners, who, because they are volunteers, are usually dominated by professional civil service staff.  That is not a recipe for strong executive leadership.

The Los Angeles mayor has no control over the school district or the Board of Education.  The Los Angeles City Council only has 15 members, making each councilmember the monarch of his or her district; in New York, there are so many councilmembers that they comparatively little power, although not negligible.  The City of Los Angeles has no control over the vastly bigger County of Los Angeles.  The Mayor of New York can call up the Brooklyn borough President to berate and threaten him: in Los Angeles, the only way the City get the County to what it wants is through a lawsuit.

Or persuasion.  The Mayor of Los Angeles has to persuade all these other constituencies to do what he or she wants: they can’t bully or force them.  Los Angeles elections are nonpartisan, and so the Mayor doesn’t even have a political organization to use.  The only way a Los Angeles Mayor will be effective will be through the patient and often-maddening business of assembling political coalitions, community groups, public sector unions, developers, etc.  A screamer in Los Angeles City Hall is someone who literally has no chance of success.

No wonder, then, that voters seem so uninterested: it’s not abundantly clear what precisely the Mayor is supposed to do, a condition that the early 20th century Progressives who framed the Los Angeles charter wanted.

The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who died last week at the age of 88, made a similar point about the personalities of Presidents and Prime Ministers.  A President has to try to use the power of the bully pulpit and his dominance over the executive branch to get things done.  A Prime Minister, on the other hand, has to use persuasion to maintain his party coalition — if he doesn’t, he’ll get kicked out by his own caucus.  I think that that works here.

Whether Garcetti or Greuel wins tomorrow, the next Los Angeles mayor will be a pretty nice person.  Whether Quinn or Weiner or someone else wins in New York, the next New York mayor will probably be something of a jerk.  But the political structure will have as much to do with this as any tired cultural stereotypes.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

10 thoughts on “New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice: A Structural Explanation”

  1. Vincent Impelliteri was by reputation a pretty nice fellow. On the other hand, one of the least successful NY mayors of the last century, so I guess that kind of makes your point.

  2. Nasty and nice seems a bit too simplistic a formulation. What LA’s mayor needs is finesse in the art of knocking heads versus New York’s fist-pounders.

    As for LA’s election climate, I hardly think this has been a tame race. The coverage hasn’t generated much heat mainly because of LA’s lamentable local news sources. With the notable exception of Gene Maddaus at LA Weekly, coverage has altogether ignored some of the more vitriolic campaign tactics. The hits have been coming from both sides but Greuel’s campaign has been particularly “nasty” such as when they’ve blamed Garcetti for a recent spike of rapes in Hollywood ( or when they released the arrest record of a reporter who exposed inappropriate use of city resources by her office (

    Garcetti has been tough in his hits on Greuel but they’ve mainly focused on the fact that her campaign has received more support from a LA DWP sponsored Super PAC then it has raised on its own which raises concerns about her ability to act independently as mayor. The shorthand they’ve used is “the DWP Mayor.” We’ll know tomorrow which tactics end up winning over the most Angelenos. I know which one I think shows the finesse to lead LA.

    1. I would accept your reformulation as a friendly amendment. As for the campaign’s tone, the caveat in what I wrote is “by realistic standards.” Politics ain’t bean bag. Any race coming to this point is going to have its mean side. But blaming a councilmember for an increase in rapes in a neighborhood is not particularly nasty: saying that he actually COMMITTED those rapes would be. I agree with you that Greuel has sunk lower in her hits, and that that could say something about who would be a better mayor. In comparison to lots of others I’ve seen, it’s still pretty tame.

      1. I don’t think I agree that Greuel’s hits are worse.

        Question is, are we only looking at things the candidate did personally, or all the 3rd party cr*p too? ‘Cause as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s complete nonsense to say she was in favor of Prop 187.

        I think they both seem nice, but I have to vote for Wendy just on the *chance* that she might be better on planning. The mere sliver of hope. After bajillion debates, it is just a theory.

    2. Yeah, I’m with TodoTorto, you could only say the campaign has been nice if you haven’t been receiving the same direct mail as me. I strongly suspect this is because of the lack of ideological distinction between the two candidates — if you can’t discuss policy differences the only thing left to talk about is personality.

      1. Well, I’m not getting any calls saying someone’s got an illegitimate black child, so by my yardstick, it’s not so bad. I guess you-all are used to a much higher toned campaign than me. I think the Choi-O’Farrell race is much, much uglier. Glad I don’t vote in it!

        Direct mail is always nonsense, it goes directly in the recycle bin.

        I agree with Torto about the local press (read: the LAT), except that I’m not sure I’d want to rely on either the LA Weekly or Citywatch either. Citywatch in particular is valuable because you hear from new people. Unfortunately, many of them seem to be nuts. And it’s not like a real newspaper where if you lie, you get canned. Gosh, you didn’t get a call back? Guess I won’t vote for her (not). So, I don’t give it that much credence. It’s basically all editorials. Whatever.

        The Weekly I stopped reading years ago. Hyperventilating and biased. And aren’t they owned by rightwingie types?

        The Cerritos News, or whatever, I’ve never even heard of, nor do I think it’s the crime of the century to meet with someone somebody else doesn’t like. Do I know who Garcetti’s been meeting with? Not at all! Do I care? Not a whit! I know enough about what he would do. Who he talks to means nothing. (Still think he’s nice though.)

        Though, I agree it’s probably b.s. to bring up a writer’s past drug use. Unless it was meth or coke or heroin, in which case, I *might* want to know, to be honest. Tells me something about their judgment. Though if it was a long time ago, I probably wouldn’t care verrrry much. I know it’s not PC to ever judge anyone, but, drug use can be a relevant data point sometimes. (I have no idea what this guy is accused of. I had no idea this happened. And it’s nowhere close to being a big enough deal to swing my vote.)

  3. Houston’s government is similar to LA’s. Education is independent, also. Agencies are less independent with appointees heading them. City Council is very similar with districts being fiefdoms. There is also the separate Harris County government although it mainly is responsible for the areas that are not part of Houston.

    The elections are not particularly nasty and the Mayors are ‘nice’.

    Houston supports your hypothesis.

  4. let’s not elect quinn yet (pleeeeease) but liu is also a jerk, from all i hear.

  5. A good synopsis, but one that neglected to mention one additional structural constraint upon LA’s mayor: the Chief Administrative Officer. LA’s mayor can’t produce his or her own budget. That responsibility lies with the CAO, a power that effectively confers him or her with tremendous leverage over the City’s departments. In this way, LA’s governance model is more like a suburban city’s where a City Manager manages operations and a City Council, with a ceremonial mayorship that rotates annually, provides oversight. You could remove the office of the LA Mayor entirely, let the mayoral title rotate annually among the councilmembers, and see no difference in the City’s operations or governance. Why was the mayor’s race so insipid? The mayor of LA doesn’t do much, can’t do much, and the candidates, both well-informed insiders, know that all too well so they didn’t promise much.

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