March 09, 2005

Code White: Joel Kotkin, on yesterday's mayoral primary in Los Angeles:
Hertzberg ran as the candidate of the city's middle class, tailoring his appeal largely to the San Fernando Valley, the city's most suburbanized area. He focused on issues like traffic, taxes, police protection, business growth, and dysfunctional schools--topics that are the chief concerns of middle-class homeowners. Yesterday Hertzberg won the bulk of these voters. The problem? Middle-class residents here may no longer have large enough ranks to elect one of their own to citywide office. This may have turned the famously energetic Hertzberg into the little engine that could not climb the demographic hill. Whatever the merits of the candidates in this particular election, one thing is clear: The underlying demographic factors that doomed Hertzberg's campaign spell bad news for Los Angeles, and for the American city in general.(emphasis mine)
Now, I favored Bob Hertzberg in yesterday's race, and I would have voted for him if I hadn't been in a two-and-a-half hour traffic snarl from Costa Mesa to the Valley last night. He had fresh, provocative ideas, and came within an eyelash of knocking an incumbent mayor out of the runoff (also, in the interest of full disclosure, he used to work for my father back in the day). But the inference in that piece, that "middle-class" voters in Los Angeles were unable to elect "one of their own", thanks, no doubt, to the nefarious "special interest groups" who backed Antonio Villaraigosa and James Hahn, not only shortchanges Hertzberg's appeal, but also lays out in very stark form one of the least subtle racial hooks I've read in some time. [link via LA Observed]

And, while I'm at it, it's bogus to boot. First, the voter turnout yesterday was 30% citywide, so it's safe to say that "middle class" voters were probably disproportionately more likely to vote than, lets say, voters in South Central or Panorama City. Hertzberg's problem wasn't that the "middle class" was too small to choose the mayor of Los Angeles, but that he didn't do particularly well with the significant segment of voters who wouldn't be considered "middle class" in Kotkin's analysis.

Second, although it's only a point of semantics, the notion that Bob Hertzberg can be considered one of the "middle class" is a bit of stretch. Hertzberg is a prominent attorney, and himself the son of a prominent attorney. I'm speculating, of course, having no access to any statements of personal net worth, but I'd be willing to stick my neck out a little and guess that, as a prime shaker in a boutique law firm, he probably had an annual income well into the six, maybe even seven, figures. He lives in Encino, one of the wealthiest communities on the planet, Sherman Oaks, a block away from me (me stupid!), and hardly a hub of true middle class sentiment.

Lastly, Kotkin's underlying point, that Hertzberg was the candidate of the "middle class", was belied by the exit polls. According to the city's paper of record, the frontrunner, Villaraigosa, captured 31% of voters earning between $60-100,000 (as opposed to 27% for Hahn, and 21% for Hertzberg), 32% of voters earning between $40-60,000 (vs. 23% for Hertzberg and 22% for Hahn), and 35% of voters earning between $20-40,000 (vs. 28% for Hahn and 16% for Hertzberg); those groups encompassed 64% of the electorate. Only among voters earning in the six figure and above range (26% of the electorate) did Hertzberg surpass Villaraigosa, but even there the margin wasn't that wide (37% to 28%). He also decisively won the East San Fernando Valley, where a large proportion of middle income homeowners actually live. Hertzberg remained competitive by leading in the West Valley and splitting the Westside with his rivals, two of the richest areas in town, but bombing everywhere else.

In other words, the mythical "middle class" voter Kotkin speaks of exists only in the form of a stereotype, the white suburban homeowner. Although the demographic trend he refers to may indeed be happening, whether it represents bad news for this area is another question entirely. If anything, yesterday's election may signify the development of a different type of middle class voter, the non-white Angeleno, which as a voting bloc provided Villaraigosa with the base of his support. Suffice it to say I have not heard anything that would lead me to believe that the emergence of a Latino or African-American middle class is "bad news" for Los Angeles, even if it displaces the "middle class" so near and dear to Kotkin's heart.

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