Black Bart: The Mayors

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

My first thought for this year’s Black Bart was Peter Lee of Covered California. There was sleight of hand in Lee’s ability to sell California’s trouble-filled implementation of the ACA as a success – by comparing it to the disastrous federal implementation. And there was intelligence in Lee making himself accessible and available around the state. Much more needs to be done, but Lee and Covered California appear on their way to maximizing whatever success is possible under this hopelessly complicated law. Let’s give him an honorable mention.

I nearly gave my award to the two Californians who demonstrated the most admirable, pro-California spirit this year: Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz, who own the Orange County Register and an expanding media empire in Southern California. Today’s California is an older, graying place of diminished ambitions; our media companies often seem defeatist. Kushner and Spitz, two young guys, are the very opposite of that. They are reminding us of the maxim that you need to spend money and take risk to make money and change society. They’ve profoundly improved the Orange County Register, started a companion paper in Long Beach, and completed the purchase of the Press-Enterprise in Riverside. Just last week, they announced that they will launch a Los Angeles Register as well. They may fail, but, if they do, they will go down swinging.

If only more Californians were like that.

In the end, Kushner and Spitz were my first runners-up.

So who gets the Black Bart?

California mayors are notoriously weak players in politics, because of all the Progressive-era checks on their power, and our affection for city manager systems. But this year saw mayors at the center of the conversation, for better and for worse.

Antonio Villaraigosa departed, leaving a more substantial legacy in LA than is currently understood. Eric Garcetti arrived, full of new ideas. Kevin Johnson prevented the Sacramento Kings from leaving (albeit with an arena deal that is a huge giveaway to the basketball team’s new rich owners). Chuck Reed of San Jose organized a ballot initiative on pensions that is likely to make him the most vilified Californian in the year 2014. Ed Lee deployed BatKid to make San Francisco safe from everyone except gentrifying technologists. And who could forget Bob Filner, who succeeded in his ambition to get the whole country talking about San Diego government (though perhaps not in the way he intended)?

It was the year of the California mayor. Send the Black Bart to the nearest City Hall.

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