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A Machiavellian-inspired old canard

Big Labor, along with LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis - who has a long history of looking out for underprivileged communities, recently issued a strong condemnation of AB2986, the proposed bill to let the people of East Los Angeles evaluate their community's future. The bill moved out of the Assembly after all funding was stripped from the proposal. The bill is now in the state Senate, where it faces an uphill battle thanks, in part, to the hit piece from the unions and Supervisor Solis. The matter is thus reminiscent of similar roadblocks faced by proposed cities in days gone by.


During the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli was a senior official in the Florentine Republic. He is best known for his treatise, "The Prince", in which he advocated for an "end-justifies-the-means" political philosophy. Over time, his legacy has come to mean using cunning and unscrupulous behavior to gain and maintain power. There is a quotation in Machiavelli's "The Prince" that clearly applies to a proposal to create a new city - a new  governing body - that might be feared by the existing base of power:

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
Niccolò Machiavelli, "The Prince"

In the 1970s Los Angeles County fought the proposal to form a new "Canyon County" that would provide self-determination for the people of the Santa Clarita Valley. It was fairly easy for LA County to do so, because state laws made formation of new counties difficult (no new county had been formed since Imperial County was created in 1907). Though the effort to form a new county failed, the concept of local control for Santa Clarita carried over into the 1980s and culminated with the creation of the City of Santa Clarita in 1987. The process of forming that new city was no picnic. It required tireless work from the proponents to de-bunk the anti-cityhood arguments and overcome what they called "the giants of power and privilege". Similarly, formation of the City of Citrus Heights took place under intense opposition from the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

Cityhood opponents in Sacramento County followed the Machiavelli playbook again during Arden Arcade's unsuccessful attempt at cityhood in 2010.  The pro-cityhood people had to beg for money to fund expensive studies (like a full-blown Environmental Impact Report that revealed the existence of 6 vacant lots) and conduct their campaign. They were beaten back by a slick PR campaign and dirty politics by the well-funded, "Downtown Sacramento Power Elite".  Self-determination for Olympic Valley met a similar fate in 2013-2015. Incorporate Olympic Valley (IOV) was eventually told their proposed municipality would lose serious money within 10 years. Yet when the proponents appealed that finding to the State Controller, the result showed the opposite result - prosperity, an utter dismisal of Placer LAFCO's finding. In response, Placer LAFCO said it did not know what to do with the information, thereby dooming the IOV effort.

More recently, enlightened Supervisors in a few counties have figured out that the burden of providing municipal services detracts from their counties' areawide obligations. They ask themselves why the county should not get out of the way and let someone else step up for the municipal tasks. But that's clearly not the case in Los Angeles County at the moment. Five LA County Supervisors have around 1,000,000 constituents who live in urbanized unincorporated communities. If East LA became a city, the municipal workload for the County would be about 10% less. Yet the Labor/Solis hit piece, entitled, "Incorporation puts good-paying union jobs at risk", makes it sound like that would be the end of the world as we know it. On its face, that's hard to believe.

Adding to the incredulity is the speculative notion that East LA, which the hit piece says is 70% union-supported residents, would walk away from union labor if the city was formed. Really? Wouldn't the new city council be pro-union, elected as they would be from overwhelmingly union-supported households? Why would union-leaning elected officials seek non-union labor? Beyond that, and perhaps most importantly, how can anyone know now what unknown people might do in the future?

And then there is Supervisor Solis, herself.  She has a reputation as a progressive champion for the underprivileged. She is well-known as a champion of environmental justice, a concept grounded in the understanding that communities susceptible to detrimental policies and environmental harms should have the power to advocate for themselves and the solutions they prefer. Oh, no, says the hit piece, how dare those voiceless, generally underprivileged,  people have a say in their future? It just flies in the face of logic that Supervisor Solis and her labor allies would hammer the little people in East Los Angeles. Unless you grasp Machiavelli, that is.

Stay tuned, though. As Mark Twain is reported to have said, "No man's life, liberty or property is safe while the Legislature is in session." Labor and LA County are among the most influential organizations at the Capitol. And the legislative session runs through August. We shall see what happens. Finally, even if AB2986 itself does not live to see the light of day come September, it has already re-kindled a self-determination conversation that needs to happen. In a way, it has already won.

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