[URBANTH-L]REV: Barraclough on Sonenshein, _The City at Stake_

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Tue Aug 28 18:56:22 EDT 2007

[cross-posted from H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (August 2007)

Raphael Sonenshein. _The City at Stake: Secession, Reform, and the Battle
for Los Angeles_. Updated edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2006. xxi + 306 pp. Maps, tables, notes, bibliography, afterword, index.
$57.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-691-11590-7; $23.95 (paper), ISBN 0-691-12603-8.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Laura Barraclough, Department of Liberal Studies,
Antioch University Los Angeles

The Next Chapter in Sonenshein's Tour de Force of Los Angeles Politics

Historically, in cities dominated by machine politics like Boston and New
York, urban elites used reform to effectively disenfranchise immigrant and
minority voters. Yet in this comprehensive, compelling, and meticulously
researched study, Sonenshein argues that reform does not inherently belong
to either conservatives or liberals, but "rather is a contested value of
great importance" (p. 262). His primary goal in this masterful study of
charter reform in Los Angeles is to recover a concern with institutional
structure among political scientists and to re-conceptualize reform as a
potentially powerful tool for progressive politics.

The author suggests that understandings of reform as an elitist tool are
rooted in regional bias and limited scholarly attention to urban politics in
the U.S. West and Southwest. In cities like Los Angeles, characterized by
nonpartisan elections, low levels of political organization, and the
dispersal of government authority, reform has been far more influential "not
just as the province of the 'good government' crowd, but as the game itself"
(p. 15). Under such conditions, the battle is not between reformers and
party machines, but between competing visions of reform, such as the quest
for business-like efficiency versus the struggle for minority
representation. Western and southwestern cities thus provide excellent
places in which to analyze how civic visions and coalitions are built and
sustained in spite--or perhaps because of--these conditions.

The text is composed of nineteen short chapters, organized into six sections
that trace the origins, process, and results of charter reform. Chapter 3
merits particular attention as one of the few chapters that could stand
alone, perhaps for use in an undergraduate course. It shows how years of
charter amendments created a confusing, contradictory institutional
structure and built general consensus on the need for systematic and
comprehensive reform--specifically, an enhanced role for the mayor, greater
control of elected officials over departments and commissions, and increased
democratic participation for ordinary citizens.

The convergence of two forces--the election of Mayor Richard Riordan and the
threat of San Fernando Valley secession--made charter reform viable for the
first time in decades. In 1997, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to
appoint a commission to draft a new city charter, but insisted that the
council have right of review before the charter went before the voters.
Incensed, Mayor Riordan financed a proposition to create an elected
commission that could take its charter straight to the voters, which voters
passed that same year. For two years, the commissions worked separately
towards the same goal, and each was subject to powerful influences--the
appointed commission to the city council, and the elected commission to the
mayor and to organized labor. According to Sonenshein: "From the start, the
two commissions were like competing siblings. Both had a mission that would
have made more sense with only one commission, and each operated with an eye
on the other" (pp. 105-106).

The author demonstrates that the leadership exhibited by the chairs of the
two commissions was a major factor contributing to the ultimate success of
charter reform. From the beginning, both chairs believed there had to be a
single charter, and eventually decided to work together with the support of
a joint conference committee to identify and make recommendations on all
disagreements between the two commissions. Once united, the two commissions
occupied the high ground of the charter reform debate, and the mayor and the
city council were faced with the decision to either support the unified
charter or appear opposed to popular reforms.

Voters approved the unified charter in June 1999 by a margin of 60 percent.
The new charter expanded mayoral authority significantly, created a system
of advisory neighborhood councils, and instituted area planning commissions.
Two reforms that had once been on the table--a larger city council and
administrative decentralization, such as a borough system--did not succeed.
The new charter dissolved support for San Fernando Valley secession, which
voters resoundingly rejected in 2002, and facilitated the resolution of the
scandal involving the Rampart Division of the Los Angeles Police Department
and the statewide recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003.

The study raises a number of important questions for the study of
coalition-building in diverse cities. Few are better equipped to venture
answers to these questions than Sonenshein, whose earlier study of Mayor Tom
Bradley's coalition of African American and white Jewish voters is canonical
in the scholarly field of Los Angeles and urban politics.[1] Sonenshein
shows that charter reform ultimately succeeded in Los Angeles despite the
city's diversity, fragmentation, and low social capital. To explain this
outcome, he develops a model of interracial coalitions that takes into
account the importance of interests, ideology, and leadership.

Sonenshein posits that "reform constituencies" support reform coalitions
because of their beliefs about government and civic life, and that this
ideology, rather than narrowly defined self-interest, is crucial to
institutional change. He argues that "[i]n reducing all political action to
self-interest we risk missing something important about civic capacity and
civic participation. To many ordinary people who are not political actors
except as voters and observers, what is right and wrong in government is
quite important" (p. 264). Jewish voters on the west side of Los Angeles
overwhelmingly supported the new charter, even though they generally felt
well served by city government. He suggests that Latino immigrants may
similarly provide the ideological as well as practical impetus for reform,
which was partly confirmed by the 2005 election of Antonio Villaraigosa, the
city's first Latino mayor in over 150 years, which Sonenshein considers in
the afterword of the 2006 edition.

_The City at Stake_ is full of useful charts, tables, and maps, as well as
an exceptional appendix that summarizes the new charter's provisions.
Sonenshein's bibliography is likewise a valuable reference. The book is
appropriate for graduate-level courses in urban politics or public policy
and would be of interest to a popular audience with specialized interests in
urban and public affairs. Because of its exhaustive and sometimes
overwhelming level of detail, the book would not be a good choice for most
undergraduates or non-specialists. The book's discussion of the San Fernando
Valley secession movement, though adequate, is presented here primarily as
an impetus for charter reform; researchers interested in an in-depth study
may be disappointed. Similarly, though Sonenshein raises interesting
questions about civic participation among Latino immigrants, he ventures
only superficial answers that are best supplemented by other recent

By far the most interesting and unique aspect of this book derives from
Sonenshein's role as executive director of the appointed charter commission.
He had access to the key players in Los Angeles politics, whose interviews
form the backbone to this book. The study is peppered with Sonenshein's
candid interpretations of the people and events that influenced the outcomes
of charter reform, secession, and municipal elections. The following excerpt
is typical: "I have often thought since then that finding the high ground
was the key to making charter reform succeed, but I had never really felt
the high ground until that nineteen to zero vote. We had done the right
thing, and in so doing had restored the faith of the people in the room, and
also outside it, that Los Angeles government could be reformed" (p. 166).
Sonenshein's observations enable the reader to enter the often inaccessible
world of city politics through a privileged and trusted insider's eye.
Written in an accessi!
e, engaging style, the study feels more like a memoir or political
autobiography than a scholarly monograph. Together with his earlier study,
_The City at Stake_ is the definitive study of urban politics in Los


[1]. Raphael Sonenshein, _Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los
Angeles_ (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1993).

[2]. Robert Gottlieb, Mark Vallianatos, Regina M. Freer, and Peter Dreier,
_The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City_ (Berkeley, Calif.:
University of California Press, 2005).

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