Opinion: Why care about local politics?

NELA Political Map art
Talise Snyder/The Occidental

In September 2020, councilmember Paul Koretz, who represents the district including UCLA, removed the street redesign project “Uplift Melrose” from LA’s active transportation funding application, effectively killing the project. His reasoning? Koretz claimed that “[it] will not get anyone out of cars, except for immediate neighbors on short trips who could walk or bicycle…” and that there were “concerns… expressed by our public safety department.” The councilmember leaned on the necessity for vetocratic community meetings conducted by residents near where the project was supposed to take place. The area of Melrose Avenue covered by the project remains a traffic sewer to this day.

One might ask how a street redesign that had widespread local support got killed on the pretenses Koretz mentioned. And, even if the project didn’t have the support of local neighborhood councils, how did a local councilmember have the power to block street redesigns that slow down cars and make everyone safer, especially with so many pedestrian collisions and deaths in LA?

Koretz used an obscure yet almost impossibly important construct known as councilmember prerogative. Local councilmembers are the final arbiters on decisions ranging from affordable housing to transportation to homelessness within their district. In essence, despite us being in the city of LA, we are more in the fiefdom of Eagle Rock led by councilmember Kevin de Léon. The unrivaled power that councilmembers have in their district has predictable consequences, such as De Léon delaying the North Hollywood to Pasadena Bus Rapid Transit corridor, Gil Cedillo blocking bike lanes in Downtown and Paul Koretz killing the aforementioned Uplift Melrose project.

You probably did not know who Kevin de León was, nor Paul Koretz, nor what councilmember prerogative is, let alone how each of those affects transportation projects. The extreme focus on national politics in popular media almost forces us to forget that, in the words of former Speaker Tip O’Neill, “all politics is local.” The bike lanes that keep bicyclists and pedestrians safe are not created by Congress; people are not housed through President Biden’s executive actions. Rather, these changes result from local policies that proliferate bike lanes, slow down streets and make housing easier to build.

It’s completely reasonable to care about federal politics and its effects — the Supreme Court gutting the voting rights act in Shelby County v. Holder led to a wave of voting restrictions in states across the South, for example. There is no doubt that federal politics are important. However, it is also unlikely that you single-handedly will be able to have any large-scale impact on federal politics. Millions upon millions of votes are cast in federal elections, but Congress is so inefficient and polarized that the effect of your vote for or against a congress member or President is nearly zero.

You might claim that since you care about issues that aren’t explicitly local, you need not care about local politics. However, many of these larger issues have local solutions that not only are important but are actionable and practical.

Consider climate change. Most consider climate change to be an issue only solved through federal action, such as policies like the Green New Deal or a Carbon Fee and Dividend. However, infill housing — that is, housing built within major cities rather than on the urban fringe is one of the most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions. This is especially important in cities like LA which are already fairly climate-friendly thanks to warm weather but which can do a lot better on housing and transportation. Infill housing is in almost all cases controlled by municipal governments — local political ignorance means that few people vote in local elections, so often, officials who are extremely hostile to new infill housing are elected.

In addition to infill housing, reducing car dependence is a climate-friendly policy, since cars are responsible for nearly a fifth of all U.S. emissions. Investments in non-car infrastructure will not happen via the federal government swooping in — it is our job to elect councilmembers that stop freeway expansions, support protected bike lanes (remember councilmember prerogative?) and remove climate arsonist parking minimums. Of course, this is all just for climate change, but nearly every issue that appears federal or global has tangible and powerful local solutions.

While rational ignorance abounds in politics, I hope I’ve shown here that ignoring local politics is irrational. Local politics not only affects our daily lives in ways federal politics cannot, but the benefit from good local politics is much more tangible than the benefit from good federal politics. In the future, I recommend paying a little more attention to the bottom of the ballot. The most important vote you cast may be for city councilmember.