It is election time in Beverly Hills! That means an avalanche of four-color mailers graced by feel-good slogans intended to encourage us to the polls. Our household alone has received more than thirty pieces! They’ve crammed the mailbox and hung from the doorknob and, on a few occasions, even been hand-delivered with a ring of the doorbell. Information overload it is, and it is welcome because in the 729 days between elections we hear so very little from our leaders. So let’s take a look at the campaign swag to hear what our candidates will do for us.
A central tension in our system of representative democracy is that our elected leaders work on our behalf. Unlike a direct democracy in which we would cast our own votes (like in a town hall setting), instead we place a measure of trust in those we send to local office. We expect that they will honor the will of the people yet hope that they invoke their best judgment in order to make the compromises necessary to keep the local government gears turning.
Many candidates at all levels tout integrity and leadership as hallmark qualities, and Beverly Hills is no exception. No candidate has a corner on these noble qualities…even though most make the claim. But with few defining issues to put candidates in relief, we’re left with colorful campaign promos to make the case. What do they say about our candidates?
Current Mayor Willie Brien in his campaign literature leads with a time-tested “integrity, leadership & innovation” theme. With a smile on his face and a phone in the hand, he’s the vision of the gentleman politician, which he is. In addition to serving as a councilmember, he’s also a physician. Enjoying the rotating post of Mayor, in this campaign he’s entitled to stretch his arms wide around the current Council’s accomplishments, and indeed he does. His seven bulleted accomplishments stake his leadership claim. “Your priorities are my priorities,” he says, and we want to believe him.
His nine pledges flesh out key campaign themes of public safety, family & children fiscal prudence. As Mayor he seems to have found a Council persona somewhere in between the crowd-pleaser councilmember Barry Brucker and the affable but take-no-bull councilmember Lili Bosse.
Current Vice-Mayor John Mirisch’s theme is “still putting residents first,” the ‘still’ a reference to the last campaign that was marked by mudslinging, a whisper campaign, and purported calls to voters made by an obviously drunk candidate Mirisch. Ugly stuff. Evidently that put the fighting spirit into him because in this campaign he’s come out swinging against “special interests” which are identified as developers and city staffers. His grand nemesis is Metro for proposing to tunnel under the high school.
His campaign message hits hard on city pension reform and the recent water rate hike. His softer side (he’s the only candidate with a school-age kid) is belied by the campaign’s black & white design scheme of a no-nonsense candidate behind those heavy black glasses. He stands apart from the rest of the Council as an underdog insurgent pushing back against the establishment. He’s also the candidate that most evidently reaches out on renters’ issues. He’s also spoken up for ‘complete streets’ in Beverly Hills and has held a cyclist-centric campaign coffee event.
Now, both of these candidates have a current Council record on which to run, and given their past differences on key issues (Roxbury park, email retention, staff management and spending) there is a natural contrast to be drawn on the issues. Indeed they message to somewhat different Beverly Hills communities with themes sounded like dog-whistles to their respective bases: the established northside for Brien and the southeast precincts for Mirisch.
But this is a four-way race for three seats. The two other credible candidates* contribute additional color to our ballot palette.
Nancy Krasne is a doyenne of Beverly Hills politics, a “trusted community leader” with previous Council experience and even a stint as Mayor to plump the resume. In her campaign literature she stresses her steady hand and her on-the-job City hall experience. Her career as a teacher and “working school mom” suggest her to be an empathetic candidate who borrows a page from the reformer’s playbook by trumpeting transparency and accountability.
As a candidate, Krasne is oddly poised between the old-school Beverly Hills establishment and some place on an idiosyncratic periphery. As if to dispel any doubt, she says “I’m not beholden to anyone but you” in a printed piece, and she’s known for her mercurial approach on the dais.
Her “comprehensive” six-point plan touches on the usual themes (schools, safety, spending) but calls out vehicular congestion in particular as a scourge. “When did rush hour become permanent?” Remarks during her stint on Council suggested then that she may be sympathetic to cycling safety concerns.
Brian Rosenstein is the young buck with a big smile and perceptible ambition that stands in distinct contrast to the patrician Brien, the hawkish Mirisch, and the earnest Nancy. His slogan hails independence, dedication and experience, but he walks a line between the commission veteran, real estate player, and consummate insider that he seems to be with that of upstart Council newcomer.
Rosenstein has a “vision for the future” and a six-point plan, of course (including safety, responsible development and fiscal prudence), but his campaign material trades on small-town traditional themes like small business interests and public safety. (The latter is a perennial favorite in Beverly Hills.) In this way he’s waging a contest with some traditionalist hallmarks as embraced by Brien too.
But Rosenstein claims planning experience. (By any account he’s been a sharp contributor to Planning Commission meetings.) He calls out vehicular congestion as a threat to quality of life too, yet offers few hints of his approach beyond “common sense, innovative policies and new technology.” On the planning commission he’s shown more concern for car parking than for expanding opportunities for multimodal mobility.
Where’s the Beef?
Looking across the campaign literature shows just how difficult it is for candidates to distinguish themselves in a comfortable burgh like Beverly Hills. We find Willie Brien and John Mirisch each laying claim to the creation of a Cultural Heritage Commission and reform of city pensions. Mirisch and Nancy Krasne position themselves as outsiders; Brien and Rosenstein as defenders of establishment interests. Brien and Mirisch both lay claim to keeping future pension obligations in check. One really has to go to the city videotape to tease out the differences in substance and style.
That’s because the mailed pieces simply don’t tell their story very well. Our mailbox is packed with feel-good statements and with few really divisive issues to cast the candidates’ issue positions in sharp relief. Indeed we don’t hear much of substance from the hustings at all. Is it our particular admixture of warm-button issues, entrenched conservatism and a checked-out electorate that makes for a campaign season that is something less than a nail-biter?
Don’t get us wrong; we’re glad for the attention this election season. Even flattered. But we’d be happier if we the governed could rely on more than slogans and flyers every two years to learn what these leaders think. We don’t know because City Hall simply doesn’t communicate very well with the public. Staff simply checks off the required boxes (for social media, say) without creating any tools (or culture) to increase public interest or participation.
When the city does reach out with a flyer, for example, it’s just to satisfy legal noticing requirements. If there’s a survey questionnaire in our mailbox, it’s a poorly-crafted tool to gauge the political temperature. These modes of outreach aren’t designed to garner feedback nor to support better decisions; they’re pro-forma gestures in local government theater.
Some say we should pull back the curtain. Candidate Mirisch has argued from the Council dais for greater transparency for City Hall. Krasne, too, calls in her campaign for “a new era of full transparency.” And on the stump, too, others talk about accountability in city government. These issues may resonate rhetorically yet they find little traction in Beverly Hills government on a day-to-day basis. The Council majority has declined to revisit our 30-day-and-it’s-gone email destruction policy and have chosen not to call out staff for sub-par performance. Most residents may not know that it’s the City Manager who sets the tone and substance in a small city like Beverly Hills. That office is never on the ballot.
From the 22 mailed pieces, 2 envelopes, and 5 doorhangars that we received this campaign season, we’re assured in four colors that they have our back. Maybe with these elected representatives acting in our stead we simply don’t need to know too much about how City Hall conducts our business.
*On ‘credible candidates’: neither Michael Talei or Katherine Cohan appear to have solicited or collected contributions or spent campaign funds during this election cycle.