Los Angeles skyline. Photo courtesy of the City Council

It’s difficult to understand why any rational person would want to be mayor of Los Angeles, California’s largest and in many ways most troubled city.

As the city’s economic and social woes mount — especially a horrendous homelessness crisis — the mayor for the last eight years, Eric Garcetti, is trying to get away by becoming ambassador to India. Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ overabundance of ambitious professional politicians is generating a field of would-be successors for the 2022 election.

The early contenders include City Councilmen Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León and City Attorney Mike Feuer. However, when Congresswoman Karen Bass, who surfaced last year as one of Joe Biden’s potential running mates, announced her candidacy, she immediately became the putative frontrunner.

How bad are conditions in the city they hope to manage?

As he endorsed Bass last week, Garcetti’s predecessor as mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, said, “I have lived here my entire life. I have never seen this city so dirty, so rudderless. Homeless everywhere, crime going up, and there just seems to a be a lack of urgency, a lack of any kind of all-hands-on-deck approach to these crises.”

That appraisal is on the mark, as far as it goes. Villaraigosa could have added that the Los Angeles metropolitan area has the highest unemployment rate of any major region and is the most poverty-ridden locale in California, which itself has the nation’s highest poverty rate.

The city’s massive school district is another civic embarrassment. Although it is independent of city government, Villaraigosa attempted to reform the system’s huge financial and educational shortcomings, but managed only to alienate the powerful teachers’ union.

Los Angeles’ woes are compounded by a snakepit political culture. The city council’s 15 members — half of them, like de León, former state legislators — squabble incessantly as they plot career moves or engage in what might be called side hustles.

Just last week, one of them, Mark Ridley-Thomas, was indicted on federal charges of taking bribes from a University of Southern California dean in exchange for getting millions of dollars in public funds during Ridley-Thomas’ previous stint on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

The scheme, prosecutors said, was aimed at securing a full-tuition scholarship and paid professorship for Ridley-Thomas’ son, Sebastian, himself a former state legislator.

However, the charges against Ridley-Thomas are just the latest scandal to hit the city council. Former Councilman Jose Huizar is awaiting trial on racketeering, bribery, money laundering and other charges. Former Councilman Mitchell Englander is serving a 14-month prison sentence for lying to federal authorities about cash and other gifts he received in casinos in Las Vegas and near Palm Springs.

Again, why would any rational person aspire to become the mayor of this hot mess?

Bass, the most likely next Los Angeles mayor, says she can succeed where others have failed, particularly on the city’s most visible crisis, the countless thousands of homeless people living on the streets and in the parks.

Bass wants to expand the experimental state-federal programs called Project Homekey, which buys up hotels and motels to house the homeless, and Project Roomkey, which provides temporary housing.

“Homelessness has been decades in the making. It didn’t just fall from the sky,” Bass said. “But we can’t wait decades to solve it. It’s up to us to solve it right now. If you elect me as mayor, the status quo on homelessness will not stand.”

However, even if Bass can put roofs over the heads of the homeless — which is unlikely — it doesn’t solve the underlying socioeconomic maladies that permeate the nation’s second largest city.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

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