When voters in the 15th District of the Los Angeles City Council go to the polls Tuesday to select someone to fill the term left after Janice Hahn was elected to Congress, they will choose between two very distinctive candidates.
On the one hand, there is the top finisher in the primary, Joe Buscaino, who describes himself as a hometown boy who ran an Obamaesque, grassroots campaign that stunned the political veterans in the crowded field of 15 candidates.
He prides himself on his outsider status and pushes the mantra that “we can do better.”
His opponent, Warren Furutani, by contrast is a veteran politician with a deep knowledge of the California government structure gained from his years in various elected offices–Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles Community College District and currently as a state assemblyman.
A more somber candidate, it is obvious that Furutani intends to rely on the myriad connections he has made over the life of his political career to try to get things done in the district.
The two men are vying to represent a district that stretches from Watts on the north end down to the Los Angeles harbor. Its attributes include the rich resources of the L.A. Harbor in San Pedro area as well as the challenges and potential of communities like Watts and Wilmington.
It is also a district where each of the communities–Watts, Wilmington, Harbor City, Harbor Gateway and San Pedro–feel that they have been neglected in some way by City Hall.
Buscaino notes that 80 percent of the contributions to his campaign came from people who live and work in the 15th District; something he maintains is unheard of in local politics.
OW invited each of the candidates to sit down and have candid conversations about where they want to take the district.
OW: I was sort of amazed that you won, given some of the heavy-hitters in the race.
BUSCAINO: You like many others (laughing) . . . that’s a testament to folks today who are thirsting for an outsider. They are thirsting for a non-politician; someone they can turn to that they know, who’s in it for the right reasons and who doesn’t have strong ties to special interests up and down the state.
I campaigned on the fact that I have strong ties to the community, to the district. I’ve been here all my life. I’ve worked from Watts to San Pedro as a police officer (LAPD).
My parents instilled in me the importance of faith, of family, of community, of serving others, of doing good for others regardless of where they come from, regardless of their backgrounds.
OW: The danger of being an outsider is that if you’re elected, you are truly under pressure to perform.
BUSCAINO: I can’t wait. I cannot wait. Because at the end of the day, my decisions are going to be based on the people who got me there–people who live and work in the district.
. . . it’s quite humbling and rewarding. We are just excited and energized. We’ve engaged the community. It’s no longer a campaign, it’s a movement . . . It’s our goal to change the culture of city politics by putting the people first.
OW: If elected what would be your top three priorities.
BUSCAINO: Public Safety first. People don’t feel safe . . . jobs and public safety go hand-in-hand. Poverty breeds violence, crime.
OW: Public Safety means?
BUSCAINO: The Watts Gang Task Force; community-based policing, having a youth leadership conference to talk about justice, gang intervention/prevention, teen drinking, driving and drugs. Having youth advisory panels.
OW: In terms of jobs, particularly in the Watts area, what would you do to create them.
BUSCAINO: Watts needs to be a destination for having businesses come in and invest. But No. 1, the community is blighted. Why would businesses come in, when the streets and medians are filled with trash and weeds? That’s a start right there.
I will pick up the phone and find companies to invest in Watts to put people back to work.
. . . We have an issue with the re-entry program. As a police officer, I get it. I know it. I can’t tell you the amount of the same people I continue to arrest who are on parole or probation. When they exit, we need to be there to love them, guide and direct them the right way. We need to provide them with jobs skills workshops and provide them with (jobs).
OW: How are you going to do that?
BUSCAINO: I’d like to work with labor; partner with labor through apprenticeship programs . . . these men and women are thirsting for opportunity. If we don’t provide that opportunity, they go back to the way of life.
OW: What are you going to say to convince businesses to invest in Watts.
BUSCAINO: I’ll show them the unemployment numbers; and show how this community is thirsting for opportunity. I would be an advocate, and put people at the table like I’ve done oftentimes as a senior leader officer.
. . . if I have I have to go to the White pages and pick up the phone and call businesses in the surrounding areas, and get them come meet me here at the vacant lots and (say) do something for us. I would just be a champion for the people.
OW: What happened? You and a whole lot of other veteran politicians got beat by a political neophyte.
Furutani: The thing about city council races is it is sort of local politics to the nth degree. Joe had a real good story that people grabbed onto to. He’s a good guy, the kid next door; the native son.
I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I talked as much as possible about the fact that I was born in San Pedro, that my dad was born in San Pedro but we had different concepts for the election.
Theirs was focused in San Pedro and still is. Our concept is we’re running in the whole district, and that really is an against-the-grain campaign. (Traditionally) The candidate that always wins in the 15th comes from San Pedro.
So we’re saying we want to get votes from Watts, the Gateway, Harbor City, Wilmington, and of course from San Pedro.
. . . We’re running a different kind of campaign; it’s sort of non-traditional. But I think how you campaign is how you’re going to govern.
OW: If elected, what are your three top priorities.
FURUTANI: Job Creation. I will work with Congresswoman Maxine Waters to get President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act passed to give our economy the needed resources to create new, good-paying jobs. I will also ensure that projects like the renovation of Jordan Downs and the construction of a new NFL stadium hire from our local community, provide job training at centers like Maxine Waters Preparation Center and L.A. Southwest Community College and contract goods and services from local businesses.
Expand Job Training Programs. Just as we are creating jobs, we must also ensure that people have the training to do the jobs. We need to expand job-training programs at our job-training centers as well as find ways for the Workforce Investment Boards, adult education centers, community colleges and labor union apprenticeship programs to work together to train workers for 21st century jobs.
Improve Our Neighborhoods. Not only have I represented the communities in the 15th City Council District for the past 20 years, I also live here. I know that it is time the city of Los Angeles paid more attention to our neighborhoods so that we can fix streets and potholes, remove graffiti, pick up litter, and trim our trees. I will work closely with the neighborhood councils and community leaders to develop a list of priorities for things we want to get done in each neighborhood.
OW: What are the key priorities for Watts?
FURUTANI: I have held dozens of community meetings and have met with community leaders, small business owners and nonprofit organizations to talk about what we need to improve our neighborhoods, and this is what I heard:
We need to create more jobs. For projects that have been approved, I will insist that we hire locally.
We need to expand our job training programs at the Maxine Waters Employment Preparation Center and Southwest College so we can train our workers to get the new jobs that are created.
We also need more economic development in Watts so that we have more grocery stores, sit-down restaurants and small businesses to make our neighborhoods vibrant again.
Finally, we need to work together to improve our neighborhoods, fix potholes, sidewalks, clean up litter and graffiti and open new recreation centers, not close them.
It’s time that Watts received its fair share of city services. I will bring department heads from City Hall to Watts and show them firsthand the improvements that need to be made.