November 22, 2013
It was the fall of 1960, just two months before the presidential election, and John Kennedy was making a swing through Los Angeles for a rally at the Shrine Auditorium. I was 11, and I was determined to be there.
Kennedy already was my hero. When he challenged us with his youthful energy to give more of ourselves in the service of others, he sparked a political flame in me. So I begged my dad to take me to the Shrine. Before we jumped into our Plymouth for the drive downtown from our Fairfax home, I grabbed a stick in the backyard and taped a Kennedy bumper sticker to it.
When we arrived at the Shrine, the place was mobbed. We couldn’t get inside but, because I was small, we snaked and jostled our way through the thick forest of excited grown-ups to the very front of a walkway where Kennedy would pass to enter the auditorium. As my striding hero approached, I shouted and waved that stick so wildly that he had to step back to keep from getting whacked.
Inside the auditorium, the candidate would speak on the weighty matters of the day—the tightening tensions between democracy and communism, survival in a difficult and dangerous world, racial and religious bigotry. As I sit here now, I suspect most of those policy points would have gone over my head. But the promise of a New Frontier that Kennedy carried into L.A. and across the nation certainly didn’t miss the mark with my heart.
In recent days, we’ve seen stories of every sort and slant on Kennedy and his administration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Scholarly debates over the impact of his presidency will persist for decades to come. So too, I imagine, will the lingering conspiracy theories that swirl around the rifle shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.
But in my circle of friends, we’ve found ourselves talking less about the details and what-ifs of JFK’s presidency and more about his personal impact on the course of our lives during such formative ages. Truth is, many of us have never gotten over Kennedy’s death. It was so sudden, so personal. In that sense, it reminded me of the grief of my mom’s passing just four years earlier.
During Kennedy’s tenure, we were still too young to be skeptical or, worse, cynical from the experience of some earlier political disappointment. When John Kennedy said anything was possible, we believed. When he told us we could make a difference, we acted—even if it was in our own, youthful ways.
I can still remember running for Boy’s League vice president in 9th grade at Bancroft Jr. High School in Hollywood after Kennedy’s election—my first political race. During a campaign “speech” to the students, I informed them that a special guest was there to offer support for my candidacy. I turned around and pulled on a Kennedy mask that I’d been hiding behind my back. I then swung around again and, in what I’d like to think was a pretty spot-on Kennedy impersonation, urged the now-cheering students to cast a ballot for Zev. I won, with 90 percent of the vote.
Today, I look back at my silly play-acting and know, on a deeper level, that I was identifying for the first time with a real-life political figure, an identification that has inspired me throughout my nearly 40 years in elective office. The political activism to which I’ve dedicated my life began with Kennedy.
During the past few days, amid all the news coverage, I’ve been asked the difficult question of how I think the Kennedy assassination is relevant to today’s younger generation. Why should they care?
Many historians have asserted that the political and cultural upheaval of the 1960s—which informs much of who we are today—began on that sad day in Dallas. The president’s killing set the stage for the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy and too many others, seemingly raising the nation’s tolerance for political violence.
But the reality is that for those of us of a certain age, our most visceral connection to the assassination is with the seared memories of where we were and how we felt when we heard the news. (I was in Spanish class, where my teacher dissolved into tears.) The gut-wrenching depth of that individual grief, multiplied by millions across a nation, can never truly be expressed to anyone who wasn’t there.
Maybe the most we can do to convey that trauma to the Millennial Generation is to note the impact the 9/11 attacks had on their lives. Ask any of them, and they can vividly tell you where they were when the towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down.
But, on a more positive note, I might also offer them a few words from the speech that candidate Kennedy delivered inside the Shrine Auditorium, as my dad and I worked our way back to the car—a reminder of the timeless relevance of his vision and of our responsibilities.
“If we measure up not only in the public sense,” Kennedy said, “but in the private sense to the opportunities that we have, if we recognize that…liberty calls for certain qualities of self-restraint and character which go with self-government, I am confident that the future can belong to those who believe in freedom.”
October 31, 2013
Daniel Sullivan wore his LAPD blues like the rest of the command staff, but he was definitely cut from a different cloth.
In an era when then-Chief Daryl F. Gates set a combative tone for the department, Sullivan, a deputy chief, refused to succumb to such them-against-us nonsense. That was evident in the unlikely relationship he and I forged.
Not long after my election to the Los Angeles City Council in the mid-1970s, I became the panel’s strongest critic of the department’s use of excessive force and its propensity for secretly building dossiers on perceived enemies, including me. Although Sullivan didn’t always agree with me, he said he respected my willingness to tackle the brass. And I, in turn, told him I respected the professional manner with which he and most of his colleagues performed their crucial and difficult responsibilities on behalf of the residents of Los Angeles.
With his jurisdiction stretching across my Westside district, Sullivan would become one of my “go-to” guys when I needed thoughtful and blunt guidance on a criminal justice issue. I’d go on ride-alongs with him until the wee hours to get his unique take on the city he patrolled. Then we’d compete on the racket ball court. He had a boyish, Irish grin straight out of Central Casting.
Many years ago, Sullivan and an LAPD colleague, Joe De Ladurantey, published a book called “Criminal Investigation Standards.” To this day, that volume sits on my shelf—a continuing reminder that you don’t have to be in lock-step with a person to form lasting professional and personal ties, if the relationship is grounded in mutual good will.
As you may have suspected, I’m writing about Sullivan because I learned last week that he passed away.
The last time I talked to him was not long after the 9/11 attacks, years after his retirement. He called me from, of all places, Pakistan. He said he’d been hired by the U.S. government for a border security and police modernization project to help that nation secure its borders. Then I lost touch; I heard he moved to Palm Desert and was easing his way into retirement.
One of the LAPD’s brightest stars, Sullivan had the policing and political skills to become chief of police one day. Only a quirk of timing and the lack of a vacancy prevented that from happening during his years within the department. What a shame. He was the closest friend I had in the LAPD, and I will miss him and what our friendship represented.
September 19, 2013
After many years in office, I know how tempting it is for political bodies to jump into action when a problem is generating headlines or otherwise commanding public attention. But sometimes what sounds like a good idea may actually be counterproductive, falsely raising expectations at the precise moment when careful and dispassionate analysis should rule the day.
Such an issue surfaced this week at the Board of Supervisors, where my colleagues Mark Ridley-Thomas and Gloria Molina introduced a motion calling for the permanent creation of a Sheriff’s Department Oversight Commission, whose members would be appointed by the board.
They argued that ongoing investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and continuing allegations of brutality by deputies in the jails proved that a new level of civilian oversight was needed—one that a busy Board of Supervisors alone cannot provide. A vote is scheduled for October 8.
I certainly share the proponents’ desire to tighten the reins on the Sheriff’s Department, but let me tell you why I’ll be among the “no” votes.
As many of you may know, I’ve spent a good deal of my public life holding our region’s two biggest law enforcement agencies accountable for unconstitutional behavior, from the political spying and excessive force of the Los Angeles Police Department back in the 1980s to the escalating brutality inflicted on L.A. County jail inmates by sheriff’s deputies in more recent times. In fact, I championed the establishment of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, whose esteemed members last year proposed more than 60 reforms for the Sheriff’s Department’s jail operation.
The lynchpin of those widely-praised recommendations was the creation of an Office of Inspector General to provide rigorous, independent oversight of the department, reporting directly to the Board of Supervisors. We will soon review candidates to lead this essential watchdog agency.
The blue-ribbon panel—whose members included former federal judges, a big-city police chief and a prominent south Los Angeles pastor—specifically considered whether to recommend the creation of a permanent civilian commission, like the one now being proposed. The answer: no.
“The Commission believes that a fully empowered and integrated Office of Inspector General reporting to an engaged Board of Supervisors can provide the necessary independent oversight of the Department to ensure that it implements meaningful and lasting reforms,” the panelists wrote in their final report. The creation of another civilian commission, they said, “was not necessary.”
And should anyone question the Board of Supervisors’ level of engagement, Tuesday’s meeting alone should have offered an answer. Besides the proposal for a new oversight body, our day was packed with reports and debate on the status of the earlier jail commission’s recommendations, the decreasing number of serious use-of-force cases, and methods of coping with thousands of new inmates now serving sentences in the county lockup rather state prison because of sweeping changes to California law.
The strongest argument against a new oversight commission is simply that it would be powerless to force changes within the Sheriff’s Department. And, despite the suggestions of the measure’s backers, the Los Angeles Police Department does not provide us with a model for civilian governance.
The sheriff is publicly elected, making him directly accountable to voters every four years. Although the Board of Supervisors holds the purse strings, state law expressly gives the sheriff here and in counties across the state wide control over the operations of their departments. The LAPD chief, on the other hand, is politically-appointed and, under the city charter, reports directly to a five-member Board of Police Commissioners, which governs the department.
In their final report, the jail commission pointedly noted the difference between the two law enforcement agencies, saying that “a civilian jail commission would not have any legal authority over the Sheriff’s Department absent enabling [state] legislation.” The probability of getting such legislation is, at best, remote. In other words, the proposed commission would amount to little more than a soapbox for the panelists—and a disappointment for those of us committed to a top-to-bottom cultural change.
On Tuesday, my colleague, Don Knabe, called the proposal for a new commission “a bit premature.” I agree. The Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, staffed by some of L.A.’s brightest criminal justice minds, offered us a detailed roadmap to reform. That includes allowing an inspector general—whose authority Sheriff Lee Baca has said he will accept—to hold the department accountable through meaningful oversight.
We shouldn’t now be looking for shortcuts that, in the end, would divert us from our destination.
September 12, 2013
It’s now been two full years since my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors and I appointed a special commission to investigate allegations of widespread brutality by deputies in our county jails. The panel’s creation stands as a clear demonstration of our commitment to ensuring that the constitutional rights of inmates are protected and that members of the Sheriff’s Department, no matter what their rank, are held accountable for transgressions.
Among its findings, released one year ago this month, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence recommended dozens of reforms to restore integrity to the nation’s largest jail system. Although some of those reforms have yet to be implemented—including the hiring of a watchdog Inspector General—measurable improvements are taking root.
But the job’s not nearly done. This is especially true when it comes to a big slice of the jail population that poses a uniquely difficult challenge for the county—the more than 2,000 inmates coping with mental health issues. In an environment of control and conformity, they require a level of individualized care that the system seems unable to consistently provide.
The Sheriff’s Department certainly didn’t ask for its jails to be our mental hospitals of last resort when state mental health dollars and facilities began disappearing decades ago. Clearly, the county’s far-flung lockups were neither designed nor intended for the special needs of these troubled individuals whose mental state likely contributed to the criminality that led to their confinement. But that’s the reality we have faced for years, and it is our obligation to act now with the same sense of urgency we’ve displayed in confronting the problem of deputy violence.
In fact, we’ve been assuring the federal government of our dedication to this mission for the past 11 years, assurances that now apparently have worn thin.
In 2002, the county entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which had concluded that the jail’s staff was engaged in such “abuse and mistreatment of prisoners with mental illnesses” as improperly using physical restraints and providing inadequate facilities and staffing. The Sheriff’s Department, along with the county’s mental health agency, agreed to fix the failings and cooperate in bi-annual federal inspections to ensure that inmates’ constitutional rights were not being violated.
But last week, U.S. Justice Department officials notified the county that they were opening a civil investigation into the allegations of excessive force and undertaking a new “assessment” of the mental health agreement. In a letter to Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka and Sheriff Baca, justice officials acknowledged the county’s progress in this latter area, but stated bluntly that “significant problems remain.” They cited, among other things, the growing number of inmates with serious mental illnesses who are being housed in “obsolete and dilapidated conditions at Men’s Central Jail” and an increase this year in jail suicides.
I fully agree that the current conditions for mentally ill inmates inside the archaic and depressing central jail are unacceptable—as do my colleagues. In May, acting on a motion I authored, the board voted to take the first steps in the possible construction of an Integrated Treatment Center, which would house all mentally ill inmates and provide care consistent with the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
Our action, which represents a potential investment in jail reform for the mentally ill of well over $1 billion, should clearly signal to federal officials our desire to get this right.
I know there are some who’ll see the federal government’s stepped-up scrutiny of our jail system as an intrusion into our local affairs, usurping our sounder, closer-to-the-ground judgment. I disagree. I believe the federal government’s concerns will generate an important public conversation about what needs to be done so the county can move forward without potential federal litigation to force our compliance.
And that conversation could not come at a more crucial time, as our bursting jail system confronts unprecedented pressures because of state legislation AB 109, which has crammed thousands of new inmates into county cells, inmates whose crimes used to land them in state prison.
I also know that the mental health challenges of our inmates do not generate a great deal of concern among a general public that is more concerned about the safety of their neighborhoods. But these are not mutually exclusive goals. Studies show that recidivism drops among mentally ill/dually-diagnosed inmates who receive intensive treatment.
Our system of constitutional government requires that we humanely treat those we place behind bars. But providing adequate mental health treatment to the thousands of inmates in our county jail should also be embraced as a matter of enlightened self-interest.
August 2, 2013
A few years ago, I was participating in the county’s biannual homeless census when I came upon a man sleeping under a bush on La Brea Avenue. It was winter, about 4 a.m. The man had been on the streets for ages. He shivered awake, and we talked for a few minutes, his breath steaming the night air, his clothing disheveled. Among other things, he told me he was a veteran.
That conversation was as heartbreaking as it was emblematic. More than 6,000 of Los Angeles County’s homeless are former military servicewomen and servicemen. Once, they volunteered to give their lives for their country. Now they wander our streets, their minds and bodies often addicted or damaged, their chances higher than average of ending up in the ranks of long-term street people at massive public expense.
That’s why, two years ago, we partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to launch a pilot program, a spinoff of our successful Project 50, to provide permanent supportive housing for a group of veterans identified as most likely to die on the streets.
There were 60 to start, severely mentally ill and chronically homeless. And, as with Project 50 on Skid Row, our veterans initiative, dubbed Project 60, started with the premise that if you give someone housing first—no moralizing, no demanding that they get a job or sober up as a condition of shelter—they’ll be more amenable to any medical, mental health or substance abuse treatment services you offer. That, in turn, will spare taxpayers the much higher cost of housing them in hospitals and jails.
It was a novel idea, and today, I am thrilled to report that it has paid off.
This week, during a meeting in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Henry Waxman and myself, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki committed to dramatically scaling up the program, which, according to this year’s homeless census, contributed to a stunning 23% drop in the number of homeless vets over the last two years in Greater Los Angeles.
The VA’s commitment—part of the Secretary’s long-stated goal of ending homelessness among veterans by 2015—will fund and support a sweeping expansion of homeless services for veterans in L.A. County, from housing vouchers to medical outreach to a dedicated homeless services center at the West Los Angeles VA facility.
In all, it will allow us to house and treat more than ten times as many homeless vets in the next two years as we did over the last two. During this period, we expect to house 1,320 chronically homeless veterans. This represents the single most significant development on this issue in years.
It’s also the result of a lot of hard work and collaboration by Sen. Feinstein, Rep. Waxman and staff including Donna Beiter, who directs the VA’s Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, the VA’s Michelle Wildy, Flora Gil Krisiloff in my office, Mary Marx with our county Department of Mental Health and front-line nonprofits Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica, St. Joseph Center in Venice, San Fernando Valley Mental Health Center and the Hollywood branch of Step Up on Second.
And it’s proof that when we build on our successful programs, we can make a life-saving difference. We have helped nearly 120 homeless mentally ill veterans through our original Project 60: a sailor who spent the past 15 years sleeping in a Santa Monica park and making monthly emergency room visits until he got housing; a former Marine who, after a decade, has begun to get sober in her Gardena apartment; a Vietnam vet, dying of cancer in a hospice, who came in from the night in time to make peace with his anguished family. Now the number being cared for will dramatically increase.
These veterans answered the call of our country when we needed them. Now they need us, and this week marks a huge breakthrough in helping Los Angeles answer that call.
July 25, 2013
For most longtime Angelenos, the Los Angeles River has represented little more than a concrete scar across the county, a channel sending urban runoff and debris towards the sea. Although largely justified in the past, that perception has failed to keep pace with the river’s emerging new realities and its potential to become one of the grandest urban greenways in America.
There was a time when the Los Angeles River was a lifeline for our region. Along its banks, the Gabrielino Indians hunted, fished and lived. The Spanish established the city’s earliest settlements on the river, which would later power the area’s industrial growth. But by the early 20th Century, the river simply could no longer co-exist with the Los Angeles Basin’s explosive growth. A deadly flood in the winter of 1938 finally led to its encasement in concrete, paving the way for the river to become more famous as a backdrop for movie car chases than for its real-life story.
To be sure, long stretches of the river’s 51-miles remain as barren today as they did a quarter-century ago. But elsewhere, a rebirth has been taking root like the lush foliage that again blankets the riverbed between downtown L.A. and Griffith Park. In fact, through a burgeoning public-private partnership, a reimagining of the river’s place in modern-day Los Angeles is gaining unprecedented traction.
President Obama recently made the rejuvenation of the L.A. River a top priority in his urban waterways initiative. And with the federal government’s earlier recognition that the river should be open for recreational use, higher water quality standards are also on the way.
The City of Los Angeles, along with the county and other municipalities, has built miles of new bikeways along the river. In April, NBCUniversal committed nearly $14 million toward the completion of a 6.4 mile gap between Griffith Park and Studio City. Pocket parks also are sprouting on the river’s banks. A summer pilot program has people from across the region kayaking and fishing in its Glendale Narrows passage. And this week, we celebrated the public and private support that will soon give rise to La Kretz Crossing—a stunning pedestrian, equestrian and cyclist bridge near Atwater Village.
But all this is only a start in turning the river into a truly vibrant public space, where our diverse population can not only share recreational opportunities but also forge a broader sense of community from the valley to the ocean. In one of the nation’s most densely developed regions, the Los Angeles River represents a unique opportunity to transform blighted infrastructure into a scenic refuge—a quintessentially L.A. version of New York’s hugely popular “High Line,” a mile-long aerial park built along old railroad tracks.
That’s the charge of Greenway 2020, an initiative spearheaded by the non-profit Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, which has an immediate goal of completing all 51 miles of the river bikeway by the end of this decade. Filling in gaps totaling 24 miles through government and private financing, the path would extend from the west San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, complete with amenities such as bike shops, eateries and picnic sites.
Daily commuters would be able to ditch crowded roads and buses in favor of a beautiful—and healthy—bike to work. The 100,000-plus cyclists who’ve turned out for the street-closing CicLAvia events is proof of the pent-up demand for bicycle experiences that don’t compete with automobiles. Entire families, meanwhile, would have a desperately needed getaway in our concrete landscape to play, to breathe and to build memories.
Every world-class city has public spaces that define it. But these monuments to urban life don’t build themselves. Communities come together to create them, and such will be the case for Greenway 2020. It will require coordination and commitment among L.A.’s community leaders, its governmental agencies and its private sector, including business and property owners along the river.
Most of all, it will require a grassroots movement to prove that Los Angeles is ready to make this vision a reality. We urge you to get involved – sign up at larivercorp.com to join Greenway 2020’s effortsand learn more about the project. Attend community meetings. Convey your support to your elected officials. Participate in L.A. River cleanups. Bike and kayak with your friends.
And help us chart a course for the river that will, once again, let it nourish life across Los Angeles.
This piece was co-authored by Allan J. Abshez, board member of the Los Angeles River Revitilizaton Corp.
July 18, 2013
By now, the scenario is tragically, infuriatingly familiar; a young man with a history of mental illness unleashes a burst of bullets from a high-capacity weapon, stealing lives and shattering communities in a matter of minutes.
The latest rampage erupted last month in Santa Monica. In a span of just 13 minutes, 23-year-old John Zawahri killed five people—including his father and brother—and terrorized countless others on a shooting spree that ended inside the Santa Monica College library, where police gunned him down.
Zawahri was armed with an assault rifle that authorities suspect may have been assembled from parts bought on the Internet, sidestepping California’s ban on such arms. He also was carrying a .44-caliber handgun and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition. In the days after the shooting, it was disclosed that Zawahri had been admitted to the psychiatric ward of UCLA Medical Center in 2006 after a teacher at his high school discovered the teenager researching assault weapons online.
The Santa Monica slayings have renewed calls for stricter gun and ammunition controls, both of which I’ve long championed while serving on the Board of Supervisors and on the Los Angeles City Council. But the time is well upon us to also confront serious shortcomings in our mental health system—and in the antiquated attitudes too many of us harbor towards treatment—if we’re ever to succeed in curbing the carnage.
Earlier this week, Rep. Henry A. Waxman convened a forum in Santa Monica on “gun violence, mental health and community recovery.” I was honored to have been asked to participate, alongside an impressive panel of federal, state and local representatives. I was especially encouraged by Rep. Waxman’s announcement that he was pursuing legislation that takes aim not only at loopholes in federal gun laws but also at strengthening, in his words, the nation’s mental health infrastructure.
No doubt, the congressman’s efforts to tighten firearms restrictions will, like earlier measures, meet stiff resistance from lawmakers fearful of the National Rifle Assn. and its backers. But what excuse could there be for not embracing Rep. Waxman’s push to improve access to mental health services and to authorize federally-funded research on serious mental illnesses? No matter what our political affiliations or philosophical bents, who among us has not been touched—personally or through family and friends—by mental health problems of varying degrees, including depression and substance abuse?
The truth is that people with mental illnesses are no more violent than anyone else. Studies have shown that only a small fraction of violent crimes are committed by individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses. But when such a person goes untreated and has easy access to weapons designed to inflict maximum damage, the combination can be combustible, as we’ve seen in shootings from Newtown to Santa Monica.
Los Angeles County’s Department of Mental Health is well aware of the stakes and has worked hard to create and adopt best-practice programs aimed at erasing the stigma of mental health treatment and at encouraging those in distress to seek help. Today, county mental health services are delivered in such community settings as school health centers, primary care clinics and senior centers—places where clients come to believe that their mental health is just another facet of their overall health.
The department, moreover, has initiated a number of innovative public education efforts aimed at front-line organizations and individuals who might encounter people experiencing mental health issues. One of those efforts, which began in May, is called “mental health first aid,” a program that’s been gaining traction nationwide. The goal is simple: to teach people how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in others, how to illicit information from them in a warm and welcoming conversation and how to guide them towards professional help at an early stage.
Trainers for the mental health department—who received their own training from an organization called Mental Health First Aid USA—have so far conducted three sessions, mostly targeting the faith-based community, where individuals might first confide their struggles. But the benefits of the program extend beyond those being “treated.” Each person who undergoes the two-day county training becomes more sensitive themselves to stereotypes and stigmas surrounding mental health issues. In essence, we’re decentralizing traditional mental health models, enabling a broader, more candid discussion of our emotional well-being.
I know these may sound like small steps. But I also know we’re taking them in the right direction. While we can’t undo a tragedy that’s occurred, we can act now in myriad ways to try to prevent those that have yet to happen. And in that cause, it would seem we can all find common ground.
June 26, 2013
All of us—gay or straight, male or female, young or old—achieved an important victory at the U.S. Supreme Court this week, one that speaks to our common humanity in profound ways.
The most obvious beneficiaries of the court’s rulings Wednesday on same-sex marriage are gays and lesbians seeking the right to marry the person they love.
But the court’s essential message was this: Equal justice under the law applies to everyone in our society, without regard to race, religion, sex or sexual orientation. And as such, the court’s decisions are a victory for equal rights for all Americans.
This was especially true in the court’s decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act, making clear that gays and lesbians are entitled to the same constitutional protections as everyone else. Its action on California’s Proposition 8 was narrower but no less significant, ensuring the right of gays and lesbians to marry here in the nation’s most populous state.
Although more court challenges undoubtedly lie ahead, change is coming—in a big way—as more states join the 13 now recognizing same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court heads inevitably toward a future case that will provide the perfect vehicle for affording this basic constitutional right to all Americans.
The court’s actions this week reflect the swift and remarkable evolution of public attitudes on gay rights and same sex marriage. I can’t think of another issue in my lifetime where we’ve moved so far so fast. The victories of the civil rights movement took generations to achieve but this time, I think, we’re on a quicker pace toward justice.
We’re growing into a more tolerant nation, a nation that believes in live and let live. Millions have figured out, as I did, that heterosexual couples aren’t harmed in any way by same-sex marriages.
Starting now, we can also put to rest a troubling chapter in our state’s history, in which an attempt was made to use California’s constitution to diminish rights, rather than expand them.
As I and others argued during the campaign against Prop. 8, the constitutions of the United States and California have always been used as tools of inclusivity, of empowering people and affirming rights—not for excluding people or exempting them from equal protection.
This vitally important principle has been upheld.
Still, there were disappointments in the high court’s rulings, starting with the 5-4 votes in both decisions.
It’s disheartening that, well into the 21st century, key constitutional rights were upheld by only the slimmest of Supreme Court majorities.
Also, instead of boldly creating a national precedent by ruling Prop. 8 unconstitutional, the justices took a technical way out. They let stand a lower court’s ruling striking down the measure by determining that Prop. 8 proponents weren’t legally qualified to make the challenge.
But imperfect results can still be powerful. As I’ve said before, Ty Cobb only batted .400 and he’s in the Hall of Fame.
And these rulings taken together constitute a giant step forward in our republic’s journey to a more perfect union.
May 22, 2013
I am honored to address your graduating class of the Annenberg School here at USC. While I am a loyal UCLA Bruin, my mother and sister are graduates of this great university and I suppose I get partial credit for that.
As you prepare to take your place in the world, you and your peers are poised to become the leaders of tomorrow. So today, let me offer you some thoughts about leadership, drawing on some ideas of two extraordinarily successful leaders I came to know during my public service career. One is the late John Wooden, the former head basketball coach at my alma mater. The other is Steven Sample, the immediate past President of USC.
Coach Wooden is best known for his achievements in athletics, but to those of us who knew him more intimately, he was much more than that. He was a life coach and a philosopher.
Steve Sample is best known in these parts as the man who led USC into the 21st century with soaring academic achievements and a commitment to the community which this university calls home.
I had the privilege of knowing both of these men, and they both taught me a lot about leadership. I have chosen just a few of their profound and axiomatic nuggets of wisdom by which leaders should be guided.
Addressing the core issue of character, John Wooden said, “Character is more important than reputation, because reputation is merely what other people think of you; character is what you really are, and only you know what that is.”
Politics is my line of work, and I can tell you that in my profession, we spend far too much time worrying about what other people think of us and far too little pondering who we really are and communicating who we really are.
What people think of us is important. But what’s far more important are our core values—the values that we are willing to defend regardless of what others think. Or as Steve Sample said, knowing which hill we’re willing to die on. In short, who we are is ultimately informed by our character.
Wooden also reminded us: “You are your word. Don’t give your word unless you intend to keep it. A leader whose promise means everything is trusted.” The best example of this is John Wooden himself. When he came to UCLA in the late 1940’s from Indiana State University, the job he really wanted was head coach at the University of Minnesota. He waited for the call but never got it. One day, UCLA called and offered him the head coaching job in Westwood, and he accepted. The very next day, Minnesota called to offer him its job, but Wooden declined saying he had already given his word to another university.
How many of us would have made the same decision if we had been in his shoes? Times, indeed, have changed, but your word remains the highest valued currency in human relationships. A person of his word has integrity, and integrity will take you a long way in life. Don’t give your word unless you intend to keep it.
In his book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steve Sample urges leaders not to form an opinion about an important matter until all the relevant facts and arguments are in. Anyone who has ever served on a jury knows this, but this principle is applicable in any walk of life.
Leaders are constantly bombarded with arguments on all sides of an issue in an effort to persuade them of a particular point of view. Common sense dictates making a decision only after you’ve heard all the pros and cons. A leader who jumps to a conclusion before hearing all the facts will, more often than not, regret it. Moreover, leaders command a stronger and more loyal organization when their team members know that their opinions will be heard and valued, even if they are contrarian points of view. Avoid the temptation to jump to conclusions before you have all the facts.
Dr. Sample counseled us to become artful listeners–and, I would add, respectful listeners. Too many of those in my profession are so convinced of their monopoly on wisdom that they insist on imparting their opinions and conclusions before anyone else has even had an opportunity to weigh in. In practice, we routinely see legislators badgering witnesses with a fusillade of questions, cutting them off before the witnesses can muster even a sentence in reply, and then criticizing them for evading the question.
Listening can actually allow a leader to learn something from his subordinates. After all, leaders aren’t the only ones with good ideas. In fact, good leaders get their best ideas by keeping an open mind, and open ears, wherever they go.
A collateral benefit of listening to others is that it enables us to see things through their eyes–to walk a mile in their shoes. When you’re negotiating a contract or a peace treaty, the greatest gift a negotiator has is the ability to visualize what’s going through his adversary’s mind. It may actually lead to resolution instead of a dead end; a breakthrough instead of conflict. That’s why Sample writes that artful listening “is not just an asset—it’s a necessity.”
Sample also advised that leaders should surround themselves with people whose skills make up for their own shortcomings. I got similar advice from the late Senator Henry Jackson of Washington at the start of my career. He said, “Zev, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. Anything less is a waste of your time, because you’ll end up doing their work as well as your own.”
Dr. Sample and Coach Wooden both agreed that great leaders give credit to others, but accept the blame themselves. Any leader who fails to grasp this basic principle will not long endure in that leadership role. In any organization, nothing builds confidence in a team, and success in an enterprise, more than the knowledge that the leader will have your back when the going gets tough. People who feel this way about their leader will go to the ends of the earth for him. Those who don’t will do the bare minimum, if that.
Today, you become graduates in communication. An old proverb has it that “the eyes are the window of the soul”–but communication is the essence of your character. How we express ourselves is how we think, and how we think is who we are.
In politics, perception is reality. Our communication literally defines our personas for those we serve, and it’s changed enormously since I first took office. Back in the day, traditional print and broadcast outlets were the only way to get your message out.
Back then, they called me “the master of the 30-second sound-bite,” but today, if you can’t say it in six seconds, you’re out of the story. As media organizations downsize their political coverage, officials and institutions are filling the gap with their own multi-media websites, e-blasts and social media postings.
News consumers access their information on a variety of wireless platforms–podcasts, smart phones and tablets–no longer just radio, television and newspapers. But whatever form it takes, the bottom line remains that communication is transmitted through the voice of the communicator’s character.
You have been trained and taught well here at Annenberg, but as Mark Twain cautioned, “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education.” Today, your schooling is formally completed, and I warmly congratulate you on that outstanding accomplishment. But your real education begins now, as you embark on the next chapter of your lives. As you do so, I wish you an abundance of character and wisdom. Good luck to each and every one of you.