Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ handling of the Interstate 10 fire and shutdown helped telegraph some of her strengths. As authorities search for a potential arson suspect, the speculation about nearby encampments served as a reminder of the bigger task the mayor faces.
The morning rush hour in Los Angeles is rarely the stuff of good news, but that’s exactly what it was on Monday. The Santa Monica Freeway, the main connector across downtown L.A., reopened for traffic just before the morning commute over a week after a fire scorched its support columns below.
Initial estimates suggested it could take as long as five weeks to repair Interstate 10, but less than 10 days later, it was open for commuters.
For Mayor Karen Bass, less than a year into her term, this was a first brush with crisis and a clear, well-managed win. Jon Regardie, a veteran observer of Los Angeles government and politics, called Bass’ work “excellent during what amounts to her first unexpected test as mayor.”
She did many things right. Officials estimated a month or more to reopen the freeway, and she came in ahead of time – it’s always better to be early than late. She was visible and available for questions, underscoring her promises of transparency. She put her image and reputation on the line, so the rapid success became her success, though she was happy to share credit with the other leaders and agencies involved.
She credited the quick work to “urgent action at all levels of government,” and managed to boast nimbly, not using her own name but broadly including herself as among those deserving credit.
“When we work together,” she posted on Sunday, “nothing can stop Los Angeles.”
Bass’ handling of the freeway fire and shutdown helped telegraph some of her great strengths. She prides herself on being able to bring state and federal attention to Los Angeles. She boasts helpful contacts in Sacramento and Washington D.C. She also argues that her experience in both those governments can work to Los Angeles’ benefit.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom were both there on Sunday to announce that the freeway would fully reopen the following day. It was a picture-perfect demonstration of Bass’ argument.
Within hours of the freeway fire, Bass had reached out to those officials and others. They responded with resources, including money, and they were happy to join her for the win.
As President John F. Kennedy once archly observed, “victory has 100 fathers.”
Bass is not the first Los Angeles mayor to extract political mileage from a freeway repair. This week’s events evoked memories of Mayor Richard Riordan’s achievement in 1994 when the same freeway, a few miles to the west, collapsed in the Northridge earthquake. Riordan leapt on that crisis and worked with Sacramento and Washington, especially newish President Bill Clinton, to establish himself as a nonpartisan problem-solver. Sixty-six days later, the freeway was repaired.
In a city where traffic is a daily preoccupation, It became known to some as Riordan’s “shining moment.”
Bass’ brush with the 10 Freeway gives her yet another laurel, establishing her bona fides as an executive rather than as the legislator she was through most of her career. From the moment it became clear that a major regional artery was going to be severed, she was visible, creative and energetic. She was at the scene and surveying the impact from a helicopter. She took public transportation to work. She rolled out proposals to help businesses disrupted by the closure and diverted traffic. She counseled commuters to consult the city’s regular updates and stayed in front of the problem, rather than responding to complaints.
All of that projected a practical leader, one in tune with residents, businesses and commuters. She treated this as a real-life emergency, not an abstract matter for analysis and legislation. Skeptics who wondered during last year’s mayoral campaign whether she was short on executive experience – her rival, businessman Rick Caruso, touted his background in that area – were treated to a vivid demonstration of her capacity as a leader.
Since the fire brought down the freeway, Bass has proved that she is more than an ideologue or policy maven. She’s a manager.
There is a darker side to all this. While the exact cause of the fire remains undetermined, authorities believe it was arson and have released photographs of a person of interest wanted in connection with it. But the area where the fire broke out has long been the site of homeless encampments, a fact that caused some critics, in their reflexive attacks, to suggest that Democratic strategies on homelessness were to blame for the fire itself.
That’s ridiculous, of course – evidence of the decline in intelligent debate rather than an actual critique of the situation. But there’s truth to the idea that homeless encampments are a threat – indeed, that’s precisely why Bass’ homeless strategy has focused on eliminating those camps. Encampments are dangerous for those who live there and for others, too. They attract drugs and crime. They’re often located beneath freeway overpasses. And they are the types of places where fires can get out of hand.
Bass does not dispute any of that and has warned against the assumption, but this fire is a reminder that her biggest task is not to fix a freeway. It’s to fundamentally reshape a deep-seated problem – one that touches dazzlingly complex issues of inequality, criminal justice, mental health and addiction, just to name a few components.
Crises such as a freeway collapse or fire are taxing, to be sure. They require swift work from agencies more accustomed to long plans and creativity from officials more comfortable with rules and regulations. Making a government do anything fast is hard, and Bass did just that.
Even harder, though, is moving a government – or many governments – through a very long and complicated campaign, dotted with distractions, mistakes and changing players. A blitz of state or federal support will not put more than 46,000 unhoused Angelenos into warm places to sleep tonight. Only sustained, patient effort will nibble away at drug addiction. And as for poverty and inequality, those crises have confounded philosophers, radicals and kings.
Bass has proven that she can rise to a crisis, and she deserves credit for doing so. Bringing thousands of unhoused Angelenos inside, reorienting their lives and returning some measure of human decency to America’s second-largest city is the bigger challenge.
That work continues, and it will define Bass’ tenure.
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