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Why Won’t Politicians Own Their Stories?

Updated: Mar 15, 2023


The already-infamous leaked recording of a toxic conversation between three sitting members of the L.A. City Council and a labor leader revealed deep-rooted hostilities and flagrant racism. It came on the heels of federal indictments of other (now deposed) city council members and sexual-harassment scandals at the mayor’s office. You don’t have to be a close observer of the shenanigans at City Hall to realize that the place is a hot mess.


Imagine how things might have turned out if, after the recording was leaked, just one of the Despicable Three council members had the imagination and the self-awareness to respond to reality and take ownership of their stories. Not to make themselves the heroes or victims of their stories—which both Martinez (in her non-apology resignation letter) and De Leon (on his non-resignation apology tour) managed to do. But to admit to their grave missteps and turn the moment into one of introspection. Not redemption, necessarily, but at least a meaningful shot at it.


Think what a different position De Leon would be in now if he had been the first to resign, the one public servant willing to take responsibility for their actions, and urged the others to do the same. Imagine if he had immediately said:


"I am ashamed of what I said, and what I didn’t say, on that awful recording, and yet the proof is undeniable that it is me—the worst part of what I had allowed myself to become. I lost my way and fell into a trap of perceived grievances and slights. I know that the person who once fought for the undocumented and for a better life for teachers is still within me. I will do better. That’s why I’m stepping aside to make space for those who come next, and to get back to the roots of what propelled me here to begin with: helping people on the grassroots level who are struggling."

Why are folks so reluctant to publicly admit they made a mistake, to own that mistake, and to move on? The brilliant comedian Leslie Jones talked about this on a recent episode of Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. “People are not falling down,” Jones said on the podcast. “You need to fall down so you can get back up.” O’Brien agreed, saying, “Nobody says anymore, ‘Alright, I was wrong’….In my personal life, if anybody says, ‘I made a mistake and I’m sorry,’ I think that person is a genius.”


 

I have been feeling a similar way about the tight mayor’s race. We are less than a week away from a consequential election day—not just for the future of democracy (and admittedly, that’s a big one), but for the future of Los Angeles. Why won't mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso own the thornier parts of their stories? They could turn those stories into ones of personal growth, the opening of one’s eyes to the consequences of what one advocates for and believes, and how you change course in light of those consequences. Smart companies are doing this more and more. It can be as simple as: We made a mistake. Or as complex as: We’ve evolved. If you don’t go that route and stick to denial, aren’t you following the Trump playbook?


In my (naive no doubt, but I hold out hope) fantasy scenario, starting with Karen Bass, this is how it could play out: The congresswoman has an exemplary record of community service, with an inspired background story and an undeniable commitment to activism and the greater good for this city. What if she finally owned up that her free USC master’s degree—actual value, $95,000—doesn’t pass the smell test and that it was a terrible misjudgment on her part. Imagine if she says—and she could do this, like, today:


"I’ve done some soul searching and realize now that it was a bad idea to accept free tuition from USC, the biggest private employer in my district, which at the time was seeking money from Washington. I don't care that the House Committee on Ethics approved it. It was a conflict of interest and I regret that I didn’t see it clearly then. That money should have gone to a needy student—in my district. And that is why I will pay it forward: I am announcing the establishment of the Karen Bass Scholarship for Social Work at USC. Five worthy students will receive $20,000 a piece to use toward their higher education...”


She’d flip the script and give voters something they rarely hear—a sincere apology, and a willingness to make amends. She’d stop giving her opponent fodder for another mailbox flier (mine has overflowed with mentions of the USC matter from Caruso’s camp), and she’d move on. And I’m guessing she could even hit up longtime supporter Jeffrey Katzenberg to cover that scholarship if she doesn’t have the dough.

As for Caruso, he, too, needs to own his story, and I have a closer-up view on this: My husband, Ed Leibowitz, spent months with Caruso when he profiled the developer for Los Angeles magazine. At the time, I was the executive editor of the magazine (my boss had assigned Ed the story), but I heard plenty about Ed’s time with Caruso. Later, as editor-in-chief, I had many encounters with Caruso, whose company advertised with the magazine. In fact, the Social Impact page of the Caruso website features an old quote from me saying how much I admire his work with civic organizations, which I do. Whether I think outspending your opponent 13-to-1 with your own Grove and Americana dollars is playing fair in a mayoral race is another matter.


In Ed’s profile, he notes that Caruso “says he opposes abortion in most cases but would support some stem cell research.” That one sentence has been thrown in Caruso’s face at several debates, and Caruso has denied it. The story was thoroughly fact checked, it was published in the magazine, and Caruso never asked for a correction or a clarification. (There were a few biographical details that Caruso explicitly asked Ed not to include in the piece, but he did anyway, and again, no complaints.) In fact, I had several pleasant and congenial encounters with Caruso after publication and no asked-for retractions ever emerged.


I haven’t spoken to Caruso in years, but in my fantasy scenario, part two, this is how it plays out: Rick Caruso’s thinking has evolved. Roe vs. Wade was overturned, he has a 22-year-old daughter, and he may hold the same personal religious beliefs he did years ago, but he has seen the dangers when politicians impose those beliefs on an entire society. So he says:


"I’m a devout Catholic. I own my previous beliefs, but I also acknowledge that we evolve as humans. I left the Republican party because my faith no longer aligns with its values; similarly, my opinion on abortion has changed. I do not want the lives of women endangered, and the overturning of Roe vs. Wade opened my eyes to that possibility. This is a decision to be made by a woman and her partner and, if applicable, her faith. Not by me or any government agency."


Wouldn’t owning these two recurring storylines eliminate them as plot points and provide Bass and Caruso space to discuss what really matters in Los Angeles: the humanitarian crisis of homelessness and the dire need for affordable housing; the growing economic gaps between the haves and have nots; the rise in violent crime; an infrastructure that hasn’t adapted with the way we now live, or the demands we must meet to combat climate change (more bike lanes, improved bus and rail service, walkable and safe streets, etc.); the decline in public school funding and enrollment; the dumpster fire that is an unchecked City Hall…the list goes on.


Owning your story gives you control of your story. It doesn’t show weakness, it shows strength. The future of the city is being written today, and I hope its authors tell it truthfully.


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