Bonin’s decision not to seek reelection has exposed the unsustainability of LA’s political system.
When I asked Mike Bonin how he responds to criticism from the left, his response was surprising. As opposed to most politicians, who might default to “there’s radicalism on both sides” followed by an appeal for civility, Bonin was instead self-reflective.
“In my first couple years, when I got hit from the left, it bothered me a lot,” he said. “Probably because in a different universe, I’d be the one throwing that volley at an election official.”
Bonin was involved with activist circles throughout college and lived through the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic. He told me he rereads And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts every few years.
“It really talks about how the medical establishment and the public health establishment and the gay leadership all failed,” he told me. “And the only people who had their heads on straight — well, pardon the expression — were the activists from ACT UP who were booing at cops, who were throwing condoms on the floor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. They were angry, they were frustrated, they were demanding attention, and God damn it, they were right. And so it always sucks when somebody yells at you, it always sucks when somebody calls you a name. But I’ve tried to think, what is the frustration about? What is the issue about? What are we not doing? What are we missing?”
Bonin’s candidness is probably in part because he has nothing to lose. A few weeks ago, the CD 11 councilmember announced that he would not be seeking reelection in 2022.
Bonin is difficult not to like — he’s sincere, he’s principled, and he’s mostly tried to do the right thing during his nearly 10 years in office. But as much as we want our public officials to be heroes, no one is actually George Bailey, although it certainly feels like Bonin’s absence will have the same catastrophic consequences as the It’s A Wonderful Life protagonist’s absence did in Bedford Falls.
However, this is arguably not Bonin’s fault when you look at how Los Angeles city government is structured. New York City has 51 councilmembers, Chicago has 50, and Los Angeles tasks 15 people with representing a population just shy of 4 million. I asked Bonin whether he felt the consolidation of power in LA impedes his ability to enact change.
“The fact that councilmembers are supposed to represent a quarter of a million people each is a little crazy,” he told me. “To do good government, you need to have a system that allows you as an elected official to be more in touch with a greater percentage of your constituents … It’s a struggle in this job just to physically be in every neighborhood I represent on a monthly basis.”
Bonin has done what can fairly be deemed “good government.” He’s been instrumental in pushing for progressive legislation in Los Angeles. He’s obtained minimum wage hikes, he’s supported fracking moratoriums, and he’s consistently voted against 41.18 enforcement. There is also his less measurable impact: He’s been open about aspects of his past that most politicians would avoid discussing.
“I have an opportunity in public life to share my story so that someone else who is out there struggling with it can find someone else to identify with it,” he said. “Growing up gay in a conservative small town back when I did, it would have been so much easier if I had public figures that I could identify with.”
Yet, with Bonin stepping down, there’s a question of whether he enacted long-term change. Rollbacks of progressive policy have been happening on a local and national level in the United States for decades. From Reagan and Clinton’s steady deregulation of Wall Street to the encroaching threat to Roe V. Wade, it is apparent progress is nonlinear in American politics and often hinges on the decisions of a handful of people. By Bonin’s assessment, this issue is particularly egregious in LA.
“I’ll take homelessness as an example,” he said. “There’s 15 city councilmembers. There’s a mayor. There’s a handful of LAHSA commissioners. There’s five county supervisors. There is no one who’s in charge of responding to the homelesness crisis. There is no one who has the ability to make sure we’re all growing in the same direction … That’s just one example. The thing that’s wacky in LA, if you talk to somebody who’s from another part of the country, they are shocked to discover the city and the school district and — in some places — the water district and the air quality control district are all separate things who just get to point at each other saying, ‘Not my responsibility.’”
Since Bonin announced he’s stepping down, there has been some chatter in progressive circles about whether Bonin himself is eschewing responsibility. Yet, Mike Bonin’s story is not about whether he owes us another term. The real question is whether it’s sustainable that a single individual wields so much power at all.
“Nothing is going to be solved from a top-down level.”
While Bonin told me he’s “never been a typical politician,” some would contest that statement. Peggy Lee Kennedy has a more nuanced take on Bonin’s legacy, although she says Bonin was historically “less of a politician and more the person behind the politician.”
An organizer for the Venice Justice Committee, Kennedy witnessed the impacts of gentrification firsthand and sports an impressive breadth of knowledge of lesser-known LA history. When we spoke on the phone, she rattled off court cases and city ordinances from memory as I scrambled to take notes. Kennedy told me she “likes [Bonin],” but knows more about the historical context of his tenure than the average Angeleno. Specifically, she remembers Bonin’s stint as chief of staff to the late Bill Rosendahl.
“A huge amount of the development and the loss of affordable housing happened during the Rosendahl-Bonin era,” she said. “Part of it was circumventing the Mello Act.”
The Mello Act dates back to 1982, when it was adopted into the California State Legislature to help increase affordable housing in the California Coastal Zone. The act prohibits removing residential dwellings for non-coastal-dependent or non-coastal- related uses. In other words, only properties that must be near the ocean to function can warrant the destruction of residential property.
Kennedy’s mother was part of the Venice Town Council, which filed a lawsuit in 1996 over lax Mello Act enforcement. The suit led to a 2000 settlement theoretically strengthening the ordinance. The city adopted a number of interim procedures to ensure properties subject to Mello Act regulations were properly vetted, but developers have a way of bypassing these types of legal protections. In this case, the workaround was California Coastal Commission (CCC) Waivers and Venice Sign-Offs (VSOs).
Both CCC waivers and VSOs allow developers to build without a Coastal Development Permit. Obtaining a permit is a complex process that includes, among other things, a public hearing, granting residents an opportunity to contest a proposed project. Only the most minor development projects ostensibly qualify for the waivers, but Kennedy sent me documentation dating back to 2012 illustrating just how liberally the city hands them out.
While neither Rosendahl or Bonin were directly responsible, Kennedy felt they could have done more to counteract the quasi-legal waivers.
To his credit, bolstering the Mello Act has been one of Bonin’s biggest priorities in recent years. He filed a motion in 2020 that proposed using the interim procedures as a starting point to both strengthen the Mello Act and make it a permanent part of city code.
Kennedy conceded that Bonin — despite having been somewhat complacent under Rosendahl — came around later in his career, particularly during the 2016 elections, when he endorsed Bernie Sanders and started communicating more with leftist organizations throughout LA. However, to Kennedy, Bonin’s pivot felt like too little too late.
“Now in 2021, you want to make [the Mello Act] stronger?” she said. “If you wanted to save that affordable housing, they should have stopped that shit back then.”
Like many, Kennedy was floored when Bonin dropped out, and also wished he had done more during his time in office.
“Bonin might not have been able to turn Venice around, stop the hyper-gentrification and total hate that has and is wrecking,” she said. “But he should’ve fought like hell. He didn’t.”
Determining what fighting like hell would look like from inside City Council is a tenuous task, however, and one that made me remember Bonin’s description of the convoluted allocation of power in LA. Bitta Sharma, an organizer from Mar Vista Voice and LA Neighbors to Neighbors, shared similar sentiments about the ineffective nature of electoral politics.
“Nothing is going to be solved from a top-down level,” Sharma told me. “I think the problem in this city — and it extends to every problem, but is most visible in the homelessness crisis — is that we have a super weak mayor and we have these strong, overly powerful City Council districts. They have far too much power. We have far too few seats.”
Sharma talked to me about Project Roomkey and its limitations, among other hiccups in Bonin’s encampments-to-homes initiatives. When I asked her if she has any specific criticism of Bonin, she told me, “If I were to fault Bonin, I would say, ‘You did what you could do, you stuck your neck out, you did Encampment to Home in Venice, but what does that mean when there’s no home on the flip side?’ You’re moving people into hotels, but those hotels are not a long-term solution.”
However, Sharma did not blame Bonin — at least not entirely — for these issues. A combination of limited resources, right-wing pushback, and unclear distribution of power have all made it difficult to create long-term solutions.
Sharma notes Bonin’s power comes mainly from the fact he can — and mostly has — refrained from enforcing 41.18 in his district, something that added fuel to a failed recall effort and led to acrimonious pushback. Bonin told me he’s been publicly harassed by opponents. He and his eight-year-old son were accosted at a local farmers market, and he has dealt with protesters chanting “white lives matter!” outside his home.
“[Bonin] was pushing to buy hotels,” Sharma said. “He has pushed so hard for permanent housing in Venice and look what’s happened there. It doesn’t matter what someone like Bonin does. NIMBYs are going to fight it and fight it and fight it … There needs to be some czar that basically says, ‘There are this many homeless people in your district, and we are going to make permanent solutions, and you can’t fight it.’”
Talking to Sharma, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend regarding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez has received harsh criticism in recent years, much of which I think is fair. Lionizing even well-intentioned public figures stymies important conversations, but a system that saddles so few with so much seems designed to fail, especially when even minuscule reforms have horrific consequences.
“AOC barely even did anything,” my friend said, “and look how her opponents reacted — they tried to kill her.” She was referencing the January 6 uprising at the Capitol, an event that has put unimaginable stress on elected officials nationwide. If this is the response we get from minor reform, what kind of reaction would radical change yield? And is it fair to expect anyone to martyr themselves for a cause?
“All [Bonin] can do is choose whether or not to cause harm and he’s chosen not to cause harm,” Sharma said, “and that has cost him his sanity. And that’s so sad.”
The Mental Toll of Politics
“I was an activist before I was an elected official,” Bonin told me. “I did a lot of activism during college and in my 20s back in the ’80s. The idea of self-care wasn’t something that people paid much attention to — either needing to take care of yourself or tolerating others in the movement taking care of themselves. I think it is a tremendous sign of progress and maturity that the left here in Los Angeles has such a high regard and respect for people needing to do self-care in order to be stronger and better and more useful to the cause.”
Ashley Weinberg — a psychology lecturer at the University of Salford and founding chair of the British Psychology Society’s political psychology section — agreed that self-care is important in government. We spoke via email after I found a Washington Post article he wrote about the mental toll of the January 6 insurrection.
“Ultimately, it is important to remember that politicians are human, too,” he told me. “People doing a job, under considerable pressure, and reacting as humans often do.”
Bonin has received considerable praise for being frank about his mental health struggles, which he discussed at length in a Twitter video shortly after announcing his decision not to seek reelection. Bonin seems to be doing better emotionally now — he’s energetic, enthusiastic. He has called himself “the happiest man in LA” in more than one article, a phrase he used with me over the phone.
He is well within his right to prioritize his own well-being, even if his departure will have substantial consequences. But the nature of LA’s government system itself likely exacerbates his present level of burnout. I asked Weinberg whether representative democracy takes a uniquely harsh toll on mental health.
“Democracy was founded on the principle of every citizen having a say in some way,” he said, “yet you are right, as the current systems mean relatively few are attempting to represent thousands of individuals effectively.”
There is also the issue of politically fueled violence, an increasingly common daily concern for political figures.
“Legitimate criticism is part of the necessary process of accountability that comes with a public role,” Weinberg said. “However, when this criticism turns to threats of violence, rape, and death, things reach a different level, and this sadly is becoming more common.”
Bonin is human, and doing a job under tremendous pressure. He is certainly not above criticism, but assessing his legacy in terms of whether he was a net good misses the larger question: Does our current system work? Politicians sometimes make bad decisions or fail to act fast enough or, as Bonin has, run out of steam. Spreading so few people so thin puts us all in a precarious position.
The Future Depends on More Than 15 People
When a well-liked public figure steps down, there’s accompanying concern about sanitizing their legacy. Hero worship can make us myopic to the flaws of those we admire, but the more dangerous issue here is that we need a hero at all. That a single person’s actions, good or bad, have this much sway over a city of 3.9 million is unsustainable.
Still, I left my conversation with Bonin somewhat optimistic. I vented to a friend about my concern that Bonin’s good work would be eroded, and he suggested that I was guilty of outcome bias. That is, I was evaluating Bonin’s departure based on its potential results rather than the quality of the decision itself.
When Bonin brought up people screaming “white lives matter!” outside his home, I thought about the day activists showed up outside Nury Martinez’s house to demand she use FEMA funds to shelter unhoused residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that And The Band Played On keeps Bonin grounded shows me he understands there is a measurable difference between these two actions. Those outside Martinez’s home were angry, and frustrated, and demanding attention, but — God damn it — they were right.
I asked Bonin what he planned to do next and he sounded excited and genuinely happy — maybe the happiest man in LA. Over the next 10 months, he hopes to push more aggressively for progressive reform, but what he’s looking forward to more is what comes next.
“I have a sense of creative energy about figuring out another way to get involved in the issues and fights that I care about,” he told me. “There’s certainly more than 15 people in Los Angeles who steer the direction of the city. I’m going to stay active and I’m going to stay engaged. I’m going to write. I’m going to advocate. I’m going to agitate.”
The word “agitate” made me tentatively hopeful. Change will likely not come from the top down. In not seeking reelection, maybe Bonin will have a bigger impact than he ever could have in City Hall.