West Hollywood held its biannual election this March. Up for election in this cycle were two long-serving incumbents (John Heilman – 26 years and Abbe Land 18 years) and an appointed incumbent (Lindsey Horvath 1.5 years). In all but one of the past elections since the city’s founding in 1984, the incumbents have won handily, taking turns rotating through the Mayor’s seat on a one-year term basis. This year, however, would be different.
Many of us in West Hollywood (and across the country) believe this month’s election was a game changer, about much more than the 1.9 square miles of land surrounded by the cities of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. For us, this election was about how West Hollywood as a “transformational space” continues to play a role in the lives of people who invite openness, honesty and fullness into their lives. And how it is important to name that space and to keep that space as a living idea in the face of competing and collusional forces.
West Hollywood has a long history (much longer than the short 26-year cityhood history) of supporting people who were interested in a transformational experience. Whether it was drinkers looking for speakeasies in the 1930s, architects exploring modernism in the 1940s, leaders of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis looking for early members in the 1950s, immigrants from the (former) Soviet Union looking for freedoms in the 70s and 80s, renters looking for rent control, rock-n-rollers looking to find the beat, hippies looking for nirvana, decorators looking for the perfect chintz, or LGBT people looking for their fullest selves, or, or, or… Our West Hollywood, the named place, owned that identity and that promise. But in recent years the city began to purposefully drift away from that identity towards more counter-counter-culture ideas of suburbanization and displacement as a part of the narrative.
In the winter of 2009/2010, I came to believe that our West Hollywood was suffering from a mis-remembering of the future. Many of us didn’t recognize our city anymore and didn’t see ourselves reflected in the decisions of the current city council. And we didn’t like where the city was heading.
There was a sense in the community that the entire city was for sale — that the old ideas of “take creative risks” and “anything goes” had been replaced with “$15 martinis” and “No Parking Anytime.” For the first time, there was an “inside” and an “outside.” There was no room in the discussion for the possibility that the City could be better, that maybe the city leaders, committed to their own political success, had run out of ideas and that we were failing ourselves.
Earlier in 2009, after a long-serving incumbent passed away, the council leadership handpicked his successor. The totalizing effect of appointing his replacement (instead of holding an election) broadcast a message that there was no use in challenging the status quo –- it was going to be maintained at all costs — even if it no longer reflected the original goals and ideals of West Hollywood as a place of infinite opportunity with a thriving democracy.
I took a very public stand against the continuation of the entrenchment –- insisting on a change at the very top to allow for new room at all levels. And the local media, much of it on-line, with the help of many local residents, began to ask a series of public questions about the direction and purpose of the city. It was clear that there was much daylight between the current council and the residents and it was brightening.
In my own campaign, I borrowed a page from Hannah Arendt and opted for a dynamic public “space of appearances” to map a path towards a reframing of the future. I was interested in producing a purposeful subjectivity that would allow for an increase in dialogue and an increase in visibility of the questions of openness, transformation and identity.
“A campaign of attraction” — is what I called it. A campaign that would appeal to our better selves to open up and rehearse the future with more opportunity, not less; more engagement in the ideas of creativity and passion, not less; and more sensitivity to our maintenance of West Hollywood as an actual non-profane space.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the other challengers. We never attacked each other, but instead worked on the furtherance of our ideas of opportunity. My campaign did not produce a single negative piece of campaign material. I always focused on the possibility, not the lack. And I never let up. In every conversation, I highlighted how we as a city had more opportunities than we were seeing or were being shown and had forfeited our best options in the recent past. If we were to reelect the current council members, running as a three-vote slate, we were de facto agreeing to further limit dialogue.
And I brought that message to the people. I planted lawn signs everywhere residents would have them and I knocked on everything with an address. I Facebooked and e-mailed and Tweeted. I walked the city with friends, family and volunteers, meeting everyone I passed and asking them to take a chance on improving our city, not to return to the good old days, but to invest again in West Hollywood, to open it up again as a place where many new waves of people could arrive to transform their lives and ours.
I refined my message over time, insisting that “bigger, faster, louder West Hollywood had to stop,” and told everyone that I was on a “non-incumbent diet” and that “the incumbents can take care of themselves. We need to take care of West Hollywood.”
And people responded, resoundingly.
I am very humbled and honored to have won. Electoral democracy; the campaigning, the messaging, the voting — it all adds up. And I am confident that this election was never about me so much as it was about the idea that West Hollywood really is a place that means something.