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Madeline Janis Headshot

Time to Be Proud of What We Stand for

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As a local public official, I'm often accused of being an advocate for "special interests."

I serve on the board of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, the city agency charged with creating jobs, fostering development, and revitalizing Los Angeles neighborhoods. I also serve as the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a nonprofit advocacy organization that seeks to build a new economy for all.

Last month, the editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal criticized me for representing "special interests" in my capacity on the CRA board. The specific controversy that triggered his column was the city's proposed investment of $30 million in a new private museum in downtown Los Angeles. Before I agreed to vote yes (which I eventually did), I insisted that the developer provide community benefits, such as guaranteeing that at least 30% of good paying, career path construction jobs go to low income Angelenos. The Business Journal called my insistence on these conditions a "stick up."

This criticism isn't new. Since joining the CRA board in 2002, I've become used to this label.

Well, it's time to come clean. I plead guilty. I represent special interests.

That's right, I am an unapologetic advocate for interests who stand to gain from my position as an appointed volunteer public official for the City of Los Angeles.

Before anyone picks up the phone and calls the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, I should clarify one thing: the special interests I support are rather large in number and might be surprised to find out that they are seen as special interests at all.

In fact, the people whose interests I work to protect are L.A. County's 3.7 million low-income taxpayers and residents, who don't have lobbyists and who mostly can't take time off from work to attend public meetings.

In the brave new world invented by those who cry "conflict of interest" whenever those at the bottom try to lay claim to the promise of the American Dream, they are labeled "special interests," as if they were no different than BP or Goldman Sachs.

That doesn't make any sense.

When I was appointed to the CRA Board of Commissioners by our mayor, I took seriously its mission: to "make strategic investments to create economic opportunity and improve the quality of life for the people who live and work in our neighborhoods."

That's exactly what I thought I was doing last month when I insisted that City funding for the proposed museum be linked to community benefits. In doing so, I wasn't picking on this one developer. I believe that if taxpayers are going to subsidize private businesses, the projects should serve the public interest. Period. End of story.

Economic development agencies such as the CRA are charged with doing their part to realize the great American vision of a society built on good jobs, thriving communities and a healthy environment. But too often, public officials subsidize developments without considering these goals. In fact, with billions of dollars in federal stimulus money being distributed through local and state governments, there is increasing pressure on local officials -- elected and appointed -- to move quickly to approve job-creating projects without any clear standards, such as decent pay.

When local public officials, community, union and environmental leaders insist that businesses receiving this taxpayer money create good jobs, affordable housing, and a healthy environment, they are tarred with the same label as I was. They represent "special interests;" they are "killing jobs," they are hurting the local "business climate" -- anything and everything to divert attention from the fact that we are -- in fact -- representing the public's interest.

We can disagree over how we get there. But the notion of an economy that works for everyone is fundamental to our shared values. It is -- in my view -- the foundation of a healthy economy.

In the world of policy making, we try to find the best tools to fulfill our core mission. In my mind, that means enacting policies that require businesses who seek government funds and approvals to balance private profit and public good. They are not incompatible, as we've demonstrated many times in Los Angeles and elsewhere. But this balance will only happen if government officials insist on it.

Critics of such policies sometimes say that these "community benefit" standards are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to strengthen local unions -- which, along with low-income taxpayers and residents, are cavalierly classified as special interests.

I don't work for a union, but I've looked at the facts. Union jobs almost always offer better pay, better benefits and better conditions than non-union jobs, Moreover, unions are good for the overall economy.. For example, a recent study by the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research group, found that union workers in Los Angeles County earn 27 percent more than non-union workers in the same jobs. The increased wages for the approximately 800,000 union workers adds $7.2 billion a year in pay. These workers spend their wages on food, clothing, child care, car and home repairs, and other items. As a result, their buying power created 307,200 jobs -- 64,800 more jobs than would have been created if these workers did not earn union wages.

Studies also reveal that unions play an important role in reducing economic, racial, and gender inequality, lifting the poor into the middle class, helping families secure the basics of a middle-class society (sending kids to college, owning a home, taking a yearly vacation). and making workplaces and consumer products safer.

So if you really believe in economic opportunity, creating more union jobs is a no brainer.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in this belief. There is a growing Federation of groups in 18 cities around the country -- called the Partnership for Working Families -- that works closely with public officials in major metropolitan regions to advocate for the "special interests" of both impoverished communities and the general public.

That's why I believe that it's time for public officials around the country to stand up strongly for what we believe in. Good jobs, thriving communities, a healthy environment can all be achieved in this country if we raise our hands and admit that we really do care about the working poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the general middle income public; that we are ready, willing and able to make the hard choices to regulate and otherwise hold businesses accountable to our vision of the American dream, where poverty and hardship are replaced by shared prosperity.

That's my special interest and I'm proud of it.