Elections Reflections Part One: “The Torrance Way”

Shortly after making it known that I was running for City Council I became aware of a concept that is common vernacular within the Torrance political establishment, but that was previously foreign to me.  This concept is the “Torrance Way.”  I’ve since heard it described as many things such as a certain pride in maintaining a hometown feel, a desire to uphold Torrance’s vision of a well-balanced city, or even an administrative preference for hiring within.  I’m still not sure what the “Torrance Way” is exactly, but I do know what it felt like as a candidate running for City Council. The best way I can describe it is a well cultivated culture of “insiders” and “outsiders.”  I have lived in Torrance for seven years and I never felt like an “outsider” here until I decided to run for City Council. Let me explain.

You see, unbeknownst to me prior to this experience, according to the “Torrance Way” there are certain unwritten qualifications that a candidate for the Council is supposed to have before you are embraced within the insider circle – needless to say I didn’t meet any of them.  First, you are supposed to have been born and raised in Torrance.   An oft quoted credential of Mr. Rizzo’s for example was the fact that he has lived in the same Southwood home he was born in nearly 60 years ago.  How long have you lived in Torrance was a common question at our forums as if you have to live here a certain number of years before you can be trusted.  I’m still not sure exactly how many years that is.  Is 30 years sufficient?  What about 20 or 15?  If anyone can enlighten me, I would surely appreciate it.

Second, as evidenced by the current council that has an average age of at least 65, there is strong preference for retirees or “near” retirees.  I must admit that when I looked up the council for the first time I was struck by the fact that in a city as culturally diverse as Torrance that we are led primarily by, hmm how should I say this, white men of a mature age. The notion here is that retirees have the requisite experience and time on their hands to properly attend to the affairs of the city. I don’t disagree with that, but what is lost in that argument is that the Torrance Councilmember position was intentionally designed to be part-time to purposely allow for people with full-time jobs to fill the position.  Thus, in my view the unwritten preference for retirees only serves to deter those with full-time jobs from running for the office thereby promoting a certain well-seasoned “insider” demographic to the position.

Third, you need experience.  Indeed, the key criteria one must have to become a Torrance insider is to gain experience. When I say experience in this context, I don’t mean professional, educational, or even volunteer experience. According to the “Torrance Way” it matters little if you’re a CEO of a successful corporation, built your own small business, run a successful non-profit, or if you went to Yale or Harvard. The only thing that really matters when it comes to experience is if you have followed the appropriate path by serving on a city commission. You can start out of course by volunteering in various organizations the “Torrance Way” deems less important such as the various HOA’s, the PTA, AYSO, the Torrance Ed Foundation, etc, but it’s the commission experience that counts. And if you really want to become an “insider” then not only do you need to serve on a commission, but you need to work your way up to serving on the powerful Planning Commission. Once on the Planning Commission, your “insider” status is confirmed and you are free to make the jump to the City Council.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I believe the “Torrance Way” has its merits and there is nothing wrong with gaining the experience I have described. That said, I am concerned about the culture of “insiders” and “outsiders” the “Torrance Way” seems to have created. What I don’t think many residents realize is that the City Council controls all commission appointments. This not only allows them to groom “insider” successors, but perhaps more importantly gives them the power to ensure “outsiders” stay on the outside. What I found troubling during this past election is that the quickest way to find yourself off the insider path is to criticize any decision made by the current “insiders” in power. The next quickest way is to openly deviate from the “insider” message that all is well in Torrance and that the “status quo” should be maintained. This results in a culture of cronyism, political favors, and “yes men” candidates who are loathe to challenge the powers that be. Another troubling aspect of all this is that “insider” candidates, especially those on the Planning Commission, become embedded with powerful local political interests, such as developers and unions, that may not always have the best interests of the Torrance community in mind.

The results of this past election were telling. The 16 candidates were, for the most part, divided into two camps of eight “insiders” and eight “outsiders.” The platforms of the majority of the “insider” candidates could be summed up almost entirely by their “experience” and the lengthy list of “insider” endorsements they had accumulated.  What candidates actually thought about the issues facing Torrance seemed to matter very little.  In the end, the insiders dominated the election and ran the table by taking the top eight positions. Not one “outsider” candidate was able to beat even one other “insider” candidate. The insiders supported by the unions did especially well taking the mayoral slot and the top five council positions.  What this says about the future of Torrance remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain the “Torrance Way” is alive and well and continues to dominate Torrance politics.

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