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Citizen Kaye

Hillel Aron |
April 10, 2010 | 12:29 p.m. PDT

Senior Editor

Ron and Bruno, L.A.'s watchdog

Ron Kaye steers his silver 2003 Mercury Sable down Friar Street, one of those Woodland Hills side streets with speed bumps but no stop signs. We could be anywhere in the San Fernando Valley north of Ventura Boulevard. We could be anywhere in the country.

"This is heaven!" Ron exclaims, apropos of nothing. "I feel like a billionaire. I mean, a swimming pool? Who could ask for anything more?"

It's hard to overstate just how improbable it is that Ron Kaye, who dreamed of a life as a muckraking foreign correspondent, who once drove to Belize in a Volkswagen bus, who organized a union strike against Rupert Murdoch in Australia, who lived in an ashram in Florida, should find himself not only living in San Fernando Valley, but holding the title of perhaps its greatest champion. 

Having spent much of his life fighting with bosses, he now finds himself in the curious position of having no boss. While no one would have ever accused him of being soft-spoken when he was editor of the Daily News, the Internet has liberated Ron, as it has with many other life-long journalists (see: Roger Ebert). His mission, however, remains unchanged: the perhaps quixotic attempt to save Los Angeles from itself.

"L.A. is in a profound crisis," says Ron. "My argument is that it's not a financial crisis, it's a spiritual crisis."

Ron frames the local political scene as some lurid, post-modern neo-noir tale. Mayor Villaraigosa is corrupt. The City Council is corrupt. The Department of Water and Power is exceptionally corrupt. They're idiots too. He calls Councilman Dennis Zine "a complete schmuck" and Janice Hahn "the dumbest person in LA."
Ron says it's nothing personal. It's strictly business.
"My blog attempts to create illusions, and pressures, and phantoms and propagandas. To make stories interesting, you need heroes and villains. But there are no real bad people. When the system itself is such an evolved form of moral corruption, people say, 'I do what I can.' They're just incrementally selling out."
Most people seem to take Ron's criticism in stride.
"I support the goals that Ron is trying to accomplish," says Councilman Zine. "He wants a government that's responsive and effective."
(When I tell him that Ron has described the City Council as "prattling mindlessly" and ask him if he thinks that's accurate, he replies, "Not mindlessly.")
"He's a 68-year-old liberated guy, doing what he wants to do, unabashed in his abilty to say things" says Councilman Bill Rosendahl. "He doesn't mince words."
The fact is that Ron Kaye is a likable guy, so most people like him.
Most people.
"He seems to have a very big view of himself," said Bob Cherry, a consultant for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18. "He masquerades as a fighter for the common man, but his positions are often the same as the positions of downtown business interests."
Indeed, if you take Ron's past support for Valley secession, his unabashed love of suburbia, and his hatred of public sector unions, he starts to sound like a fairly conservative guy. His 2008 Bastille Day

 protest was like a mellow, West Coast predecessor of the Tea Party movement.

On the other hand, he's also something of a Marxist, in that he says things like "materialism is unsustainable" and "America is a totalitarian fascist
state in a benign form."
The Internet has also given Ron a chance to be what he's always wanted to be: an activist and a journalist. Only his activism hasn't really caught on. Bastille Day was supposed to be the beginning of a movement, but it the movement never materialized. 
You can say one thing about Ron Kaye. He's a taken a subject that most people find dull and arcane, city politics- with its controllers and comptrollers, budget holes, special funds, and boards of this and that- and turned the whole thing into entertainment, into a farce. He's made it readable, especially to those who work in government itself.
"The mayor reads it," says Rick Orlov (often called the dean of City Hall reporters). "He'll come over to me and say, 'What's that crazy Ron Kaye doing today?'" 

The Epic of Ron Kaye


Ron Kaye and Chelsea Cody

Ron's house is a suburban dream: the living room, with its one wood-paneled wall, the couch facing the fireplace instead of a TV, a cockatoo named Francois in a cage to its right, an ashtray to its left. Ashtrays everywhere. A wall covered in photos. And yes, a kidney-shaped pool, shimmering in the sun like cellophane. 

Behind the couch is the dining room table, a table that doubles as the office of OurLA.org, the news/aggregation site that is Ron's side project. He sits opposite Chelsea Cody, their laptops end to end beside two small glass bowls, one with almonds, the other with sliced fruit. 
Chelsea, a 24-year-old recent graduate of Cal State Northridge, is both employee and pupil. They make an odd pair. Ron monologues in a soft, gravelly voice, lighting cigarette after cigarette- Marlboro shorts. Chelsea listens and types. Where Ron is excitable and long-winded, she is sober, measured.

Today, she's working on a story about an elementary school principal in North Hills, whom Chelsea calls a "guardian angel" and a "model for LAUSD reform." Ron is working on a story about Councilwoman Janice Hahn and her friend Gwen Butterfield, a lobbyist. 

Except instead of working, he's telling me about Brian D'Arcy, and how he's

evil.

Brian D'Arcy is the supreme villain in the Ron Kaye epic. He's the head of the IBEW Local 18, a union that represents more than 8,000 public sector utility workers. They are electricians, engineers, custodians and tree-trimmers, most of whom work for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. 
Ron Kaye and Brian D'Arcy have clashed a number of times. There was the fight over Measure B, the 2009 proposition to install 400 megawatts of solar panels in Los Angeles. Only it mandated that the IBEW Local 18 install the panels. The measure was proposed by a group called Working Californians, co-chaired by D'Arcy and Marvin Kropke, another IBEW official. The union and affiliated organizations donated about hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause, which was also supported by Mayor Villaraigosa and the Sierra Club.
The initiative was defeated by the narrowest of margins, despite its backers having heavily outspent the opposition.
Ron has long railed against the high salaries DWP workers get- many of them over $100,000, significantly more than a private sector employee doing similar work would get.
"Ron Kaye doesn't know what he's talking about," a public sector union lawyer, who asked not to be named, told me. "He's knowledgeable like a gossip columnist is knowledgeable, not about how budgets work, or about how collective bargaining works."
He told me there are two good reasons for why DWP workers get paid what they do. First, the job is dangerous, involving exposure to toxins and high-tension power lines. Second, unlike most city organizations, the DWP actually generates revenue. And if their employees get paid a lot, that just means that D'Arcy is doing his job.
"Ron Kaye sees corruption everywhere. Like a broken clock, he's probably right twice a day. But most of his stuff isn't convincing. It's sensational. There was a time when the stuff that Ron Kaye said was relevant. It's just the wrong era."
Yet lately, Ron Kaye seems more relevant than ever. The current fight over DWP rate hikes lies in the very center of Ron's wheelhouse, and to all watching seems like an obvious case of either incompetence, corruption, or both. 
"I'm amazed at how significant Ron's blogs have become in shaping the dialogue and foretelling the storylines that will be part of what's left of the mainstream media," says David Abel, editor-in-chief of the The Planning Report. "Ron has been on top of these stories that are now becoming the stories in the Times, KNX and public radio a year ahead of time."
In March, KCET's news magazine show SoCal Connected ran a 10-minute segment on Brian D'Arcy that could have been made by Ron Kaye himself (and included an interview with him). A recent L.A. Times editorial blamed the city's financial woes on the DWP and the mayor, a less colorful reiteration of practically every single RonKayeLA post of late. In a March 29 post titled, "The Madness of King Antonio," he wrote:

Green energy is a cover story to please environmentalists and to profit the greenwashers and insiders who will no doubt benefit handsomely from their connections. 

This is a complete corruption of the DWP's mission as a publicly-owned utility providing water and power. It is not a fund to subsidize economic development, for transferring wealth from one group to another.

LA Observed's Kevin Roderick, in particular, has chided Ron for his hysterical tone. But the style, something of a throwback to the muckrakers of the 1900s, seems oddly appropriate on the Internet, where nuance often loses out to raw emotion.
It's almost as if culture has finally caught up with Ron Kaye, or at least double-backed around to meet him halfway.

Rocket Ship

Ron was born in Chicago in 1941. His father was a drapery buyer. The family moved to Cleveland shortly after the war ended, when Ron's dad got a job with the May Co. The drapery business was changing. Things were becoming mass-produced, and a buyer became less of a skilled position.
In 1958, just as Ron was starting college at the University of Chicago, his dad set up his own drapery store. Nine months later, he had a heart attack and died. He was 49.
"I was pretty crazy after that," Ron says. "I saw myself as a rocket ship soaring out of control for the next 20 or 30 years." He smiles and adds, "Now I'm just a car zooming out of control."
Ron graduated with a degree in anthropology, and bummed around for a while. He read Lincoln Steffens' Shame of the Cities, a seminal work of muckraking journalism from 1904 about public corruption in cities all over the country. It made a big impact on Ron, who had never thought much about journalism before then.
He got a job with the Cleveland Plain Dealer as a copy boy, making $60 a week. He moved up the ranks quickly, and became a reporter on the police beat, working 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. He loved the lifestyle, the atmosphere. 
"When I got off of work, the bars were closed and we'd go to some Greek joint, and we'd drink till dawn and play liar's poker. Drinking shots with all these guys that were crippled by the Korean War, who were wonderful, amazing journalists, filled with great, legendary stories and who played a very different game than anyone would play today. They would steal papers off of cops' desks. They would do anything get an angle. To take the story away from the other guys. So it was a great education."
Two years later he was drafted, exiled to the freezing cold of  an army base in Fairbanks, Alaska. He kept an open ticket to Canada just in case he was called to Vietnam. He never was. 
After the Army, Ron bounced around the country, taking jobs with different papers. He wound up with the Associated Press in Montgomery, Alabama in 1968, just after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
"The correspondent was a guy named Rex Thomas, who'd been there for 30 years, a good ol' Southern boy with terrible eczema. And the philosophical position of a Neanderthal sociologist. He'd never worked with a

Jew

in his life. We would cover the legislature, which would filibuster for six weeks at a time, it would go on all night. At midnight the lobbyists would bring in whores and bags of money and booze."

After 15 months he was transferred to the general desk in New York, where he worked as the late night supervisor, staffing 10 teletype machines, each one spitting out 66 words a minute. It was a crash course in editing, and Kaye was once again a fast study. And then he started making trouble.
"I accused the bosses of playing ball to suppress the news with the Nixon administration, based on the suppression of stories at the request of their former attorney, Secretary of State William P. Rogers, who would take to calling the general desk and telling us that we should no longer refer to the Cambodian invasion: 'We're calling it an incursion, you got it young man?'"
Ron quit. He and his girlfriend bought a Volkswagen bus and headed toward South America. Only they didn't realize that you can't actually drive to South America, there being no road from Panama to Columbia.
In 1974, just as the Watergate scandal was beginning to unravel, Ron took a three-month voyage to Australia on a Norwegian freighter and got a job as a copy editor for The Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch. 
The country was in the midst of a constitutional crisis, after the governor-general dissolved the Labor government. Murdoch flew back to run The Australian, and started directing news coverage against the Labor party, even making up stories. Kaye organized a union meeting with 500 to 600 journalists from three Sydney papers. And they voted to strike.
Naturally, Ron was fired.
After a stint at the Guardian in London, he traveled to India. When the money ran out, he took a job with the National Enquirer in Florida, owned by a man named Gene Pope, a former CIA agent who bought the paper, according to some, with money from mob boss Frank Costello. 
The Enquirer paid extremely well, but extracted a pound of flesh from its reporters through verbal abuse and humiliation, often at the hands of

Joe Cassidy, the 400-pound editor.

"But I learned the secret: the point of connection to the common mind. That's where it begins. It begins with plugging into their brains. That's what ad people know. They don't start with what they want to tell you, they start with where your heads are at. And then they move it in some direction."
After 10 months, a story of his was nixed for no reason, and he quit.
Ron was married by then. He and his wife moved into a house in Biscayne Bay. One day they saw a sign that read "Siddha Yoga." Curious, they went inside. Three days later, they moved in.
It was an ashram run by Swami Muktananda, an Indian guru, who ran a sort of traveling road show that on any given day could be 1,000-people strong. Ron would work odd jobs as a painter, or a waiter. He followed the guru out to Los Angeles, where he got a job with the Herald-Examiner.
He spent two years at the Herald, but once again, tensions between him and his boss led Ron to his own demise.
"After I blew up the job at the Herald, as I'd blown up the previous nine or 10 jobs, my son was eight months old and my wife wasn't doing well. And I was sort of in this euphoric chronic depression."
A friend from the ashram introduced him to A Course In Miracles, a so-called "self-study" group. The group's first book was written by Helen Schucman and William Thetoford, and was supposedly a dictation of what Jesus was saying to Schucman. The second was about the practical applications of the first. Ron never read the books, but the program transformed him.
"I realized that all the things I'd been so angry about, the imperfections of the world, were in fact my own frustration with myself. The people that I felt had done me wrong-once I accepted my own responsibility and could forgive myself for my share, it didn't matter about any of them."
After two years of unemployment, Ron sent his resume to three papers: the L.A. Times, the Daily News, and the Press-Telegram in Long Beach. He got interviews at the Telegram and the Daily News, which hired him as an assistant city editor.
"It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
The Valley Paper
It was started in 1911 as a weekly, under the name The Van Nuys Call. It was renamed The Van Nuys News, then the The Van Nuys News and Valley Green Sheet, then The Valley News and Green Sheet. It became a daily in 1981, and changed its name to the The Daily News of Los Angeles. 
"It was a terrible paper," says Ron. "It had been a shopper, the world's most successful shopper, and they were trying to turn it into a paper. They needed skill and wanted to take risks."
Despite his newfound maturity, he still pushed the envelope, still pissed off the corporate elements, but knew when to back down. He was once chewed out by his editor, Dave Butler, for falling asleep during meetings, and generally being obnoxious. So he swallowed his pride and cleaned up his act. For a while.
"What was great about Ron," says Rick Orlov, a longtime reporter for the Daily News, "was he would always challenge you about your perceptions on a story and the angle you were taking. I've been in the business 40 years now and I've never seen an editor as good as him."
The Herald-Examiner had folded in 1989, leaving the Daily News as the No. 2 paper in the city. It became known for its hard-hitting City Hall coverage, led by Orlov. It earned accolades in the aftermath of the

Rodney King

beating.

In 1993, Ron became managing editor. He controlled both local news coverage and the editorial section. In effect, he controlled the voice of the newspaper. 
"I was giving the paper a flavor, and a name, and a sensibility," says Ron. "It was the Valley paper. But I made it the Valley Paper."
As Los Angeles Magazine put it, "The blaring headlines, the biting critique, the single-sided analysis, all are extensions of Kaye's pugnacity." 
At no time was this pugnacity more on display then during the drive for Valley secession, which the Daily News supported wholeheartedly, in both its editorials and news coverage. The paper even gave $60,000 to Valley VOTE, an organization that was one of the main engines behind the ballot measure. It was a throwback to the days when newspapers were part of political movements. Many reporters resented the paper's new stance. A few quit. But many others were invigorated.
"Everyone felt like they weren't getting their fair share of government services," says Orlov, "The secession movement provided a way to voice their complaints about City Hall, and to see where the money was being spent."
"We were standing up for the Valley," says Ron, "not just telling the Valley's story but blending the interests of the business community of the valley with that of the ordinary citizens."
But others couldn't help but notice that the cause wasn't exactly populist. Even though the Valley's demographics were similar to the city's, support for secession was dominated by white males. The leadership of Valley VOTE was all white. The initiative was largely funded by the Valley's business interests. The Daily News' coverage focused on government waste, which seemed to imply that government ought to be smaller.
To win, the measure would have had to be approved in both the San Fernando Valley and entire city. It passed in the Valley by a paper-thin margin, but lost in the city. Looking back, Ron sees it as a victory.
"I've always said that secession was a tool, a weapon to get city hall to change. It forced disclosure of documents, raised debate. It gave more confidence to the valley, fighting and standing up for themselves."
In 2005, Dave Butler was bumped up to corporate, and Ron became editor. His

three-year tenure

was marked by budget cuts and layoffs, which he fought tooth-and-nail. He considered the top brass "truly stupid" for, among other things, cutting the staff down to the bone, and found it harder and harder to behave.

One day he was invited to King's Fish House in Pasadena. As Ron walked across the outdoor patio, he saw Dave Butler and the Daily News' personnel director, who from 30 feet away yelled, "Hey Ron! You're Out!" The publisher and the CEO were nowhere in site.
And that was how Ron Kaye was fired from the Daily News.
The New Revolution
In the time I spent with Ron, one of the ideas he kept returning to was vision. What is our vision of Los Angeles? What should it be? Should it be great monuments, great buildings? Should it be social equality for all?
Ultimately, Ron's vision of L.A. has more to do with process than policy.
"Believing in dogma? That somebody has the right answer? I don't believe that. I believe that right answers come out of a conversation.
In Ron's worldview, the city's fiscal crisis stems from the fact that the people have lost faith in the system. The people won't let politicians raise taxes because they don't trust them. 
"Liberals believe in sucking power upward. Republicans want to give power to business. But this is the 21st century dammit. It's time to push power downward."
It's all very 1960s, power to the people.
But here's the really weird part: Ron thinks this is about to happen. The defeat of Measure B. The election of Carmen Trutanich as city attorney. And now, the Parent Revolution. These are the canaries in the coalmine of the old order. 
Ron's corner of the movement is the Saving L.A.Project, which he started after the Bastille Day protest, an event that got a small amount of media attention, but failed to start a popular uprising that some were hoping for. Since then, Saving L.A. has sputtered along, meeting every three months or so (tellingly, the organization has no Web site). Recently they took the Jacobean step of forming a steering committee to recruit candidates for City Council, headed by Nick Patsaouras and Jack Humphreville, scions of the L.A. business community.
When I ask Ron about Saving LA, he dismisses it as a small piece of the picture, one cell out of maybe 1,000, independent but all working toward a common goal: "They're beginning to form another organism. Without giving up their identities. Which is the model of the new revolution."
Not everyone is so optimistic.
"I see a lot of apathy," Councilman Zine told me. "I see 16 percent of the people voting, I see neighborhood council elections where a few thousand vote. I see a core group of people involved. I don't see it expanding."
The Birth of Democracy in Los Angeles
It's a rainy Saturday morning when I meet Ron Kaye at a community center in Hollywood Presbyterian Church. We're here for a Budget L.A.meeting, one of those cells, or maybe it's a meeting between pieces of cells. 
"Are you here as a reporter," I ask him, "Or as a participant?"
"To me," he says, "They're the same thing."
The meeting's central purpose is to discuss an issue that few outside this room know or care about: the mayor's recent to decision to combine the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees neighborhood councils, with the Community Development Department, to eliminate 27 jobs and save $2 million a year.
The makeup of the room leans old, white and male. There are a lot of neighborhood council representatives from all over the city, some lawyers. There's Jack Humphreville, Deny Schneider, the former president of Valley VOTE, and Kevin James, the conservative radio host who earned 15 minutes of ignominy when he couldn't tell Chris Mathews what appeasement was.
Ron stands in the back and paces. He walks outside to chain smoke. He shakes some hands. He seems to know everyone here.

Ron videotapes Deputy Mayor Larry Frank
The main event is Deputy Mayor Larry Frank, who's here to explain the budget shortfall and the mayor's plan to deal with it. It's a mind numbingly arcane lecture. Ron films Larry on his Flip video camera as Larry drones on about L.A.'s "budget hell." He fills up three giant white sheets of paper with numbers- budget holes for fiscal years, jobs, e-rips, the general fund. It's enough to drive the most committed political junkie to apathy.
Ron finally puts down his camera and goes outside for a smoke. I follow him. The rain has stopped. Ron is singing.
"Fairy tales... can come true... it can happen to you..."
Ron doesn't believe Larry's solution will fix anything at all. It will just eliminate half the city's workforce. He knows how they're really going to fix the shortfall. News had broken just yesterday of the proposed DWP rate hikes. 
And yet, Ron is in a great mood. Because this is how it all is supposed to happen. This is the beginning of the revolution. 
"This is part of the birth of

democracy

in L.A. L.A. is colonial. There were no Democratic institutions that reached into the ground. Neighborhood councils have become the first grassroots democratic institution."

I point out to Ron that the first grassroots democratic institution looks a bit old, a bit white, and a bit male.
"It's a problem," he says, looking around. 
Like the Tea Party movement, the Ron Kaye brand of populism zeroes in on government waste, a cause that finds its most sympathetic audience in the suburbs, far from city halls. 
Which makes me wonder, is it really just business? Or is it personal? Are Ron's convictions led by his personal feelings for the Valley, which gave him a home, a cause, and a new life?
Happy Hour
In May, Ron will turn 69. His wife Debra, whom he met when she was the chief librarian at the Daily News, is getting him a saltwater aquarium for his birthday. They've lived in the same house in Woodland Hills for 23 years, ever since the Daily News moved out here. It's the longest Ron has ever lived in one place. 
"When I moved here, it was everything I had run away from. This bourgeoisie, middle class..." He trails off. "I realized that to become middle class was become free."
 
It's after 4. Ron throws a couple ice cubes in a highball glass and fills it with Vodka. He hasn't worked all day. He's been too busy talking to me. 
The phone rings.
"I don't want to answer it," he says.
"Then don't answer it," says Chelsea.
"I don't want to talk to anybody."


 

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