SCENE — An OFFICE in WEST LOS ANGELES. A YOUNG MAN is sitting on a metal folding chair, wearing a HEADSET and looking into a COMPUTER. A CALENDAR on the wall is marked JANUARY.
“Hi, is Ethel there?”
“Hi Ethel, I’m a volunteer with the Coalition to Protect Los Angeles. I’m wondering if you know how you’re going to vote on Measure S on March seventh.”
“You don’t know what it is? That’s great! I can help you with that. It’s a local measure, one designed to help protect people like you and me from these mega-developers who are running rampant over LA politics. The way it’s going to work is, there will be a ban on spot zoning — do you know what that is? No? Ok, well the city has a general plan that outlines zoning throughout the city. You know, like residential, commercial, low or high density. And these developers are ruining all that because they’re donating to city council members’ campaigns and expecting a spot zone as a kick-back. Of course, legally they are unrelated, but that doesn’t change the fact that your city council members are functionally being bribed…”
The MAN suddenly stops talking.
“She hung up on me. She told me she was tired and that she was in her nineties and she had a conference call on the other line and she was making dinner and her kids were acting up and she didn’t have time and she was not interested and to take her off our mailing list and how did we get her number and she’s going to report us to the FCC and this number is on the do-not-call list.”
A WOMAN walks up to the seated MAN.
“Ethan, that was really good. One thing though, the script got changed yesterday. We’re not using the word ‘ban’. It’s too negative. Instead, we’re going to use the term ‘temporary stop’. ”
I was a phone banker over co-op. I spent my days calling registered and allegedly undecided voters and trying to get them to understand Measure S, agree with Measure S, and ultimately vote for Measure S. What’s Measure S, you may ask? It’s a local ballot measure, meaning it only affects the city of Los Angeles, and it does (or, rather, would have done) three things. It stops real estate developers from writing their own environmental impact reports, which on the phones I usually followed up with: “because they were lying on them and regular people like you and me had to suffer the consequences of increased traffic and pollution.” It requires the city council to update the General Plan for LA, now and every five years, after which I’d say, “so we can have responsible development in the areas that need it rather than irresponsible development putting up ten-story condos in one-story zones.” It also—and this was the controversial one—put a moratorium on spot zoning, the practice where someone trying to build a different type of structure than what the area was zoned for could present reports to the city council and ask for special permission to build anyway. On the phones, I’d talk about people getting approved for McMansions and huge luxury condos, and I wouldn’t even talk about all the good things spot zoning did, like allow childcare buildings to be put up in neighborhoods, or down-zoning land to make parks instead of more houses.
It was not easy, because the people that I talked to had different wants with their legislation and so I had to carefully tailor my responses to them. Grouchy old person upset about a new mansion in their block? Better bust out the old this-will-stop-em-real-good-not-in-your-back-yard approach to get them on board. Someone worried about traffic? Well, good for you, this will stop crooked and evil real estate developers from lying to your face and causing traffic that blocks you up from home to work and back again. Someone that is a hard no on the measure, about to hang up? Maybe they had been fooled by the propaganda, because Measure S would help slow development instead of increase it. Worried about jobs in construction? It’s not so bad, only about 5% of the construction in LA uses spot zones, so your friends in construction are probably safe.
The job was not very physically strenuous but, in order to do it, you had to accept the fact that 80% of the people you’d call would immediately hang up on you. They’d sometimes call you names or other times say, “thanks for your time,” even though they didn’t mean it. My co-workers, for the most part, were there for the checks every Wednesday and, while we had some interesting conversations with each other, I often felt alienated by being the only person in the office under the age of thirty.
The last few days I went door-to-door. I knocked on the doors of people who, by phone, had said they were probably with us. Very, very few people still were by the time I got to their door a month later. That was when Ruben, my field director, thought we had probably lost. And he was right: we were thoroughly trounced in the polls.
Photo credit: https://www.2preservela.org/