AS MARIO CORDERO DEPARTS, HIS LEGACY MAY BE THIS SMALL ACT OF HEROISMBy Dave Wielenga
Mario Cordero’s confirmation to the Federal Maritime Commission by the United States Senate last week means he will soon be leaving Long Beach for Washington, D.C., and that’s going to leave a lot of holes—his position on the Long Beach Harbor Commission, his law practice and his part-time political-science professorship at Long Beach City College.
“The position on the Federal Maritime Commission requires me to relinquish all involvement here,” Cordero told GreaterLongBeach.com during a short telephone interview Monday morning. “I had to think hard about it, but as I like to tell my students, doors open to you for a reason.”
A graduate of Long Beach State, Cordero has lived in Long Beach since 1974 and has participated in civic life nearly as long, serving on the Long Beach Community Development Commission and vice-chair of the Long Beach Ethics Review Task Force before Mayor Beverly O’Neill appointed him to the Harbor Commission in 2003.
Cordero said his “mandate on the Harbor Commission was to balance out the environmental questions” faced by the Port of Long Beach and the shipping trade. He said he believes that his work in that area is what caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who nominated him for the Federal Maritime Commission.
That’s certainly what came to my mind last week when I heard about Cordero’s confirmation by the Senate. In fact, principles and integrity Cordero displayed on a single agenda item at a specific meeting—Nov. 2, 2009—came rushing back to me as the moment that defined his tenure on the Long Beach Harbor Commission.
Back then, I wrote about it in The District Weekly.
Now, I present it here again:
SOMEDAY, PERHAPS EVEN THIS WEEK, as a few more people living within the Port of Long Beach’s toxic cloud of commerce lie down upon their premature deathbeds—casualties of ports-related pollution—they may recall with bittersweet admiration the tale of Harbor Commissioner Mario Cordero’s small act of heroism.
But please don’t ask them to retell the story … that would be cruel, bound and gagged as they may be with tubes and masks.
Besides, most of these victims—Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson estimates that port-related diesel pollution leads to the premature deaths of 5,000 Southern Californians a year—probably aren’t even aware that Cordero fought against the Port of Long Beach’s secretly negotiated settlement of a lawsuit filed by the American Trucking Association (ATA), a settlement that strips vital controls from an air pollution-reduction plan that took years of public process to achieve. They likely don’t know that the settlement permits the Virginia-based ATA—an organization that has been fighting against pollution controls for decades—to police itself, possibly ad infinitum. Perhaps their ignorance is for the best.
Why risk inducing another coughing fit?
On Oct. 19, Cordero lost his argument to preserve the Port of Long Beach’s right to regulate compliance with the Clean Trucks Program that local officials have been ballyhooing for more than a year now. He lost by a lot. Cordero was the only member of the Harbor Commission—to which three of the four members were appointed by Mayor Bob Foster—who disagreed with the closed-session settlement that will make it harder to eradicate the so-called “Diesel Death Zone” that fans outward from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles into miles and miles of neighborhoods. His position is admirable—albeit in a meaningless-moral-victory sort of way.
But Cordero was also the lone dissenting voice when the Harbor Commission met on Nov. 2 to publicly bless the dirty-air deal they’d negotiated out of public view. And this is where the story becomes heroic, where the moral victory begins to mean something.
Don’t take my word for it: take a look at the flustered officials who sat on either side of Cordero on the circular dais in the Port of Long Beach boardroom, where he calmly but persistently refused to make the vote unanimous. Video of the meeting is archived on the Port of Long Beach Web site (polb.com), and it makes for dramatically inspirational viewing. Heck, the chronicle of Cordero’s principled commitment to a cause that has clearly been lost to the forces of money and power may actually qualify as the year’s first holiday-season prime-time special.
The Nov. 2 meeting of the Harbor Commission began as another frustrating example of what ever more frequently passes for public participation in an insulated government. The panel of appointed commissioners—that is, the people did not elect them and cannot recall them—suffered dutifully through almost an hour’s worth of testimony in three-minute intervals from representatives of environmental organizations, residents and workers. All the speakers pleaded—a couple of them in Spanish—for the commission to preserve the Clean Trucks Program that many of them had devoted much time to help create . . . and which the Port of Los Angeles continues to defend against the ATA lawsuit.
“I really appreciate everyone coming here today and expressing their thoughts to us,” Commissioner Susan Anderson-Wise told the members of the audience when they’d finally talked themselves out. After a slight pause, she added: “Gracias.”
Anderson-Wise almost made it sound as if the people’s opinions made a difference. But they most certainly didn’t, and that became clear when it was time for the vote on the two settlement-related items—or really, when Cordero announced that he did not intend to be permanently stained by the ink of what everybody knew was just a rubber stamp.
“Just for the record,” he announced softly, “I will be voting against both of these to keep consistent with my vote against the settlement. So, if we could hear a motion . . . ”
Suddenly, Deputy City Attorney Dominic T. Holzhaus interrupted with alarm. He reminded Cordero that only three commissioners were presenT—president Nick Sramek was a no-show, and Mayor Foster still hasn’t nominated anybody to replace James Hankla, who retired last June—and that approval of the motions would thus require a unanimous vote. Without Cordero’s assent, the matter would have to be approved at the next meeting.
“Well, counsel, I was not aware of that, and frankly, that puts me in a difficult position,” Cordero responded, “because as I said from the beginning, I opposed settlement on the case, and I don’t want to move from that principle.”
Insisting he did not want to stymie the will of the majority, Cordero requested a five-minute recess so that he and Holzhaus could devise a plan through which the settlement could go forward without sweeping away the record of his opposition.
At this point, however, the time-consuming talk of principles and integrity became too much for Commissioner Mike Walter.
“Well, I don’t object to a five-minute recess, but the contract has already been signed; all this is just the . . . the . . . mechanics of making that work,” Walter said, exasperated. “Given that it’s signed, this is just a matter of mechanics, so no matter what, you’re not going to be changing the mechanics of it. The vote has already been taken! I can’t see any reason to delay. All we’re doing here is implementing what’s already been approved!”
Walter’s low-and-quivering outburst was a rare bit of unvarnished honesty from a public official about the way things really work—not only emphasizing the futility of Cordero’s stand, but also making clear that the citizens who had spent their time speaking their minds never had a chance, either.
However, Cordero’s response remained focused on something more important:
“I think this is such a big issue, Dr. Walter—and I certainly respect your position on all this—but you reach a point where, as an individual—and I’m talking about myself—you take a stand based on principle. And that’s what I’ve said from the beginning of this issue; and that’s my concern right now.”
Walter still could not abide the possibility that Cordero’s dedication to principle might delay official approval of the backroom deal.
“But what you objected to was the initial proposal, the contract,” Walter pleaded as if trying to find a loophole in Cordero’s soul. “This is now . . . now, it’s implemented. It can’t be implemented any other way, as I see it, than what is here.”
Walter was correct: the Port of Long Beach’s deference—and sacrifice of the public’s health and trust—to the power of the American Trucking Association is a done deal.
But Cordero was right: an individual’s principles, no matter how outnumbered, do not have to be sacrificed to peer pressure or convenience.
Ultimately, city attorney Holzhaus divided the question in two–a resolution that would confirm the settlement with the ATA had been approved by a judge, and an ordinance that would make the new rules permanent. Cordero voted yes on the first, and the second was tabled until Nov. 16, when the Harbor Commission will meet again.
Maybe some can take small comfort in that—perhaps this week—as they take their last, gasping breaths.