DTLA – Dear Los Angeles Politicians,
I read with interest the recent L.A. Times story about how a number of elected officials happily accepted the offer of tickets to the opening night of the mega-hit Hamilton. It must have been super-exciting. You got to be near creator Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Pantages Theatre and revel in the thrill of the hip-hop musical that upended Broadway.
I wonder how many of you were inspired by the story of an immigrant overcoming the odds to wind up as a powerful political influencer, a dude who got to be in the room where it happened. I wonder how many of you watched the moments where Alexander Hamilton influenced a nation’s policy and thought, “That’s my story!” I wonder how many of you then watched the fatal duel scene and thought, “Not my story!”
I’m glad you were given the opportunity to attend, and that, in the parlance of the musical, you didn’t throw away your shot at prime orchestra seats. I’m glad too that you didn’t have to wait in line, either physically or digitally, to snag those $195 tickets. It’s good you didn’t need to pull a plebe move and visit the lottery site every day hoping to get lucky with $10 seats. I can tell you from experience — winning that lottery is tough!
I know everyone has really important politicking to do with their time, and every moment matters. To paraphrase A-Ham himself, there’s a million things you haven’t done, and buying Hamilton tickets personally is probably one of them.
I don’t begrudge you being offered tickets. Let’s be real: Getting elected to public office in Los Angeles comes with perks. People suck up to you, hoping it greases the wheels when it’s time for a vote on a project or the awarding of a contract or some such. Angelenos who do business with City Hall are accustomed to offering the occasional gift or an, ahem, “donation” to a campaign or a politician’s officeholder account or legal defense fund.
I honestly believe that none of you would ever “sell” your approval for something as flimsy as tickets or an $800 contribution, or even a few bundled $800 contributions. Of course, I also know you’d notice if someone you work with doesn’t donate, but that’s another story.
There are rules about what politicians can accept, and the City Ethics Commission and other watchdog groups are paying as much attention to you as Aaron Burr paid to Hamilton. The Times article made clear that many of those who accepted the tickets later scrambled to figure out how much to reimburse the company that supplied them.
The money is where things get interesting: Some of you paid the entire face value of those precious tickets. Some examined the rules of gifting and paid back all but $100. Some sought to determine what is legally acceptable and shelled out different amounts. That makes sense — like the Hamilton lyric avers, “history has its eyes on you.”
But here’s what’s been missed: Just because you’re allowed to accept free or discounted tickets doesn’t mean you should. It may not be in the City Hall Rulebook (which doesn’t actually exist), but unless it’s a vital part of your job, you should think of the Hamilton song “Say No to This.” (Yes, I know that’s actually about adultery, which I suppose also applies.)
Former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was embroiled in a free tickets scandal back in 2010, and he basically got laughed at by claiming that attending a lot of big concerts and sporting events for free was part of his job as mayor. Everyone saw through it. He also later had to pay a huge fine.
If you’re on the Los Angeles City Council you make nearly $190,000 a year. If you’ve got a citywide position you earn even more. Consider the optics of that salary and accepting free or reduced tickets.
Am I glad our political leaders got to see Hamilton? Yes. It’s a great show and everyone should catch it. Just pay full price for the seats the moment they’re offered — one shouldn’t need an office policy or have to consult with an attorney.
Was it part of your job to be there? If the actor playing Thomas Jefferson and his understudy both suddenly got botulism and only an elected officials could fill the void, then yes. Otherwise, buy the ticket — even if someone offers it gratis — and enjoy the show.
Plus, I can guarantee that no Angeleno ever said, “I feel much better knowing my elected representatives attended Hamilton on opening night.”
If there’s a desire to get close to the historical figure, remember, the real Alexander Hamilton was the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and the founding father of our financial system. L.A.’s budget season is coming up, and we could use some smarts.
Thanks for hearing me out.