Joe Mathews: You too can be Austin Beutner

Joe Mathews - Connecting California

No Californian is more inspiring than Austin Beutner.

The L.A. investment banker has gone straight to the top of four major public institutions in the last decade, without having to pay his dues.

In 2009, Beutner, having turned to public service after a bicycle accident, convinced Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to appoint him first deputy mayor of L.A., despite his lack of experience in local government. Months later, he was named interim general manager of L.A.’s Department of Water and Power—without experience in utilities. Then, Beutner, without experience in journalism, became publisher first of the Los Angeles Times, and later the San Diego Union-Tribune.

But all those were mere warmups. This week Beutner became superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s largest, despite his lack of experience in school districts.

Cynics might look at Beutner’s conquest of Los Angeles—the fastest takeover of a global city since the Visigoths sacked Rome—and suggest that local institutions must be awfully weak to keep seeking the services of the same finance guy. They might question why he keeps getting jobs while only staying in previous ones for a short time (a year or so) and without producing sustained success.

To such critics, I say, you are prisoners of your small minds. Austin Beutner offers an inspiring lesson for this state: You can be anything that you want to be, with one caveat. You have to want to lead one of California’s big and complicated civic institutions.

Beutner’s number one qualification is understanding that Californians have given up on governance. This state’s public institutions are so complex and dysfunctional, that we long ago stopped believing they could be fixed. Beutner has seized on the opportunity in our governing hopelessness. What is there to lose in trying to save things that can’t be saved?

This method is not available to everyone. In the 21st century, the power to pick your own gig regardless of experience requires a background in high finance, and connections to rich people. Beutner worked at Smith Barney and the Blackstone Group, and then, after a stint at the U.S. State Department, co-founded investment banking firm Evercore Partners.

To get jobs, he portrays himself as the rare Angeleno who hasn’t surrendered. He studies up on an entity, maybe participates in a task force, and tells L.A.’s most important rich people that there might be a way to fix it. Those rich people call their friends, and soon Beutner is running said institution.

In office, Beutner works hard, and advances intriguing ideas. But nothing ever takes hold because, before long, Beutner is off to the next hornet’s nest.

And he can’t be blamed. By definition these are short-term, no-hope gigs. At DWP, Beutner was the ninth general manager in 10 years. At the Times, he was one of multiple publishers fired by out-of-town ownership.

And who are we to complain about Beutner, who is taking on tasks that we won’t do ourselves? It’s high time we stopped whining about Beutner—and started emulating him.

I resolve to follow his example. Instead of writing this column that appears in various California papers, I hereby offer myself as their publisher. (Would I be any worse at running legacy media businesses than their current operators?) Heck, I wrote a book about Arnold Schwarzenegger, so I could probably be governor or run a studio.

Beutner never sells himself short. Neither should you.

Yes, his L.A. Unified gig should be short—one board member whose vote he needed to get the job is under federal indictment. But don’t worry—the opera, LAX, and the Dodgers all need new leadership.

Beutner embodies our zeitgeist. We all know that knowledge is power, and that power corrupts—so too much knowledge is corrupting. Yes, it’s a fallen world. But why not rise in it?

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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