Saturday, August 06, 2005

Erwin Baker, Perseverent City Hall Reporter, Dies

Written from Fairbanks, Alaska--

This has been a sad week. Following the death Monday of L.A. Times great David Shaw comes word that Erwin Baker, the Times City Hall reporter in the 1960s and 1970s, died today in a care facility in Kanaas City.

Erwin was 86 and in the last few years suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He had to give up playing tennis for the most part, and at one point had ordered his own home phone disconnected, breaking ties with many friends who loved and respected him.

Such are the depredations of old age, because once Erwin was as bright and hardworking a reporter as the Times had. At City Hall, he was a dynamo, inquiring into every facit of city government and known especially for his close ties to City Council President John Gibson and other luminaries. The honest ones. Erwin detested the dishonest and inept officials, of whom he perceived there were quite a few.

Erwin was a stickler for ethics and never ceased to be fascinated by just how much money city officials were spending on trips, just what their ties to lobbyists were, and just who really had influence at City Hall.

Such interests led him into natural conflict with that "real" corrupt old fart, Mayor Sam Yorty, and I do not use that term with the pleasant connotation it has for us today. Erwin realized early on that Yorty was an unscrupulous demagogue who never failed to promote his own and cronies' interests, in the 1969 mayoral campaign descending to racism to turn back the challenge of Tom Bradley.

As a political writer, I coordinated with Erwin on many stories, but none more important than one detailing how Yorty had spent 372 days of his third term out of the city, gallivanting around the world, at public expense.

When that story broke during Yorty's bid for a fourth term, the Encyclopedia Britannica happened to be doing a film on a day in the lives of two reporters. The subjects were Erwin and me, and the story line featured that report and Yorty's hamhanded reaction to it.

Erwin and I were delighted. We played our roles with gusto, questioning Yorty at a news conference, and the film played in the public schools for years. Meanwhile, Bradley swept by Yorty in ihe election and Yorty wallowed in retirement. He went on a cruise rather than graciously showing up at Bradley's inauguration.

Erwin was a good friend of Bill Boyarsky. The two often played tennis, and they made a great team at City Hall until Baker retired. He had a heart condition and his ensuing years were quiet ones, until, at his 80th birthday party, at a West Side hotel, he confided sadly that his memory was failing. The party was held close to Erwin's other great love in life, besides his two daughters, UCLA. We constantly kidded Erwin about his allegiance to UCLA.

Erwin was a great companion of mine. He was always encouraging about my career at the Times and a backer on occasions when I needed backing. I remember him with the greatest fondness.

Two fine colleagues in one week. I'm flying to Barrow tomorrow, and I hope it's a safe trip. (smile). Meanwhile, I'm going to miss attending the services for David and Erwin.

Meanwhile, if I had to write an epitaph for the old City Hall reporter, it would be, "He hated corruption, and was able to do something about it."

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