Hidden Powers

Los Angeles
August, 2006

Assignment editors don't get excited about jail staffing and unpaid hospital bills. Give them maggots infesting the morgue, though, and you¹re good for 45 seconds at 5, 6, and 11. So it is that the chief medical examiner for Los Angeles County, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, finds himself in front of half a dozen TV cameras one recent morning being grilled by his bosses on the Board of Supervisors, the most powerful locally elected body in the nation.

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the only lawyer on the board, demands details like a cross-examining prosecutor. She wants to know why some decomposing remains are being stacked in corridors instead of stored in refrigerated crypts. When Burke is told that the situation is temporary, her eyes narrow. Her follow-up remarks suggest the tone of a loving but disapproving grandmother. "It just doesn't sound good when you talk about 12 to 15 bodies in the hallway," she says, as if speaking for all the grandmothers who might be listening.

Odds are there aren¹t many, even when the subject is maggots. Meetings of the board — which are held every Tuesday in the Hall of Administration downtown — are lonely affairs, usually played out before hundreds of empty seats. It doesn¹t matter that each supe represents about 2 million residents, which is a larger constituency than some governors and U.S. senators have, not to mention every member of the House. A holdover of 19th-century thinking, the board's powers are both legislative and executive, with some quasi-judicial ones thrown in. Supervisors oversee the jails, the sheriff¹s and fire departments, the juvenile halls, the public hospitals, the welfare bureaucracy, and the coroner's office, along with a hundred other unsexy government functions. They are the town council for the million or so county inhabitants who live outside an incorporated city, deciding which streets will be repaved and where to put traffic lights.

This year the supes tentatively approved a budget of $19.4 billion with almost no media attention. More likely, people have heard about the piddling-by-comparison $6.7 billion budget that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed for the City of Los Angeles, where roughly 40 percent of county residents live. Numerous stories focused on that budget and what it meant for the future size of the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as on how much the mayor spent on travel and how well he listened to neighborhood councils when it came to spending priorities.

You don't hear much about neighborhoods at the Hall of Administration except during each meeting's sometimes agonizing ceremonial opening act. County department heads tap their feet impatiently for an hour or more while supervisors honor retiring clerk-typists, community do-gooders, and the recently deceased in their districts. Mike D. Antonovich, the longest-serving member at 26 years, brings in a cute dog or cat from the county shelters and offers it for adoption. Antonovich, a former Republican U.S. Senate hopeful who first won an election in 1969 — to the L.A. Community College Board — holds the rotating title of board chairman and insists that everyone address him as Mr. Mayor, even though the county has no such position. After gaveling a recent meeting to order, Antonovich reported on his trip to Rome. "I had the pleasure of meeting Pope Benedict," he said. "I also got to see the private archives of the Vatican."

The hokum aspect was all too much for the L.A. Times's Steve Lopez. "If you have never attended a supes meeting," he railed in a May column, "trust me on this: It wouldn¹t seem out of place to have someone juggling during the show, with Shriners in fez hats riding around in tiny cars."

Of course it¹s not that simple. The obscurity in which the supes work masks the truth that they are enormously influential. Their jobs are coveted, partly because of the authority they command and partly because recently enacted term limits allow 12 years of service, more than for most elected positions. (Term limits have not yet affected incumbents.) Supervisors also enjoy virtual immunity from electoral challenges.

In the past year, the public became familiar with the horrors of the King-Drew Medical Center, the jails erupted in race riots, and the head of the probation department suffered a stroke and died while under pressure from a potential U.S. Department of Justice probe of his operation. Two-year-old Sarah Chavez died violently after the Department of Children and Family Services took her away from her lesbian foster parents. Then there was the flurry of publicity about the morgue. All of these matters fall under the supes' jurisdiction.

Yet the two supervisors on the spring ballot sailed to reelection. Former L.A. council member Gloria Molina, who in 1991 became the first woman and only Latina elected to the board, faced token opposition in her Eastside district from an ethnic studies teacher who campaigned on a platform of reducing gasoline prices. Another candidate auctioned off a date with himself on eBay. Zev Yaroslavsky, who came to the board from the council in 1994, received 70 percent in the June primary. Not even one in five registered voters in his Westside Valley district bothered to visit the polls. The last time an incumbent supervisor lost was in 1980, when Antonovich defeated former TV news anchor Baxter Ward. There hasn¹t been a runoff since 1996, when then-newcomer Don Knabe was elected in the SouthBay-­Long Beach district.


Does the dearth of discontent mean the supes are doing a good job? That would be a big leap, given the county's problems. Instead, board members benefit from the antiquated design of county government. The five districts — a number set in 1884, when the county's population was less than 100,000 — are massive and often cross several city lines. Antonovich represents Chatsworth in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley to Claremont 50 miles to the east. That's too large an area for residents of rural Pearblossom, for instance, to exert any influence. To challenge an incumbent an opponent would have to raise a sizable war chest to communicate with that many voters.

Periodic moves to shrink the districts by adding more supervisors meet with public suspicion of ploys to fatten government. So does the idea of electing a county executive or mayor, someone who would be the giant entity's public face and who, in theory, would be easier to hold accountable. TV news producers aren't alone in dismissing the Hall of Administration as being too remote and boring to cover routinely. More than a dozen cubicles in the fourth-floor pressroom above the board's chambers sit empty even on meeting days. The wall-mounted directory still lists the Herald Examiner, which was shut down in 1989. The Times assigns the most full-time reporters — two for the supervisors and one to watch the sheriff¹s department — but in practice all three sometimes are diverted to other assignments. Reporters see the county beat as a career staller. Potential good stories are there, but editors tend to shy away from sobering subjects such as mental health and regional planning that lack compelling characters.

"There¹s a perceived lack of sex appeal," says Jim Newton, chief of the Times's newly reactivated city-county bureau, who plans to ramp up coverage of the county. "It's easier to build a narrative story line around a charismatic figure like Antonio Villaraigosa than around the five county supervisors."

While the supervisors benefit from the light media scrutiny, they also pay for it in another way. "This is not a ticket upward," says a longtime deputy to one supe. "I can't think of one supervisor who ever moved on to higher office."


Board seats are like fiefdoms, and on the rare occasions when one of the nobles dies or abdicates, the repercussions can ripple for years. Speculation about Burke's future had already been shaping the political chatter in South Los Angeles when she confirmed recently that she planned to retire in 2008. Lines have begun to form in what could be a clash over the future of black politics in the county.

Burke represents the old guard. Her hair is grayer now, but at 73 she is still recognizable as the first African American congresswoman most Americans saw on TV. She enrolled at Berkeley in 1949, transferred to UCLA as a junior, crossed town to USC for her law degree, and helped to organize the defense team for Watts residents facing charges after the 1965 riots. Governor Pat Brown named Burke to the McCone Commission, which investigated the riots; from there she was elected to the state assembly. Burke went to Washington in 1972, the year before Tom Bradley became mayor, and she cochaired the Democratic National Convention that nominated George McGovern. She was also the first serving congresswoman to have a baby.

In 1979, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Burke to finish the term of James Hayes, who abruptly resigned his seat representing the Long Beach end of the county. She was the first woman and the first African American on the board. When she sought reelection the following year, Burke lost to a conservative Republican, Deane Dana. The difficult campaign included overtly racial comments that led to Burke's swearing off electoral politics. She served as chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles and as vice chair of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. She did not run for office again until 1992, when 40-year supervisor Kenneth Hahn retired.

During Hahn's reign, South Los Angeles changed from mostly white to mostly black. Hahn, who became as popular in the area as any black politician, endorsed Burke. She edged past Diane Watson (now a congresswoman) and has not faced a serious challenge since. Her tenure has not been as smooth as her lack of competition suggests. Friends praise her resolute support of African American community causes, but she also stubbornly defended
King-Drew against charges of medical malpractice and cronyism. When she last was on the ballot, the L.A. Weekly yyyyycalled Burke a good argument for term limits. "I wish she would hurry up and leave. She¹s a do-nothing," says
Betty Pleasant, the Soulvine columnist for the newspaper the Wave. Burke¹s husband, William A. Burke, the longtime head of the Los Angeles Marathon, has been investigated over his campaign contributions to local politicians.

Burke says it's too early for her to anoint anyone with an endorsement, but the expectation is that she will support her former deputy, Herb Wesson, should he run. Wesson rose to be assembly speaker before joining the L.A. council last year in an election that was widely seen as a prelim in the jockeying for the Burke seat. Wesson has often been asked if he will try to succeed Burke. His stock answer is that he will seek reelection to the council in 2007, but he makes no promises beyond that.

A council spot conveniently opened up for Wesson when Martin Ludlow resigned last year to take over for the late Miguel Contreras as executive secretary of the county Federation of Labor. If Ludlow hadn't shifted jobs, the first skirmish over Burke's seat likely would have occurred in last spring's Democratic primary — a state senate matchup between Wesson and assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas. With Wesson out of the race, Ridley-Thomas won handily.

Ridley-Thomas, a former councilman who is more progressive than Burke or Wesson, represents the newer wave even though he has been around for years. He has served as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles. His Empowerment Congress has trained scores of activists in community-organizing skills. Ridley-Thomas was the first leading black official to back Villaraigosa for mayor in 2001, while Burke and others stayed loyal to Kenny Hahn¹s son, Jimmy. "It¹s his to lose," a Villaraigosa insider says of the Burke seat.

Such a prediction is premature. A lot can happen in two years. Yet another councilman, former police chief Bernard Parks, has shown some interest. He already has run for mayor of L.A., and his law enforcement and pro-business
background might appeal to older and more conservative voters in cities such as Carson and Inglewood.

There¹s even talk of wild cards who could weaken the district¹s reputation as a safely African American enclave. Janice Hahn, facing term limits as the councilwoman from San Pedro, might be able to translate her father¹s popularity into a base. She has made it onto several handicappers' lists.

The more provocative name to surface belongs to assembly speaker Fabian Núñez, who also has a term-limit deadline approaching. Núñez hasn¹t said he's interested, but the mention of his name is enough to irk some in the community who think the loss of Burke's district to a Latino would be painful for blacks as they become the minority in South L.A. "It would be war," says the Wave¹s Pleasant. "Very, very nasty."

Burke agrees that a Núñez candidacy would be "interesting," and she leaves no doubt that she wouldn¹t be pleased. Latinos may outnumber blacks, but her district still has the region's greatest concentration of African American elected representatives. "There were no African Americans on the Board of Supervisors for a hundred years," she says. "Something is missing when you have no representation from a large segment of the population."

Perhaps so, but the supervisors could use a little shaking up. Theirs are the most powerful jobs nobody cares about. As Burke says, a fight might make things interesting for a change.

©Kevin Roderick 2006