The fight over increasing Latino representation on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors offers great insights into the thinking, maneuverings and power plays deep within the inscrutable body.
For example, one reader asked me why the supervisors should care about the issue when four out of five of them will be forced out by term limits by the time new district lines are drawn? These new lines could make it possible to elect more Latinos on the board. The lame ducks will be long gone, the reader said. It doesn’t make sense.
Actually it does, if you understand the long standing relationships the supervisors have with small city politicians, chambers of commerce and other business organizations, religious groups and others. These organizations comprise crucial support networks, greased by funds controlled by the supervisors and crucial to the operations of cities, local bus lines, schools, water districts and the many other political entities that make Los Angeles County run—or not run.
All five supervisors have such support networks, but the best example of how the system works is Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents the 4th District, extending from Venice south along the coast to Long Beach and then inland to Diamond Bar. He was elected supervisor in 1996. Before that, he was chief aide to the district’s long-time supervisor, Deane Dana. And before that, he was a councilman in the city of Cerritos for eight years, part of that time as mayor. Exemplifying the term “county family”—much used in the hall of administration-- his son Matt is a former Knabe staff member, now an influential lobbyist in the hall. No supervisor is more beloved by small city mayors, council members and other officials than Don Knabe.
As is the case with all the supervisors, much of Knabe’s power comes from his supervisorial role as a distributor of state and federal funds.
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles, noted the county’s role as an administrative division of the state. The supervisors pass out state funds and carry out state policies. They also deal with federal funds, which usually go through Sacramento to local governments.
“They’re like old fashioned colonial governors,” Sonenshein said.
Such governors took orders from London, Paris or whatever other national capital that employed them. They were the men to see when colonial New York or Boston businessmen wanted money from London to improve such things as harbors. In the same way, when the city manager or a council of a small city in the 4th District needs extra state or federal funds for a park, street repair or to repair a breakwater, they call up their old pal Knabe or one of his assistants. Knabe or his aides call Sacramento or Washington and take care of the problem.
A reapportionment plan designed to elect a second Latino supervisor to the board would have taken coastal and some inland cities away from Knabe’s 4th District. Mayors, council members, chamber officials, school leaders and others, fearing a strange new supervisor, packed the supervisorial chamber in protest and the plan was defeated.
Even thought Knabe’s term expires in 2016, before a new redistricting plan would take effect, he no doubt is concerned about his legacy. He may be able to anoint a successor and the new supervisor and staff would be as helpful as Knabe. Secondly, said Sonenshein, supervisors don’t want to antagonize old supporters. “When they leave, they want to be honored,” he said.
Saeed Ali, who has served as a legislative and local expert on redistricting, said this “chain of connections is what politicians keep alive.” The supervisors’ supporters “feel betrayed” when the chain is broken. Who would they call?
The importance of these connections was shown when Supervisor Gloria Molina, the only Hispanic on the board, proposed a reapportionment plan that would have deprived Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky of key Jewish neighborhoods in a complicated proposal to create another possible Latino district.
Both their terms expire next year. Even so, community leaders were furious about the possibility of losing their connection to Yaroslavsky. Actually, political observers figured it was a ploy by Molina to hurt Yaroslavsky—no friend of hers. The plan died.
What the fight between the two lame ducks showed was the impossibility of getting the five supervisors to do the right thing—create another Latino district, reflecting big Latino population gains.
That is why the U.S. Department of Justice should step in with a lawsuit alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act. It has done that in the past when confronted with recalcitrant LA officials who can’t see beyond their old boy and old girl alliances and petty feuds.