September 16, 2019

What kind of Democrat will prevail in Los Angeles 3rd District County race?

Much of the political world is transfixed by the national struggle between Democrats and Republicans. But for residents of Los Angeles County and voters in the county’s 3rd District, this year’s elections are not about which party will prevail, but rather about what kind of Democratic majority will rule L.A.

The race to succeed L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in the 3rd District reveals a great deal about the changing nature of Los Angeles’ Democrats and about the legacy of the local Jewish political participation of an earlier era. The candidates hoping to succeed Yaroslavsky on Nov. 4 have high hopes of carrying their predecessor’s torch, but they will have to navigate a world of local politics that has changed dramatically. 

For four decades, the 3rd District has been the “Jewish seat” on the five-member board. Historically, the Jewish role in Los Angeles was to be a mediator, organizer and facilitator in the city’s transition from a white-dominated, conservative political system to one that is more diverse and progressive. It was a role often played in association with African-Americans. The highlight of the Jewish-black alliance was the rise of Mayor Tom Bradley’s coalition in the City of Los Angeles. It took much longer for a multiracial Democratic majority to gain control of L.A. County’s government.

Before Ed Edelman was elected to the County Board in 1974, a conservative majority was deeply entrenched, challenged mainly by Kenneth Hahn, who represented South Central Los Angeles. Edelman came to the County Board after holding the 5th District City Council seat, then and now the council’s “Jewish seat.” He was succeeded on the council in 1975 by a 26-year-old upstart activist named Zev Yaroslavsky.

Edelman’s election to the board brought another progressive voice to the table, but to get anything done, Edelman quickly saw he had to get along with his powerful conservative colleagues, a task at which he was remarkably successful. 

In 1994, Yaroslavsky again succeeded Edelman, now as Supervisor, at a time when the board had already moved in a more Democratic direction. In 1991, as a result of a lawsuit won by the Latino community over the way the county drew its districts (Garza v. County of Los Angeles), a seat was created that Gloria Molina won, giving the board a Democratic majority for the first time.

This transition made clear that a new constituency, the Latino community, was going to drive a transition to the next stage of Los Angeles politics, as Jews and African-Americans had done before them. (Someday, the county’s Asian-Americans and their fast-growing voting base will add another major player.) And while Jews, Latinos and African-Americans shared many political viewpoints, especially in contrast to white conservatives, there could be divisions of emphasis among the three ethnicities. For Latinos, organized labor was a key to their rise in the 1990s and beyond, and labor’s growth both expanded the Democratic coalition and opened up some divisions within the party between labor- and business-supported Democrats. 

These divisions are likely to play a role in this year’s 3rd District race, just as they are turning up in other campaigns and controversies, including Marshall Tuck vs. Tom Torlakson for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and even the conflict between the LAUSD Board of Education and newly resigned School Superintendent John Deasy.

By the time Yaroslavsky joined the board, it had a firm Democratic majority, with Yvonne Brathwaite Burke replacing Kenneth Hahn in the seat historically held by the African-American community. Mark Ridley-Thomas was elected to fill Burke’s seat in 2008 with the strong support of organized labor. Even so, crafting and holding together a Democratic or progressive majority has been a complicated matter, with three powerful and headstrong Democrats representing three different ethnic communities. Nevertheless, the five-member board has managed to get a lot done. Yaroslavsky himself built a major record of accomplishment, including an immense impact on the environmental protection of the county. 

As the terms of Yaroslavsky and Molina wound down this year, some divisions arose among the three Democratic supervisors. Yaroslavsky and Molina were seen as less likely to accommodate union offers in collective bargaining and to highlight fiscal restraint. When Ridley-Thomas proposed a civilian commission to oversee the sheriff, who is independently elected but whose department is part of county government, Yaroslavsky argued that it was not practical to create such a body in an effective manner.  

The board majority, in actions opposed by Ridley-Thomas, has also made several significant steps to tie the hands of the next board majority, including requiring a supermajority vote for certain steps in collective bargaining with county workers, and by moving ahead with key appointments for top vacant positions.

A Democratic majority on the County Board is nevertheless now a given. By next year, when the two other seats open up, it is even possible that a fourth Democrat will join the board. Now the question is what kind of Democratic majority it will be. When Molina, who at times feuded with labor, is replaced by Hilda Solis, currently a member-elect and a strong labor advocate, labor’s prospects will be enhanced. 

The contenders for the Nov. 4 election are Democrats Bobby Shriver and Sheila Kuehl, candidates who present significant differences in how they envision the direction of that majority. Kuehl, who has won the endorsement of popular U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, has spoken strongly in defense of county workers, especially those who provide services to the community, such as nurses and firefighters, and is the favored candidate of labor. She has highlighted her legislative experience as a member of the California State Assembly and Senate, saying that her successes there demonstrate her ability to get along with colleagues in order to get things done.  

With his background as a venture capitalist and as an attorney and journalist, Shriver presents himself as the more pro-business candidate and has received significant financial support during his campaign from the business community. He has emphasized his aspiration to be a change agent on the County Board and has linked himself to Yaroslavsky’s orientation toward fiscal restraint in collective bargaining and on other spending issues. He says he will pull the county in a more creative direction through new ideas, while also drawing on his local experience as a Santa Monica City Councilmember and as that city’s mayor.

In a debate between Kuehl and Shriver hosted by CSU L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles and ABC-TV at Santa Monica College on Oct. 17, the candidates’ responses to a few questions showed their differences. One seemingly obscure issue concerned how members of the County Employee Relations Commission, which is set up to settle labor disputes, should be selected. An astute observer, Bill Boyarsky (a Jewish Journal columnist), closely examined how they answered on the website, noting that in this case, Kuehl sided with labor, Shriver with management. 

When asked whom Yaroslavsky, who has not endorsed in the race, should support, Shriver highlighted his fiscal responsibility, and Kuehl cited her work on the environment and social services. The desire for Yaroslavsky’s still-unstated backing was illustrated over the weekend when a Shriver mailer that seemed to imply his candidacy had won the coveted endorsement generated a strong denial from Yaroslavsky himself.

Beyond these differences of political identity, the two candidates could not be more different in personality or in their network of friends, associates and supporters. In that, they are far more different from one another than Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, who in running against each other for L.A. mayor last year caused untold grief for people who knew them both and hated having to choose between them.

Kuehl presents a steady, thoroughly informed persona of one who can get things done by doing her homework and by staying in close and continuing contact with her elected colleagues. Shriver gives the impression of an energetic man in a hurry to foster change and to bring others along to his vision by force of his personality and through the strength of his network. 

Kuehl’s friendships run throughout the progressive community, especially those who work in social service and activist groups. For his part, Shriver has generated an eclectic network of friends and supporters, some through his sister, Maria Shriver, others through the Kennedy-Shriver family and community connections and those whom he has cultivated through charitable endeavors. 

We have yet to hear the harshest arguments from these two candidates against each other in what has been a fairly polite contest, given the high stakes for the county. With large independent cash reserves available to provide (legally uncoordinated) support for each candidate, we can expect some harder hits in the home stretch, some by the candidates, some by independent committees, and often in direct-mail fliers, by email and in other ways far from the prying eyes of the media.  

Whoever wins may help define anew the 3rd District, which today has a more tentative political identity than in the 50 years since Edelman first joined the board. Jewish politics has morphed from a geographically based number of seats that tend to be held by Jews to broader electoral success in Los Angeles  — Mayor Eric Garcetti, for one, is L.A.’s first elected Jewish mayor, and the other two citywide elected officials are Jewish as well — and yet fewer individual seats are now considered strictly Jewish. There is no reason to expect that the next and succeeding 3rd District supervisors will be Jewish any more than that the candidate who wins the seat of retiring 40-year congressman Henry Waxman will be.

And yet Jewish voters, who have backed Waxman and Yaroslavsky with great devotion for decades, and whose expected high turnout is likely to be particularly impactful in what will probably be a low-turnout election, will have a great deal to do with determining where this county’s board majority goes from here.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.