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Anointing the Savior 

Is Herb Wesson hoping his King-Drew role turns into more?

Thursday, Jan 20 2005
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L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Burke picked former state Assembly speaker Herb Wesson last month to tackle the well-publicized problems at Martin Luther King—Charles Drew Medical Center. Did she also pick Wesson to replace her on the board?

The rumors of a grand strategy of succession began flying around the county Hall of Administration even before December, when Burke introduced the termed-out speaker emeritus as her point person on King-Drew. The two officials have strong ties. Wesson, a former staffer to City Councilman Nate Holden, became Burke’s chief of staff on her election to the board in 1992 and remained in the post until his own election to the Assembly six years later.

The ex-speaker has made clear that he has his eye on the state Senate seat of Kevin Murray, whose 26th District slot opens up next year due, again, to term limits. But a shot at a county board seat is a once-in-a lifetime event, and anyone who grabs it has a nice spot from which to retire after a term-limited but still ample 12-year maximum tenure. Once you’re on the board, you’re home free. Board incumbents are rarely defeated. In fact, it hasn’t happened since Michael Antonovich beat Baxter Ward in 1980, and Antonovich is still there. Hardly anyone even files to challenge a sitting supervisor, and when they do the challenges amount to a minor annoyance for the incumbent. Surely Wesson, board watchers said, would grab the opportunity to run for Burke’s seat in four years.

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But, under one scenario, he may not have to. Wesson was a fierce supporter of ex-Governor Gray Davis and had an on-again, off-again relationship with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it may have been on-again enough for the governor to consider appointing Wesson to the seat if Burke resigns early.

Wesson dismisses any talk of a grand plan.

"I came here to try to help with the King-Drew Medical Center, knowing there would be a variety of rumors as to why I’m here," Wesson said last week. "But my cause is just and genuine."

Burke’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Appointing your own replacement, or arranging to have someone else do it, is not unprecedented in Los Angeles County. Until Sheriff Lee Baca defeated the (deceased) incumbent Sherman Block six years ago, it was standard operating procedure for sheriffs to designate a successor and step down to avoid the electorate from messing things up.

Under state law, the governor fills vacancies on county boards of supervisors. That’s how Burke got to the board in the first place. Then-Governor Jerry Brown picked her in 1979 to fill an open spot in the Fourth District, the (then) mostly white and relatively conservative South Bay and southeast county area. But it didn’t stick. Voters felt Brown was trying to pull them too far to the left and they ousted Burke, a black woman and a Democrat, to replace her with Deane Dana, a white male Republican.

But Burke returned to the board in 1992, this time being elected to succeed the beloved but ailing Kenneth Hahn in the more welcoming Second District, a traditionally African-American swath of the county. Burke has promised that this latest term would be her last, but she has not explicitly promised to serve out the full four years.

A move to appoint Wesson would serve two purposes. It would gain Schwarzenegger some useful support in the state’s largest county. It would also secure for the district an African-American supervisorial incumbent at a time when the district is becoming increasingly Latino. An end to the African-American presence on the board would be intolerable to many black voters in the district who are losing their clout due to the demographic shift.

Even if black voters still hold sway in the district, a Wesson appointment would serve to check Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas — the region’s most outspoken African-American critic of the board’s role at King-Drew over the last decade. Both Wesson and Ridley-Thomas enjoy strong support in the same communities of south Los Angeles County, but the two men are rivals, with Wesson holding stronger ties to the traditional power structure in the region and Ridley-Thomas representing a new wave of black leadership.

Ridley-Thomas won their last contest, which was fought by proxies in the race to succeed Wesson in the 47th Assembly District last year. Wesson and Burke backed attorney Rickey Ivie, while Ridley-Thomas backed the winner, Karen Bass. (Ivie finished third behind Bass and Wesson’s former boss, Nate Holden.)

The two men are almost certain to face off in person at some point, if not for the board seat, then for Murray’s Senate seat.

Wesson said his primary role in Burke’s office is to serve as a liaison to the community of people who are affected by, or take an interest in, the hospital that Kenneth Hahn created in the black community in response to longstanding neglect of black residents that was little understood or appreciated in the corridors of power until the 1965 Watts violence. He said he also wanted to dispel the contention that the community resists change at King-Drew. He noted that his two sons, severely injured in a car accident eight years ago, were well cared for when they were taken to King-Drew. Both have recovered fully, he said, due in large part to the treatment they got at the hospital.

As Burke’s chief of staff in the 1990s, when the problems at the medical center could get little attention from the board, Wesson said he had a role in deflecting criticism of the hospital. But he rejected the notion that he, or anyone in Burke’s office, dragged their feet when change was needed.

"We never protected anybody," Wesson said. "I don’t think we ever covered anybody."

Ridley-Thomas said he didn’t necessarily believe Wesson’s return to the Hall of Administration would make any difference in who the next supervisor would be.

"I’m not sure it’s clear what it means at this point," the assemblyman said. "If it’s an attempt to position him for a job four years from now, that’s a little hard to figure."

Ridley-Thomas, who acknowledged that he may run for either Murray’s Senate seat or Burke’s board spot, continues to stake out ground on King-Drew that differs from most black officials in Los Angeles, pressing for more sweeping changes.

"There’s a mantra," he said. "‘Save King-Drew.’ My position has been and will be, ‘Fix King-Drew.’ Address the problems. Straighten it out. Patient care first."

As for Wesson’s role at King-Drew in the past, as Burke’s top aide, and now, as her point person for the hospital, Ridley-Thomas said simply that "the record will speak for itself."

Wesson insisted that if it was his top goal to position himself for election, he could have picked a less controversial job.

"A lot of political people suggested I not do this," he said. "But I did. And there will be rumors. I just left Sacramento, where you can walk from the south lawn to the north end and hear 20 rumors that have no basis in fact. It makes for good conversation."

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