Yvonne Burke's Crumbling Kingdom 

She was hailed as a black pioneer and hero. Did she sell out?

Wednesday, May 21 2008

ONE GRAY SPRING AFTERNOON IN 1994, Britain’s charming Prince Andrew, joined by then-mayor Richard Riordan and other dignitaries, launched that year’s U.K./L.A. Festival at a Hancock Park lawn party. For all the ceremony’s transatlantic glitz, what most enchanted the gathering was the warm, down-home welcome offered by a local woman of uncommon grace. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who the previous year had begun her first term representing the 2nd District on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, was then 61. She cut an elegant, self-assured figure at the podium, in a dark-blue outfit with a white blouse, making the other luminaries seated on the dais look a little like garden gnomes. In that one April moment, Burke, an African-American serving an impoverished but hopeful district, personified a city that was finding its footing on the world stage, aware of both its growing cultural prestige and its national political clout.

Illustration by Ismael Roldan

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click to flip through (6) ILLUSTRATION BY ISMAEL ROLDAN
  • Illustration by Ismael Roldan

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Poodle politics: Splashed across Ebony's cover in 1974, Burke faded into near obscurity, hating to get her hands dirty.

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Today, as Burke nears 76 and prepares to retire at the end of her fourth term on the board, with a June 3 primary election set to decide whether she will be succeeded by Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks or state Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, public perceptions of her are far different.

Most recently, this change can be connected to the fiasco surrounding the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, in her district, and to a 2007 L.A. Times “gotcha” investigation that revealed she did not live in her working-class, southerly district but in tony Brentwood on the Westside. Perhaps worse than these two PR train wrecks is the view of some that Burke has little to show for her decade and a half on the powerful county board of five elected supervisors, who oversee massive poverty, health care and law enforcement budgets and agencies. She is often seen as a pioneer of black empowerment who broke the race barrier in politics and then did little else; a woman whose image always shone brighter than her accomplishments.

Even to county residents who follow politics, the supervisors, often dubbed “the five little kings,” form a mysterious Mandarin body of decision-makers who represent huge swaths of geography yet never seem to move on to higher state offices. They are elected, vote and retire without fanfare — the future probably won’t see too many poli-sci students minoring in Don Knabe studies.

Following her bruising, razor-thin victory over Diane Watson in 1992, however, people’s hopes for Burke, who’d returned to politics after a decade’s absence, were vastly higher than they would be for a more typical county supervisor.

“She had been a congresswoman and acquired a lot of expectations about the new leadership that she would bring,” says Joe Hicks, a veteran civil rights figure and current vice president of the nonprofit Community Advocates Inc. “I know Yvonne personally — she’s a very nice person, very polite. But it’s clear she has not brought in that kind of leadership and a progressive sense of what needs to be done. She performed as a kind of normal, in-the-trenches political figure without any vigor or new energy.”

The disappointment over those dashed hopes goes beyond the criticisms that arose after she got hit for living outside her district or blamed for the gradual but inexorable failure of King/Drew. In fact, her fallen stature affects far more people, and far more profoundly, because she represents a district — which includes Watts, Compton and Lynwood — whose many impoverished citizens are in dire need of public services and relief from violence, substandard housing and an inferior education system.

When Southern California’s reigning black powerhouse at the time, Mayor Tom Bradley, retired in the early 1990s, many political observers saw a void that needed to be filled, especially in the county’s 2nd District, which had been served for 40 years by Kenneth Hahn and which overlaps much of South Los Angeles. The 2nd District needed a pit bull but got a poodle; instead of a fighter, it elected a princess who would never remove her gloves and get into the mire of county politics.

As Diane Watson, now a congresswoman representing the 33rd District, puts it, “I think she has a sense of who her constituents are, but I don’t know if that sense guides her to the right direction: to get her hands dirty.”

BURKE IS OFTEN DESCRIBED AS “regal,” and it’s typical of the divided emotions she inspires that the word is used about her both pejoratively and as a compliment. In a deeper sense, Burke is royalty, belonging to the aristocracy of self-made African-American politicians who were elected in the years following the 1965 Watts riots. Prior to that upheaval, many black elected representatives were ghetto bosses, such as Harlem’s Hulan Jack or scrappy mavericks like San Francisco’s Willie Brown. But from the ashes of Watts and other urban battlegrounds arose a new kind of African-American politician — young, educated and photogenic. And, above all, articulate.

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