By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“Nobody ever thought the hospital would be closed!” recalls Rick Taylor, a longtime political consultant who has worked on several city ballot initiatives and counsels local officials. “I think she was guilty of thinking we’d get a fourth or fifth chance.”
In 2005, after she at first agreed to the closure of the hospital’s trauma center, Burke was upstaged by fiery Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who led demonstrators at a noisy rally against King/Drew’s closure.
Burke about-faced, declaring, “That hospital will be closed over my dead body.” That volte-face reinstated her street cred with pro-hospital activists but deeply alienated her fellow board members.
Hall of Administration insiders, who declined to be quoted in this story even without attribution, describe Burke as a supervisor who was so averse to confrontation that she allowed King/Drew to close rather than take on its clueless administrators face to face, a charge she denies.
“She failed miserably to represent the community’s interest,” says Joe Hicks, about the growing crisis at King/Drew. “It was her responsibility to consistently [insist] at the board that federal and state authorities decide whether the hospital was operating at the highest level. Even when that knowledge came to light through the work of investigative journalists, she still shrank from acting. Instead, she operated in the shadow of Maxine Waters and joined some loudmouths at the bear cage to demand it stay open.”
In the end, Burke allowed herself to become a helpless bystander to the greatest disaster to befall the 2nd District under her tenure.
Her deer-in-the-headlights paralysis stood in stark contrast to the kind of hand-to-hand combat fellow supervisor Gloria Molina eagerly embraced to wrest as many funding concessions as possible for the rebuilding of her district’s L.A. County–USC Medical Center — pitiless and far-reaching warfare in which Molina called on allies and cashed in political chits from Sacramento to Washington, D.C.
“The core issue was leadership,” says Larry Aubry of Burke’s role in King/Drew. “She seemed not to have any motivation — I heard more from [Zev] Yaroslavsky and Molina on it than her.”
On this point, Aubry and commentator Hutchinson agree.
“You never heard anyone bring up her name,” says Hutchinson. “Or take potshots at her — there was nothing to take shots at.”
Burke herself claims that the closing of King hospital is “absolutely” considered a mark against her and that it is “obviously my biggest disappointment.”
“It was in the news,” she says. “People say it should never have closed. People said it was my fault that those nurses didn’t perform during the Rodriguez case. I worked very hard to keep it open.”
(The supervisors closed the facility only after the death of Edith Isabel Rodriguez, who for three days at King/Drew was told she was not seriously ill, only to die unattended on the ER waiting-room floor of a perforated bowel.)
“Blaming Yvonne Burke for King/Drew is like blaming her for AIDS — which her district has the highest rate of,” counters Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally. The veteran South Los Angeles politician, who served in the assembly at the time of the Watts riots, declined to answer a list of questions about Burke but did offer his opinion that criticisms of her are unfair and that the L.A. Times story about her living in Brentwood was “unethical.”
The closing of ranks around Burke by her fellow African-American politicians is, perhaps, more than an act of solidarity.
Once-black neighborhoods throughout South Los Angeles have in fact been majority Latino for years, as Latinos moved in amid an African-American exodus. After the 1992 riots, tens of thousands of blacks fled to the San Fernando and Antelope valleys and the Inland Empire, and even back to the South. Blacks made up almost 13 percent of the county’s population when Burke became supervisor, while today they account for about 8.69 percent.
For now, however, the culture of black political incumbency remains intact, and Burke will be succeeded by another African-American Democrat — either Councilman Parks or state Senator Ridley-Thomas. Burke has endorsed Parks, a man whose imperial bearing more closely matches her own. While Parks has been known to bristle in public, Burke always appears placid and civil at board meetings, ever in search of the right compromise.
But Burke’s critics claim her outward show of listening to reason and changing her mind on an issue points to a lack of civic philosophy at best, and to political spinelessness at worst.
They even cite one of her triumphs — the blocking of a power plant near Hahn Park — as an example of her lack of a thought-out political agenda: Burke, they claim, originally supported the plant. It was only when the surrounding community shouted loud and long enough that she switched sides.
Today, she disputes this view. “I didn’t immediately take a position,” Burke tells L.A. Weekly. “I certainly did not support it at first.”
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