Back in 1996, the 9th City Council District made the papers when a tree was cut down for no particular reason. It had thrived for decades at 43rd Street and Central Avenue and had been festooned by residents as a community Christmas tree. In a neighborhood grown accustomed to crime, people were at a loss to explain this perplexing bit of vandalism. Councilwoman Rita Walters immediately vowed to plant another tree, though of course it would take many years to replace the old icon and then only if it escaped the wrath of vandals and other unseen but unmistakable forces hostile to growth. For the time being the 9th District had no tree, no solution to the absence, and suffered yet another small indignity that nonetheless would have a big effect on the local psyche for a long time.
Pity the 9th, a place that has lost its plenty in small but steady increments over the years and is now hard-pressed to make up for lost time, to say nothing of lost trees. About a quarter of the district lies downtown and the rest lies in deep South-Central, but it is the latter part whose entrenched problems are really the bane of the whole. Problems are especially vexing because not very long ago the 9th was the seat of black culture and black political ambition in Los Angeles; it could be no other way because of the iron grip of segregation that lasted officially until the 50s and after made the old Eastside -- east of Main, west of Alameda, before the term South-Central was a gleam in anybodys eye -- a de facto black ghetto. Still, it was a ghetto that produced everybody from Tom Bradley to Yvonne Burke, but in the last generation it has fallen upon hard times, some say irrevocably. Even the crop of candidates vying to replace Rita Walters are promising not to restore the old glory of the Eastside but to simply make it a viable place to live again: Paved streets, safe neighborhoods and up-to-code infrastructure have become the prevailing ambition where bigger dreams used to be. Call it a sign of the times.
Another indication of how far the 9th has fallen is that the race itself is netting little attention. Six people are running, three of whom have good shots at winning and three of whom dont. The front-runners are Assemblyman Carl Washington (D-Paramount), census outreach director and veteran council aide Jan Perry, and Public Works Commissioner Woody Fleming. The other three are retired LAPD Sergeant Alexander Gomez, public-relations specialist Pauline Clay, and homeless activist and seasoned politico Ted Hayes. All the candidates are black except Gomez, who is Latino -- a sign of old times and a glint of the new. Like the rest of South L.A., the 9th has undergone wild demographic shifts in the last 20 years, moving from predominantly black to considerably Latino, but the electorate is still chiefly black at 60 percent. All the candidates agree that the lions share of resources and political influence has gone to the downtown part of the 9th, which includes Little Tokyo, Staples Center and the Central Library, leaving the district effectively resegregated by the north-south MasonDixon Line of the 10 freeway.
Perry, 45, appears to have the most sophisticated plan to bring some balance to this picture, which includes tax credits to stimulate new housing construction, a public-interest trust fund to bolster after-school programs, and a historical preservation project for Central Avenue.
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Washington is a 36-year-old minister whose campaign signs call him Reverend -- a nod to older black voters who are likely to be churchgoers -- and who is best known for helping to broker a gang truce between the Crips and the Bloods back in 1992. Fleming, 54, has lived in the district since 1946, giving him a ground-level perspective of the 9th he says the other candidates do not have. Fleming says he has been disappointed in the years of black leadership that have translated into little progress for the district, but adds the only thing that matters now is the future. Everything changes in life, nothing stays the same, he says. The common bond in the district is economics, better education, better senior-citizen centers. Downtown has taken all the money but now its payback time.
Fleming is the toughest talker and the most mercurial of the bunch, which has created some public-relations problems for him and added sparks to what has, in fact, been a drab race. At a candidates forum, he accused Perry of being a community sellout because she is married to a white, wealthy Jewish Westside lawyer who is coming to take their land; at another recent forum, the Los Angeles Sentinel reported that Fleming got into an extended shouting match with a staffer at ACORN, a community-organizing outfit that has become a grassroots force in the 9th and is endorsing Washington. Perry and Washington have raised virtually the same amount of money so far -- about $160,000 apiece -- and as the candidates to beat have so far stayed above the fray. Im an independent voice, says Washington, who was raised in housing projects in South-Central and Watts. In the Assembly I have experience as a coalition builder, of extracting the fair share of resources for my area and not alienating people.
Fleming, at one point considered the candidate to beat, has raised roughly $110,000. Flemings acrimony toward Perry certainly predates this race: Both used to work for Walters, the incumbent who must step down because of term limits. Perry was her chief of staff and Fleming an aide who worked directly for her. Perry was abruptly fired by the councilwoman in 1998, and the next year Perry filed a lawsuit against Fleming, alleging that he precipitated her firing by telling Walters that she was the author of an anonymous letter that slandered the councilwomans son. The suit was ultimately dismissed, but the bad feeling lingers, though Perry says shes put all that behind her. Rita [Walters] and the things surrounding her are not an issue for me, says Perry, a former paralegal who says shes running on a pro-family platform. Im focused on bringing new service-industry jobs back to the 9th, on creating opportunities for small and home-based businesses -- especially important to women -- things like that. In a muted critique of Fleming, she adds, I dont see simply providing constituent services as progress.
Ironically, it has been Gomez who has been most critical of the status-quo black leadership in the 9th that is best epitomized by the late Gilbert Lindsay, councilman for 27 years who would probably have served more time had he not died in office. Gomez says he is most concerned about the lost generations of youth, both black and Latino, who are the real victims of political neglect. There are no playgrounds, parks, batting cages in South-Central, says the former community-relations officer with the Newton Division. There are almost 12,000 kids involved in gangs in District 9. These kids are going to either be homeless, on drugs or in prison, and not a soul cares. Our kids are not going on to college. Neither is the 9th District graduating to any great fortunes, though Ted Hayes, the least-moneyed candidate with $1,700 so far, is the most optimistic. I know I cant compete, he says almost cheerfully. But I believe that my image is on the hearts and minds of the people already. The 9th District has gone through 20 years of neglect with Gil and Rita. But its the district with the most potential, it is the heart of L.A., and if I gain that heart and mind, itll cause tidal waves of change. It will bring excitement, if nothing else. In this sad and rather soporific election season in L.A.s original inner city, excitement will do just fine.