Photo by Virginia Lee HunterAT FIRST GLANCE, THE 10TH DISTRICT CITY Council race offers voters the same choice they've had for the last 12 years: Nate Holden or not. ("What?" one incredulous district resident exclaimed. "Is he running again?") Snicker if you must, but the veteran councilman has proven he is nothing if not a survivor; for all the public gaffes, sexual-harassment scandals, distinctly unpopular stances (remember his support of Daryl Gates after the Rodney King beating?) and impolitic declarations to the press, Holden has always prevailed where it matters most: at the polls. This time around, he faces challenges from some particularly well-financed folk who are stressing a changing of the guard, trumpeting coalition-building around common economic and other issues and thereby tacitly calling for an end to black-interest politics in a district that is fast becoming one of the most ethnically diverse in the city.
The choice for the future is clear, right? Well, maybe.
The 10th, which encompasses Koreatown, the Wilshire corridor, CrenshawWest Adams, Midcity and parts of Pico Union, is at a watershed moment in its history, a history of black political power that began when Tom Bradley was elected councilman in 1963. Today, that legacy is colliding head on with a shrinking black populace and black political retreat; the result is that 10th District dynamics are more complicated than anyone would care to admit -- anyone, ironically, except the incorrigible incumbent himself. Throughout his tumultous council career, Holden has never hesitated to loudly voice support of black causes, from affirmative action to investigating possible CIA involvement in crack-cocaine trafficking. But as black advocacy continues to fall from public grace while black issues remain viable, old-school Holden finds himself in the unlikely position of being the real maverick of this season's crop of candidates.
To be sure, his opposition is sturdy: Madison Shockley is a progressive-minded reverend with family ties in the district and a well-honed sense of community mission. Korean-born Scott Suh, at 32 the youngest of the group, has an engaging enthusiasm along with a wealth of business and employment development experience. Marsha Brown, the dark horse of the race, is a small-business owner with a soccer-mom exuberance who is nonetheless well informed. All three preach the importance of constituents of all colors collectively shoring up the fortunes of individual groups. A good idea, and hardly a point of philosophical contention in any camp, but the reality that is partially responsible for keeping Holden in office is that most of the black voters in the 10th -- who still make up 70 percent of the electorate -- do not appear particularly concerned with coalitions. As the millennium fades and diversity replaces ethnic descriptors in the national political parlance, many black voters are looking for someone to keep their issues at the fore and to carry those issues into the next century; that someone, at this point, may still be Nate Holden.
"Older black folks say, 'We want to coalesce with everybody, but nobody wants to coalesce with us,'" says political analyst Kerman Maddox. "I agree with them. People say that Nate's not giving in to that."
Another longtime political observer says that "Nate's crazy, but he's a fighter," exactly the sort of personality black people are going to need when redistricting and reapportionment come up next year. "Look, I don't like him. But given the landscape, the racism that still exists, the power struggles, you need someone like that at the table in City Hall. Nate's no visionary, but in this era of scarce resources for black people, vision may not be the thing."
HOLDEN'S OPPONENTS, TWO BLACK AND one Asian, all heartily disagree, maintaining that he stands for little besides perpetuating the status quo.
"The expansion of our interests is always assumed to betray those interests, but it's the only way to insure black folks' future," says Shockley, pastor of the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship in Midcity. "I take a pragmatic approach. As recently as 10 years ago we used identity politics to address our disenfranchisement, but at this advanced stage of our political evolution that no longer applies."
Not surprisingly, Shockley developed his political sensibilities in the multiethnic Coalition L.A., a grassroots neighborhood empowerment organization in which he is an active member, and which is in fact sponsoring his candidacy. His church has been a venue of cross-cultural dialogue since the riots, and his many interfaith involvements include the African-American/ Korean-American Christian Alliance. Among others endorsing him are the Los Angeles Times, Rev. James Lawson of Holman Methodist Church, the Salvadoran Political Action Committee and civil rights attorney Angela Oh.
Besides full ethnic cooperation, Shockley's platform adopts many points in Coalition L.A.'s recently authored plan of action: creation of neighborhood councils, more parks (the densely developed 10th has the fewest of all council districts), stricter enforcement of slum ordinances as the housing stock grows more scarce. His war chest of roughly $120,000 consists of mostly small donations to what he calls "the people's campaign," and he criticizes Holden for taking his largest contributions from Koreatown merchants and developers, the most significant business community of the 10th District but its least significant voting population. It's a curious but perfect arrangement, says Shockley, whereby "blacks vote for Holden, but they don't finance his campaign, so there's no real accountability."
Suh is at least as pragmatic as Shockley, though his emphasis is more on economic, rather than social, equity. Suh believes that it is incumbent upon Korean financiers -- bankers, businessmen -- to spread the wealth around by helping aspiring black business owners acquire loans and technical assistance; he believes such relationships would not only spur the economy, but would go a long way toward ameliorating black-Korean tensions. "Sharing culture is fine," he says, "but culture is not what gets people together. It's people utilizing resources and identifying common ground." The candidate is quick to point out that this is something he has already done -- with an Entrepreneur Program for African-Americans and Latinos and an annual job expo at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. He also favors building an international trade center and establishing a small-business service center.
Keen as he is on private enterprise, Suh's career thus far has been in the public sector, first with the city's Department of Water and Power and then with the county's Employment Development Department as a job counselor -- an interesting twist on the tradition of many black pols who started in public service. He's also picked up some black support: endorsements from longtime black business advocate Muhammad Nassardeen, founder of Recycling Black Dollars; community activist Narishema Osei, who has agitated for more black employment on construction sites throughout post-riot L.A.; and L.C. Scott, owner of Midcity's World on Wheels skating rink. Nassardeen says that Holden talks the black talk, but ultimately doesn't walk the walk. "A Korean councilman might feel more interested in the black community than Nate," he says. "For the last 12 years, Nate hasn't used his leverage in Koreatown to do anything, like maybe getting a corporation like Hyundai to locate in all of those closed car lots on Crenshaw. We have to start building different coalitions."
As well as a different ethical atmosphere, adds candidate Brown, a black woman who believes that 36 years of black male leadership in the 10th District is enough. "Me and all the kids that I mentor were down at a City Council meeting last year, during the time when Nate was going through all those sexual-harassment suits and [Mike] Hernandez and [Richard] Alatorre were facing drug charges," she says. "My kids turned to me and said, 'You can do all this and still be in office? Why don't you run?' That's when I decided to."
Brown is president and co-founder of Fu-Gen Inc. Research and Investigation, a private-investigation firm that specializes in worker's compensation, fraud, liability and sexual-harassment cases. Like Suh, she is campaigning as an advocate for small-business growth, chiefly by "unbundling" clusters of city contracts that go to large firms, thereby increasing opportunities to bid. She is also a tireless youth mentor who runs MOSTE (Motivating Our Students Through Experience), a volunteer outfit that presents seminars at Audubon Middle School on everything from sex education to proper workplace behavior. Her endorsements include the Ventura chapter of the Black American Political Action Committee and the National Women's Political Caucus. "Most important, the people have endorsed me," says Brown, whose campaign has raised a respectable $50,000 thus far. "I'm a fresh person, I'm not polluted, I don't owe anybody favors. That scares people."
THESE BEING THE '90S, THINGS ARE NOT (excuse the expression) black and white.
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A lot of black people don't like Nate Holden. He's never been a big-picture guy, they say, and as much as he may tout black power, he has never crafted a real agenda for black development, economic and otherwise. What he does do is campaign ferociously; not only has he raised $190,000 so far, but he managed to persuade Joint Council 8 of the powerful Service Employees International Union to rescind its early support of Shockley and throw its weight behind him.
Holden has a rep for ensuring that potholes are filled, streets are paved, neighborhood nuisances like graffiti are addressed. He loves to show up at block-club picnics, small fund-raisers and backyard barbecues in his district, coat slung over one shoulder and city proclamation in hand for your grandma's 90th birthday or your parents' 50th wedding anniversary. A graduate of the Kenny Hahn school of grassroots governance, he prides himself on staying close to the streets -- not a visionary move, but one that nonetheless stands in stark contrast to the intellectual posturings of a Mark Ridley-Thomas or the inaccessibility of a Rita Walters. Those who vote for Holden remember the days of segregation when basic services in black neighborhoods were not a given, and in these days of ongoing urban decay a trimmed tree or a paved street looms significant in the civic scheme of things.
Holden himself insists that he has always done what his constituents want. "I come with training and a lot of experience," he declares. "I'm going to be with the new leadership. I'm supported by people of all stripes, but if people who are in the most need are minority, I help them. New is not necessarily better."
Come April, and possibly June, 10th District voters will decide if that's true.