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Top Dog Politics

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
Barbara Perkins may well have been the best candidate for the 7th District council seat in Tuesday’s city elections. Besides being up on the issues, she had the most experience in community activities, high recognition in the North Valley and the longest-standing connections at City Hall. She seemed to know just about everyone in her district, which is the San Fernando Valley’s most ethnically diverse. She’s lived there for a very long time. And she packs a walloping charm.

Of all the contenders, she’s networked the closest to past and present elected officials, dealing effectively with numerous politicians who didn’t always agree with each other. Such traits would normally have put her at the head of the candidate pack. But going into this race, she was — most optimistically — handicapped at Number 3 out of six.

Perkins didn’t think this was fair, and it’s not hard to see why. "It should not be an ethnic issue," said Perkins, who is not of the ethnicity "required" to represent this district. "It should be an issue of who’s the best for the job."

I’ve heard it before from many a candidate, and I’ll hear it again. But this was, in fact, the very first time I’d ever heard this statement coming from an African-American. How did this situation come to pass?

 

It’s seven years now since the 7th District was considered pretty much a solid Anglo seat. Back then, this post was the blue-collar fief of the council’s crustiest member, Ernani Bernardi. And even with Bernardi’s retirement, the district did not pass easily out of Anglo hands. Indeed, Latino Richard Alarcon’s 1993 win over Anglo firefighter Lyle Hall was an extremely narrow one, a matter of less than 234 votes — and somewhat tainted at that.

Against Lyle Hall, Alarcon fielded a last-minute canard from the mouth of senescent ex-Mayor Tom Bradley. The calumny, contained in a hit-piece mailer, accused Hall, a liberal Democrat, of being a racist.

"Landslide" Alarcon, it turns out, was just warming up. When he ran for the state Senate last year — a race he won by 27 votes — it also was a dirty little lie that probably put him over the top. This time, Alarcon accused his opponent, former Assemblyman Richard Katz, of taking part in a conspiracy to keep Latinos away from the polls in Orange County during Congressman Bob Dornan’s first run against victorious challenger Loretta Sanchez. (Katz, in fact, had very nearly done the opposite, by calling attention to the Republican shenanigans and initiating an investigation from the floor of the state Legislature.)

Now you may notice a pattern here: It seems that Landslide Alarcon has developed a technique for winning elections that might turn the stomachs of less brutal political pros — by sticking in a critical last-minute lie not subject to verification before voters hit the polls. This method has taken in just enough people twice now, but, of course, it aided Latino empowerment.

Which brings us back to Barbara Perkins — and the race to succeed Alarcon. The 7th, which includes the largely Latino working-class enclaves of Panorama City, Pacoima and Lake View Terrace, is one of three "Latino districts" among the council’s 15. Nonetheless, Perkins is more experienced by far than the youthful Alex Padilla (who’s backed by unions and the mayor) and more versed in community/City Council activism than Corinne Sanchez (who has City Council support).

Yet, among many Latino voters, the district’s largest population segment, Perkins’ qualifications didn’t score as high as the connotation of her last name. And if there was any doubt about that, the money behind Padilla and Sanchez was more than enough to carry the argument. (It’s worth noting that 93 percent of Padilla’s funding came from outside the district; ditto for 90 percent of Sanchez’s financial support.)

America wasn’t meant to be an electoral ethnocracy, but then, neither blacks nor Latinos invented identity politics. White people have been mostly voting for white people for a long time. Perkins could have tried the gambit herself by following a script suggested by former L.A. Councilman Bobby Farrell, a Perkins backer. Farrell, in an interview with Warren Olney on KCRW, suggested that Perkins might make it into the runoff by building a coalition of black and white voters. That Perkins declined to follow this route is probably to her credit.

The frameworks we’re seeing here go back deep into the history of privilege and oppression, of one group feeling it has the natural right to exert its privileges over another. For years, this city told black and brown voters that the time when they’d have someone of their ethnicity — however well-qualified — representing them in office was "never." Depending on where you live, that’s all changing, or that’s all changed.

Poet Paul Verlaine once asked what happens "when never becomes always." A lot of things, I suppose. The most amazing of them, perhaps, would be that the best-qualified person gets elected to the City Council, whatever his, or her, color.

Meanwhile, back in reality, one can only marvel at Alarcon’s agile expediency: Alarcon’s hit piece against Katz was aimed clearly at Latinos, but the earlier hit piece, accusing the firefighter of racism, was targeted toward blacks (12 percent of the district’s registered voters). It was a rare three-cushion racial-polarity shot.

Still, poetic justice could prevail the next time Landslide Alarcon runs for office — possibly for Congress against incumbent Representative Howard Berman. I imagine that an entirely accurate accounting of state Senator Alarcon’s personal life — including and subsequent to his post-inaugural breakup with loyal wife Corina — would provide a good deal of last-minute impetus for a number of undecided voters.

Broadening the Ethnic Franchise

 

In June, Los Angeles gets to vote on the new city charter.

Whatever low proportion of the citizenry comes out also will vote on expanding the City Council from 15 to 21, or even 25, members. If 25 seats wins, the theory goes, greater Pacoima will have a chance to get a council district of its own. So will the central Asian areas, and so, for that matter, will the perennially, tragically and famously underrepresented enclave of Watts, now a mute appendage of Republican Rudy Svorinich’s San Pedro–based 15th District.

Candidate Barbara Perkins, unsurprisingly, backs the 25-seat proposal. A lot of people don’t. The usual argument against more representation in these parts is that adding more politicians won’t solve any problems. That’s indeed a pithy argument, but carry that to its logical conclusion and we should be pushing for fewer elected officials or no representative government whatsoever.

That reasoning, however, may carry the day, Los Angeles being a city that has long believed Less Is More when it comes to local government. But if voters decide that they want the added representation that 66 percent more council members can offer, it might also encourage the overdue expansion of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — each of whose five members now represents 2 million county residents.

The latest proposal comes forward some seven years after voters defeated an earlier expansion plan. The current try is supported by state Senator Richard Polanco, who wants state legislators to put the measure on a future local ballot. The specific plan itself is the brainchild of Alan Clayton of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association. Perhaps the loudest knock against this proposal is that it would provide a new, non-term-limited seat on the Board of Supervisors for sponsor Polanco, who’ll be termed out of his Senate seat in a couple of years.

Clayton says this isn’t true. Polanco’s current power base, he argues, is the current and future 1st District, which now elects Gloria Molina. The new east L.A. County district he proposes (along with another new district, serving the San Fernando Valley) "stretches from East Los Angeles to Whittier and extends to Azusa." He adds that "Polanco would have to move to run there."

Polanco aside, this plan would re-ordain the political balance on a county board that is officially nonpartisan. Clayton says his plan would produce four liberal seats, one moderate seat, and leave conservatives with the two seats they have now. With that distribution, the board’s long history as a largely conservative force would be over.


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