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Yvonne Burke's Crumbling Kingdom

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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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.

 

“Most African-American politicians then were part of some state party machinery,” says political scientist Raphael Sonnenshein. “She’s a pretty big figure — a long-standing [one] who comes from a period when there weren’t many black figures, especially when it came to black women.”

“Part of what gives her star power,” says a person intimately familiar with the workings of the board, and who requested anonymity, “is that her constituents live through her. When I’ve seen glamorous Yvonne with little old black ladies, I can see they feel pride. I think they’re being that physical person up there.”

This longtime board employee finds the old-guard reaction of embracing Burke as a vicarious figure “very disturbing.”

Perle Yvonne Watson, as Burke was christened, had always been a well-spoken achiever. “Since we were kids in Foshay Junior High School, she had the ability to articulate, debate and make her point,” recalls childhood friend and sometime bitter political rival Diane Watson, who is no relation. “She’d win oratorical contests and I’d get the compliments. It happened so often, I would just say, ‘Thank you!’”

Burke, who graduated from USC’s Gould School of Law in 1956, was appointed a decade later by Governor Pat Brown to the McCone Commission investigating L.A.’s riots, and soon thereafter began accumulating a string of impressive career firsts. Burke became California’s first black assemblywoman in 1966, the West Coast’s first black congresswoman in 1972, the first congresswoman to give birth while serving in the House, the first black woman to head the Federal Reserve of San Francisco and the first black, female L.A. County Supervisor to take a seat in Room 381B at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.

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Yet like the cycle of NASA firsts of that era (first American in space, first man on the moon, first man to swing a six iron on the moon), on the ground, Burke’s pioneering achievements were more symbolic than meaningful to her constituencies.

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Rena Kosnett

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Asked to list Burke's accomplishments, Larry Aubry of the Los Angeles Sentinel said, "I don't know of any."

Rena Kosnett

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Damien Goodmon predicts tragedies on the Burke-approved Expo Line.

“It’s really unfortunate that she came out of retirement,” says Najee Ali, executive director of the L.A.-based civil rights organization Project Islamic H.O.P.E., of her decision to return to politics in 1992. “Had she stayed retired, she would have gone down as a trailblazer for African-Americans and women. Instead, she hung on and became like Sugar Ray Leonard and Michael Jordan.”

Damien Goodmon, 26, has lived in Yvonne Burke’s district his entire life. Like many African-Americans in South Los Angeles, he had heard of her firsts and civil rights credentials and assumed she would be someone his community could turn to in a fight, only to learn otherwise: “This was a woman who’d done impressive things, but in her twilight years, she stopped being concerned about her legacy.”

Goodmon’s fight began in 2006, when he joined other organizers to get the Metropolitan Transit Authority (Metro) to improve so-called grade separations and underpasses for the Expo Line light rail, which will open its first stretch from downtown to Culver City in 2010.

This was a crucial if obscure issue in working-class South Los Angeles, where light-rail trains speed across streets shared by pedestrians and drivers, dozens of whom have been killed after ignoring blinking warning arms at grade crossings and driving their cars onto the tracks. Jefferson Park and Crenshaw district residents had been outraged to learn that the trains would run at street level — unlike the far safer underground tracks near USC and the overhead tracks in Culver City, built mostly with money from state bond Proposition 1B.

Culver City fought hard to reject an original plan of unsightly street-level tracks, whose crossings can be death traps. And now the war against street-level trains has grown intense in South Los Angeles, where residents claim Metro is planning no fewer than 26 street crossings east of La Brea Avenue for the Expo Line. One of those crossings is planned at the crowded intersection near Dorsey High School, not far from sidewalks that are jammed with kids on weekdays. Another is planned near the Foshay Learning Center, the scene of Burke’s youthful public-speaking triumphs. (A spokesman for the Exposition Metro Line Construction Authority says the number of crossings is still in flux while it finalizes plans.)

 

When this controversy first hit the fan, Burke was chairwoman of the Metro board, which was then selling the Expo Line to the public by comparing it to Pasadena’s Gold Line train. But that spin by Burke and her Metro colleagues was never true. Activists say the fitting analogy is the Blue Line, with its at-grade route cutting through the heart of congested, low-income neighborhoods.

In its 18 years of operation, the 22-mile Blue Line has become the funeral train of Los Angeles County’s light-rail system, its 90 deaths and 800 accidents making it the nation’s deadliest railway.

Burke has done little on this count, despite her access to huge sums of money as a member of the Board of Supervisors and as a Metro board member overseeing the $3 billion-a-year transit system. Yet almost all of the mayhem has occurred in her own 2nd District — a reality that only italicizes the disclosure that she and her husband really live in light-rail-free Brentwood. (Burke describes the dustup over the L.A. Times revelation as “a tremendous inconvenience.”)

“When you live among the people, you have a better handle on how you deal with all the complexities of a district,” Congresswoman Watson notes dryly. “Kenny Hahn lived right on 85th and Crenshaw.”

When representatives from 17 community groups, under the umbrella of the Citizens’ Campaign to Fix the Expo Rail Line, raised the Expo Line’s death-risk potential with Burke at Metro hearings, she basically shrugged and told them the agency’s cash register was locked.

Goodmon and others have claimed that the building of far cheaper and riskier rail lines that run across the streets instead of above or below them is environmental racism. But Burke dismisses that charge, telling the Weekly that she was instrumental in winning construction of a bridge that raises the Expo Line over La Brea Avenue, and that she helped to get funding for a sound wall to help quiet the block where one of the Expo Line’s critics lives.

During their encounters with Burke, Goodmon and a colleague found her to be a woman at odds with the smiling visage on her Web page. According to Goodmon, Burke became angry in a private meeting with them once, making it clear to them that she took their criticism of the sprawling Metro system personally.

Burke denies Goodmon’s version of the incident, but some employees at the county administrative offices where she is headquartered describe her as patronizing, condescending — and sometimes mean. One county water-cooler rumor has her telling a powerful union leader, “I will slap you down like a little boy.”

When asked about it, Burke says, “I don’t recall saying that. I lose my temper, but I don’t get personal. You can only attack me so many times.”

And indeed, Burke’s supporters hail her more public abilities, especially her talent for being able “to smooth everything out.” They cite her calming influence during stormy crises and her knack for reconciling opposites — often in contrast to her sometime nemeses, fellow supervisor Gloria Molina and veteran Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

“She’s nonconfrontational and quiet,” compliments African-American political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “She’s not an initiator, and works behind the scenes cautiously — she does not like to make personal or political enemies.”

“Yvonne’s an extremely moderating influence — she’s not prone to hysterics,” adds former state assemblyman and senator Kevin Murray. “There are some people who like press conferences and rallies, and some who do their work in a more legislative manner. I would also say those people who are not elected aren’t representative of the 2nd District or of the African-American community. Pundits, political junkies, analysts — they don’t represent real people.”

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When asked if Burke has any faults, Murray can’t think of any. “She has no Achilles’ heel,” he replies. “She’s iconic.”

Like Murray, 10th District City Councilman Herb Wesson, who once served as Burke’s chief of staff, can detect no faults in the supervisor. “She has absolutely no flaws,” Wesson says. “I couldn’t see a flaw on her even if it were on her nose.”


BUT THE PERSISTENT CRITICISMS of Yvonne Burke keep coming back to the fact that she took up a seat on a powerful political body, then didn’t have the stomach for a fight — even when huge battles were unfolding on her watch.

 

“I don’t think she cares to deal with controversy,” says Larry Aubry, a veteran South L.A. activist and columnist for one of the area’s oldest black-owned newspapers, the Los Angeles Sentinel. “She wants to smooth everything out, and the district has suffered from that. I also don’t think she’s comfortable with poor folks — she’s part of a certain elite.”

In the long time that she has overseen the 2nd District, its chronic problems remain as deeply entrenched as ever. At the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which gets its funds from the Board of Supervisors, “murder maps” represent each 2007 homicide as a tiny red triangle. In most parts of the county, they form occasional markers like errant blood drops. In Burke’s district — only the county’s third most populous — they are so coagulated as to create one massive wound.

According to the county’s Department of Public Social Services, 23,020 people are on General Relief, more than in any of the four other districts. The figures for food stamps are similarly depressing, with the 2nd District leading in all but one age group, including the key working age category of 21-59.

The L.A. Homeless Services Authority’s 2007 report on the county’s homeless population shows that Burke’s district, which does not include Skid Row, nevertheless contains both the highest number and the largest proportion of homeless, 34.4 percent, an increase over the 2005 census of the homeless.

These privations of 2nd District residents contrast sharply with the incandescent world of Yvonne and her husband, Bill.

He is best known as the overseer of the Los Angeles Marathon. The institution has been freckled with controversy since 1985, when the Los Angeles City Council awarded the lucrative contract to run the race to Bill Burke — a businessman with a doctorate in education who had dabbled in African gold mining and California health care. Even though he had no apparent qualifications for the job, aside from his title as commissioner of tennis during the 1984 Olympics, the City Council handed him the plum marathon contract over two higher-ranked and more experienced bidders.

Publicity has followed Bill Burke all the way to his PR gaffe this year, about women runners, when he told a TV interviewer, without a trace of irony, “You can’t keep those women down.... You can’t get them back in the kitchen.”

“He’s colorful,” offers City Councilman Wesson. “People will look back at them as a power couple. Dr. Burke sits on boards and commissions.”

Indeed, Bill Burke, an arduous political fund-raiser, was so determined to keep his longtime appointment as the representative for the Speaker of the Assembly on the influential board of the Southern California Air Quality Management District that his friends in Sacramento passed Senate Bill 886 last year, a custom law written for one man — Burke. The law’s sole effect was to let the termed-out Burke keep his powerful smog-board post for an extra term. Talk about how a Bill becomes a law.

“They’re millionaires living in a mansion in Brentwood, whereas she represents the poorest of the poor,” Islamic H.O.P.E.’s Najee Ali says of the couple. “[Bill’s] obviously made people question her character because of his own questionable business practices. She’s a businesswoman, she’s about the money, like her husband. And at times, that’s taken precedence over the interests of the community.”

If Burke’s allies cannot think of any faults, others can’t readily think of her accomplishments as supervisor.

“I don’t know of any,” says Larry Aubry flatly. “I can’t say.”

Damien Goodmon, the Expo Line activist, chafes when asked about Burke’s political legacy, especially regarding transportation safety.

“She thought her early years would be how she was evaluated,” he says. “But your last years should be as important as your first. Her legacy on this project will last 100 years — with each accident and each person who gets hit.”

Burke’s supporters cite her commitment to children as evidence of her dedication to 2nd District constituents, particularly to her district’s county-funded foster-child programs and child-care centers. They also point to construction of the Magic Johnson Recreation Area.

In a conversation with L.A. Weekly, Burke confirms that besides her support of a county “living wage” ordinance enacted in 1999, she sees her legacy in initiatives like the Compton Project, which tries to keep children from broken homes out of foster care by placing them with blood-family members instead. She also cites faith-based programs that interest local church members in adopting those children who have no hope of remaining with blood relatives.

 

Then there’s the Beach Project, in which 2nd District kids learn to surf, as well as Fishing in the City, which teaches them how to fish. Burke rattles off a list of other achievements that will cement her legacy, and that includes soccer fields, Little League diamonds and the Baldwin Hills Conservancy.

Perhaps one of her biggest achievements has been the expansion of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, a major park. The example is an ironic one, as Burke is the late Hahn’s political heir (since 1952, they have been the only two supervisors to represent the area), and the supervisors hold their board meetings at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration downtown. Both Hahn and the McCone Commission that investigated the Watts riots also were instrumental in creating King/Drew, a facility that fulfilled the critical health care needs of South Los Angeles but that also became a Waterloo of black identity politics.

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Burke’s detractors assert that during the years leading to the facility’s final crises and closing, Burke was warned of its continual failings by her staff members but made no attempts to reverse the hospital’s decline.

“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.”

“I don’t see that as flip-flopping,” says supporter Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “I see that being in the flow of things.”

Still, there was also her desertion of longtime ally James Hahn during the 2005 mayor’s race, when she switched her support to a resurgent Antonio Villaraigosa. Critics view this U-turn in the same light as her change of mind about closing King/Drew’s trauma center.

It couldn’t have pleased her then, on May 6, when Parks pushed through a City Council resolution calling on the federal government to reopen King/Drew and provide funding for all county medical facilities that are facing closure. His motion was seen by some as an admission that a state of emergency existed in the supervisorial district of his biggest endorser.


ON A GRAY SPRING MORNING, the Board of Supervisors meets at the Hahn Hall of Administration to hear public comments on the proposed new budget. Outside on Temple Street, jacaranda trees are in purple bloom — the last time they will blossom during Yvonne Burke’s tenure on the board.

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On June 3, voters will choose between Bernard Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas — a fight that might prove more bitter than the 1992 smack-down between Burke and Diane Watson — in what could become the last black incumbency in a district becoming more Latino each month.

“Whoever wins this election,” Burke tells L.A. Weekly, “I would try to make it an orderly transition. I will not get in anyone’s way. I will not be on the scene at all.” Indeed, her only retirement plans are to work part time as a freelance mediator.

Today, Burke is smartly turned out in a dark-plum pantsuit and gold blouse. She is the first to arrive and sits in the big president’s chair; when Don Knabe shuffles to his seat next to Burke in his shirtsleeves, he, too, looks a little like a garden gnome.

Room 381B’s spectators’ gallery is nearly deserted, and, one by one, the supplicants come forth to speak: Sheriff Lee Baca, union members representing court-appointed guardians and an organization of Pacific-Asian Islanders. (“We are often overlooked,” complains its president.) They all want more money of course, reminding the supervisors, as if they need reminding, that most of their work on the board involves tearing crumbs off a diminishing budget.

There is very little chance for glory in such a job. As the hearing winds down, Zev Yaroslavsky testily complains that $5 million was “redirected” from one county agency to another without any consultation with the board. A round of lecturing ensues, dominated by Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina, followed by acts of contrition from county CEO William T. Fujioka and heads of several departments.

Burke sits back regally, above it all, stepping in only to soothe the bruised egos in the room.

Damien Goodmon is not in attendance, but then, he’s had enough of Burke, the community icon and role model. “She said, ‘King/Drew will close over my dead body,’” Goodmon recalls. “Yet King/Drew closed. And she lives and breathes.”


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