For the last generation, the 47th State Assembly District has offered a plum seat for African-Americans aspiring to the state Legislature and a springboard for any political ambitions beyond. Though drawn years ago to increase black Democratic representation at the state level, the 47th is one of those rare districts that has long been both ethnically diverse and affluent — stretching from the black middle-class strongholds of Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights northwest through Midcity and Culver City and into heavily white Westside enclaves like Rancho Park, Cheviot Hills and Century City. What seemed to hold the two ends together was the liberal bent of the district’s white voters, many of them Jewish, combined with a reliable black electorate that supported moderate candidates like Gwen Moore and, most recently, termed-out Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson Jr.
But this time out the playing field has changed, portending a significant shift in the balance of power. An objectionable redistricting deal, advocated by Democrats and eagerly accepted by Republicans in 2001, redrew the 47th to extend further west into Westwood while boundaries elsewhere remain virtually unchanged. This means that while the overall voting-age population of the district has shrunk, its white voting-age population has risen to become the district’s largest — 32 percent, moving ahead of black voters, who are now 30 percent, for the first time in years. (Latinos make up 22 percent of the voting population, while Asians have increased to 13 percent.)
The implications of a new white voting majority are not being much talked about but are certainly being felt in the heated campaign in the 47th, which is playing out as two separate but connected stories: a philosophical and generational battle among the three black candidates — Karen Bass, Rickey Ivie and Nate Holden — and an attempt by one white candidate, Richard P. Groper, to capture the seat by almost exclusively appealing to whites. Groper’s approach may be purely pragmatic, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the racial divide-and-conquer Southern strategy that so benefited Republicans in the ’60s, and continues to benefit them today.
It’s also an approach that has doubtless been used throughout Southern California but especially in historically white areas such as Orange County, where such a politically incorrect pitch would be subtle to invisible. But it’s one that can hardly go unnoticed in the 47th, an urban district that prides itself on coalition-building, that political buzzword of the last decade that became Wesson’s trademark and catapulted him to the speaker’s post. That was no accident: The burden of coalition-building has become increasingly incumbent upon African-Americans, whose waning presence as elected officials is reflected in their alarmingly paltry numbers in Sacramento — a grand total of six, down from 10 just five years ago. All this means that there will certainly be new coalitions rising in the 47th, though what they will look like depends on whom you’re talking to. “The Jewish and white vote will make a difference in this race, no question,” says a veteran political strategist who is African-American. “You only need a change of 10 to 15 percent in the ethnic makeup of a district one way or the other, and everything changes.”
Such racial uncertainty is more than ironic considering the history of L.A.’s fabled crosstown black-Jewish alliance, which originated in Tom Bradley’s time and was championed by a Westside political machine that included Representatives Howard Berman and Henry Waxman. Groper, a 37-year-old Beverlywood native and political-science professor who specializes in California government, is Jewish himself but sees nothing retrogressive or vaguely wrong about his campaign. “I tell people I wouldn’t have run in the district the last time out because it was mostly black, but now it’s majority white, but it’s also the most densely populated in the state,” says Groper, whose campaign contributors are overwhelmingly Jewish and white. “It also has a high Jewish concentration, and I’m not afraid of that.” Yet Groper stresses that people are responding to his candidacy “because I have integrity, because I don’t have any special interests on my list, and because we need people in Sacramento who are independent thinkers and who really understand public policy.” The other white Democratic hopeful on the ballot, David Cooper, is more aligned politically with his black fellow candidates than with Groper; Cooper cites his experience as a teenage paratrooper in 1957 guarding the black students who integrated Little Rock Central High in Arkansas as a crucial influence on the politics he developed later in life. An energetic former advertising-agency owner, college professor and journalist, Cooper is actually running to the left of everyone in many respects: His platform includes equitable taxation, a radical notion in California ever since the passage of Proposition 13. But his lack of money — $20,000 to Groper’s $125,000 — will almost certainly make Cooper a non-factor.
The black candidates, while acknowledging that Groper is in fact running a white campaign, are sticking to issues. Community activist Karen Bass, widely regarded as the front-runner in the race for the 47th, considers the district’s diversity to still be its greatest strength, though one that hasn’t been fully developed by past leadership. “In this district you have affluent pockets of people and small-business owners who actually have the same issues — education, health care, employment — though they come at it from different angles,” she says. “I’ve never bought into the notion that these issues are exclusively black, or anything else.” One of Bass’ ideas is to harness the considerable hiring power of the Westside’s major movie studios — Fox, Sony and MGM — to the more economically challenged areas of the 47th. The longtime director of the Community Coalition in South Los Angeles, Bass is endorsed by a host of labor unions and a slew of progressive organizations and individuals who range from Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg to mayoral-candidate-turned-councilman Antonio Villaraigosa to Fabian Nuñez, Wesson’s replacement as house speaker.
Lawyer Rickey Ivie has been frequently painted as Bass’ political opposite — a moderate, pro-business Democrat with close ties to the old-line black political establishment, which includes First AME pastor Cecil Murray and Wesson himself. But Ivie says the division is false; the more complicated picture is that he and Bass are both community-oriented candidates steeped in social-justice issues who differ sharply on a few campaign points, chief among them airport expansion and workers’-compensation reform. Ivie, a partner in one of the city’s few black-owned law firms and a founder of the UCLA Black Alumni Association, also invokes coalition-building as the way of the future. “A legislator must look at both sides, compromise, and ultimately do what’s best for all,” says Ivie, a product of South L.A.’s Fremont High. “You’ve got to mature from being a community activist to being an active legislator. That doesn’t mean you sacrifice ideals.” Ivie adds, “Groper’s argument of whites taking back a seat that’s rightfully theirs isn’t getting any traction.”
That leaves any harsher sentiments to 74-year-old Nate Holden, the recently termed-out city councilman who can apparently no more consider retirement from politics than consider changing his confrontational style. Holden bluntly calls Groper’s campaign “racist.” But he adds that the most important thing, the whole reason that he jumped back into the fray, is to stand up to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his steamrolling over capital lawmakers who are still hesitant about taking on the Terminator’s administration. “I’ll twist his arm,” declares Holden. “And when I finish with that, I’ll kick the whole me-too legislature in the ass.” That might be a coalition of one, but in the 47th District these days, anything is possible.