Three seats on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are at stake Tuesday, and while incumbents have historically withstood challenges, one of the seats is wide open as Mark Ridley-Thomas terms out and seasoned politicians rush to fill the void.
Ridley-Thomas, who is vying to replace Herb Wesson representing Los Angeles City Council District 10, is vacating the county’s 2nd District seat, which covers an area ranging from downtown south through Inglewood and much of South Los Angeles to Carson, and as far west as Mar Vista.
Wesson, meanwhile, stepped down from his post as president of the Los Angeles City Council in December to focus on his bid to take over for Ridley-Thomas on the county board. He is competing against Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, and former City Councilwoman Jan Perry, as well as community advocate Jake Jeong, Carson Mayor Albert Robles, social entrepreneur Jorge Nuno and investment adviser Rene Lorenzo Rigard. The latter four will likely struggle to succeed against the more heavily funded top contenders, but the size of the field could prevent anyone from garnering a majority, thereby forcing a November runoff.
The candidates are hoping to take Ridley-Thomas’ spot on the five-member board that controls a $36 billion budget and more than 113,000 county employees responsible for services to combat homelessness, manage the county jail and hospital systems, oversee child welfare and public safety and myriad other programs for more than 10 million county residents in 88 cities and unincorporated areas.
The race is nonpartisan and all of the front-runners are registered Democrats, but the contest has still been contentious. Perry and Mitchell have raised questions about the integrity of the voting process behind the Los Angeles County Democratic Party’s endorsement of Wesson. Perry, who battled with Wesson when the two served together on the Los Angeles City Council — including over redrawing the lines of her district — places the blame for increasing homelessness squarely on Wesson in her campaign mailers.
Much of the campaign has focused on homelessness, given the pervasiveness and seeming intractability of the problem. While Mitchell takes a less negative approach, laying out her “moral plan to take on homelessness,” rather than explicitly pointing fingers, her promise to do more than “just talk” also seems to implicate the councilman.
For his part, Wesson says he is working urgently to get support and housing to those who need it and notes that the fight is personal for him. Wesson revealed that his eldest son is homeless and aired television ads showing the longtime councilman searching through homeless encampments.
The leading candidates are all progressives who tend to lean in the same direction on policy, though they can differ significantly on issues of implementation. In a recent debate, for example, Wesson promoted the idea of 100% affordable units on publicly owned land, while Mitchell argued that such an approach would isolate poorer residents.
Perry stresses the need to move homeless individuals off the streets and into shelters as quickly as possible, aiming to make longer-term assessments once they are there.
“My intention would be to gather resources and put together an emergency village, if you will, like Doctors Without Borders, to treat people at all levels,” Perry said at a debate last month at Los Angeles Technical Trade College and covered by the Daily Breeze.
Jeong believes that construction costs — which the county currently pegs at approximately $500,000 per unit — can be brought down by promoting modular housing.
Though Wesson has raised more than $1.5 million in contributions, far outpacing the other contenders, and has long been seen as the front-runner, the Los Angeles Times recently endorsed Mitchell. The newspaper’s editorial board highlighted her role as “the Legislature’s conscience” in restoring funding to child care and education and fighting for criminal justice reforms.
“Her background and experience have put her in the best position to carry on the county’s work in improving justice and human services,” The Times’ editorial board wrote. The endorsement also called out Wesson for “a backroom style better suited to a previous decade.”
Despite that vote of confidence, Mitchell will be fighting against Wesson’s valuable Democratic Party endorsement. The councilman also has support from Mayor Eric Garcetti, Supervisor Janice Hahn and other well-respected politicians who might sway voters.
In his endorsement, Garcetti said, “Herb Wesson has been an outstanding partner and a champion in our fight to improve the quality of life for all of our city’s diverse communities. Herb understands how to bring people together to solve problems and deliver results like reducing homelessness, creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and expanding workforce training.”
Mitchell has key endorsements of her own, including from Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Gov. Jerry Brown and leaders of the state Assembly and Senate. She also has support from labor, including from the United Farm Workers and its co-founder, Dolores Huerta.
However, Wesson is backed by the powerful unions that represent county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and others.
But Perry cannot be counted out. At last report she had more cash on hand than either Mitchell or Wesson to finish out the campaign. She lags in endorsements, but she has the backing of former county Supervisor Gloria Molina, longtime Los Angeles City Councilman and former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, and a long list of community advocates who support her.
Supervisors Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger are both also up for reelection, each seeking a second term. Hahn has lots of union support from firefighters and sheriff’s deputies, as well as Service Employees International Union Local 721, UNITE HERE Local 11 and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
She has also been endorsed by high-profile politicians such as Newsom and Garcetti plus dozens of other elected officials in the cities she serves in the 4th District, which stretches from the South Bay east to Diamond Bar.
Hahn is running on her record, citing her commitment to providing urgent funding for homeless shelters and investments in affordable housing, as well as infrastructure improvements, environmental protections and protecting jobs at the ports.
Hahn, a former Congressional representative whose father Kenneth Hahn served as a county supervisor for 40 years — before term limits — is opposed by Desiree Washington, a former prosecutor who now has a private business law practice.
Washington cites many of the same concerns as Hahn, but says the county needs to take a new direction. She lists ensuring equal pay and opportunities for women and protecting contractors and consumers in gig economies as issues she believes residents want addressed.
“Together, we can and will make a difference. This is my promise. Please join this movement for change,” Washington says on her campaign website.
Washington has her work cut out for her. No incumbent county supervisor has been voted out of office since 1980.
Candidates seeking to unseat Barger in the 5th District — which covers the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys and parts of the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys — are Sierra Madre Mayor John Harabedian and enterpreneur Darrell Park. Park, who often cites his experience in the White House Office of Management and Budget, picked up 41% of the vote when he last faced off against Barger in a November 2016 runoff. Barger was a political unknown at the time, despite her years of work for the county, including as a longtime aide to her predecessor on the board, Michael Antonovich.
Park points to rising homelessness on Barger’s watch as one reason new leadership is needed. He promises to convert 95% of county-owned vehicles to electric vehicles by 2023 as part of a Green New Deal for L.A. County and to immediately make all animal shelters no-kill centers, as well as donating half of his salary to end homelessness.
Harabedian has a stronger set of endorsements, including from former Gov. Jerry Brown, Secretary of State Alex Padilla and former Assembly Speaker John Perez. He lists homelessness and criminal justice reform as among his top priorities and also points to a lack of transparency in county government.
“The county employs the most incumbent-friendly, obscure electoral system in the country, which protects the status quo. It also allows for special interests and big, dark money to control the policy decisions,” Harabedian says on his campaign website, calling for changes to campaign finance laws to combat the issue.
However, Barger has the backing of dozens of mayors, city council members and other elected officials in and outside of her district, including Garcetti, as well as the endorsement of most of the same unions promoting Hahn’s reelection.
Though Barger is the sole Republican on the county board and Park has tried to tie her to unpopular Trump policies, she is also endorsed by Hahn as well as Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, one of her most progressive colleagues.
In throwing its support behind Barger, the Los Angeles Times called her “a pragmatic moderate” who “deserves to be reelected.”
The editorial board found Harabedian to be her most worthy challenger, but concluded that his experience was too limited for him to step into the role of supervisor.
In each of the races for supervisor, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote, a November runoff will be held.