A new generation of black leaders has been elected to the Los Angeles City Council, vowing to break with the policies of their predecessors and focus more directly on the needs of residents in two impoverished districts that constitute the heart of the city.
In the 9th District, where the late Councilman Gilbert Lindsay ruled for 27 years, incomplete voting results show that Los Angeles school board member Rita Walters has edged out longtime Lindsay aide Bob Gay by a razor-thin 50.9% to 49.1%--or some 200 votes.
"My largest energies will be focused on delivering services, upgrading services, to the district," Walters said Wednesday. When she takes office, she said, her first priority will be to "clean the place up."
Meanwhile, a tearful Gay, who for years made no secret of his political ambitions, has refused to concede the election. On Wednesday, he called for the city clerk to investigate "irregularities" at 11 polling places. Depending upon the outcome, Gay said, he may demand a recount or file suit to invalidate the results.
In the neighboring 8th District, where the vote was not as close, Mark Ridley-Thomas of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference apparently beat political consultant Roderick Wright and will replace retiring Councilman Robert Farrell, who represented the area for 17 years.
"I don't have an agenda to attract middle-class people to the 8th District," said Ridley-Thomas, "but to serve those who live here and make it a better place. . . . We want taxpayers to get what they pay for, that's everything from tree trimming to street sweeping."
During the two hotly contested campaigns, all four candidates tried to distance themselves from the kind of representation the districts received in the past, contending that both Farrell and Lindsay had neglected their district's poorer neighborhoods.
In the 8th District, constituents long complained that Farrell's office failed even to return telephone calls. In the 9th District, many residents said Lindsay sacrificed their needs while catering to wealthy downtown developers.
Both districts extend from downtown south along either side of the Harbor Freeway, taking in the financial district, Skid Row, the USC area, Koreatown, Watts and mile after mile of aging single-family homes and apartment buildings.
Representing this diverse sprawl in the years ahead may not be easy for the City Council's two newest members. They will be faced with an increasingly multiethnic population and the inevitable tensions that accompany the changing demographics.
"There is going to have to be greater outreach to the Hispanic community," said longtime 8th District resident Ferdia Harris, a management analyst in the city Community Development Department. She echoed the sentiments of many of both districts.
For Ridley-Thomas, the transition from civil rights leader to politicians could be particularly troublesome. Ridley-Thomas has been known for his "abrasive" approach in his activism, a shortcoming that the influential Rev. Thomas Kilgore said his candidate "will override" by toning down his style.
Concerns have also been raised about Ridley-Thomas' ability to work with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who supported his opponent. Ridley-Thomas, endorsed by Mayor Tom Bradley, said he would work hard to mend fences with Waters, who holds substantial sway in the district and throughout South-Central Los Angeles.
Waters, for her part, said she saw no lasting political bitterness.
"I'm a politician and I've been in this business a long time," she said. "I lose some and win some. I've seen good people win and bad people win. You start to think about the next race."
In some respects, Walters faces an even tougher job of bringing political unity to the 9th District, where the bitter campaign divided voters into two camps. Walters, 60, who had recently moved into the district to run for election, found her support largely from parents, teachers and union members familiar with her record as a school board member. Gay, 38, is a local born-again lay minister and was the favorite of many pastors in a district studded with storefront churches.
"The African-American clergy supported Gay," said Kilgore, retired pastor at the Second Baptist Church. "If Rita Walters does not cooperate (with the clergy), that means the whole district will suffer."
Walters, who does not belong to a church, said Wednesday that she would work with the clergy, but stressed that her belief in the separation of church and state is "deeply held." She said she plans to reach out to the Garment District and the southwestern portion of the 9th District, both of which she said had been neglected by Lindsay.
Longtime 8th District resident Aldra S. Henry, vice president of the Los Angeles NAACP, said it was good to hear Wednesday's winners promise better services, but that the area's survival depends on new approaches to major economic and social problems.