There are two issues on the table in the flap over whether Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke should get the boot for allegedly not living in the district that she represents. The first is, did she break the law? The second is, even if she doesn't live 24/7 in the district, does that mean she's an ineffectual supervisor who's out of touch with her constituents? The second question is far more crucial.
Let's deal with the first. During her four terms as supervisor of the 2nd District, she has maintained residences in the district and, from all available evidence during those years, actually lived in them -- and that currently includes her Mar Vista townhouse. Yes, she also has a home in Brentwood, outside of her district. Times reporters followed Burke over a three-week period and observed that she spent every weekday evening there. But The Times did not convince me that she doesn't live in the district.
What would reporters turn up if they spent the same amount of time checking on the residences of other local politicians? It's probable they'd find that many politicians routinely shop for a district to run in, and then rent an apartment, lease a townhouse or commandeer a relative's address. Burke didn't play that game -- she owned and lived in a residence in her district.
A side note: Burke is a soft target for snooping Times reporters and the columnists who raged against her for supposedly violating some sacred public trust. In my opinion, the issue for them is King-Harbor Hospital, or rather the paper's campaign against King. Burke has fought to keep the hospital open. But she and King are synonymous in the paper's "dump King" campaign. The Times has unfairly heaped all the blame on her head for the hospital's failings, discrediting King and Burke in the same stroke.
Now the second issue. If The Times' charge were true and Burke didn't live in her district but only in a wealthier one, does that mean she's so out of touch with the needs of her constituents that's she's unfit to hold office? The answer is yes only if one believes that there's a direct correlation between where a politician rests her head every night and her effectiveness. There is none.
Burke has fought a fierce and, for the most part, lonely battle on the Board of Supervisors to keep King-Harbor open. The hospital has many problems, but shutting it down is not the solution for the mostly poor and minority community it serves. She also has proposed more funds and initiatives to stem gang violence and to expand mental health, recreation and senior citizen facilities, as well as to ramp up sheriff's patrols in high-crime areas.
I live in the 2nd District, and have through much of Burke's tenure on the board. I am also an activist who has sat at a negotiating table with her. Every time I have called attention to problems -- whether it be overgrown weeds or other street blight, traffic congestion or unwanted development projects -- Burke has responded promptly. Many of my neighbors say the same thing. Burke, or any public official, could spend every waking -- and sleeping -- hour in their districts, and the districts could still go to pot if those officials didn't have a passion for improving them or didn't care about constituents.
The implication that Burke is not in touch with her constituents because she owns a house in Brentwood is similar to the charges leveled at Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. He has been hammered by his opponents for making poverty the central issue in his campaign. They claim that a rich, white corporate lawyer who barnstorms in private jets, lives in a palatial estate and reaps millions by advising rich investors on hedge funds can't understand poverty and that he has latched on to the issue just to get an edge on his opponents.
That's a simplistic claim. Edwards doesn't have to sleep on a park bench to empathize with the poor, to fight for policy initiatives that help reduce poverty and to try to make poverty more than a dirty word out of the mouths of Democrats and Republicans for the first time in decades in presidential campaigning.
The Times' story on Burke was filled with gossipy stuff about the size of her Brentwood house, her swimming pool, her driver, her car, where she gets and reads her mail. But it didn't convince me that Burke has been derelict in her duty by virtue of having a questionable address. The only thing that counts for me is whether Burke takes care of business in her district. That's all that should count for her constituents and others.