In any building but the L.A. County Hall of Administration, Supervisor Don Knabe might pass by unrecognized. That's because it's not necessarily the five county supes' faces but their names and power that register with Angelenos. Knabe, a son of Rock Island, Ill., belongs to one of the most consequential government bodies in California. For nearly 30 years, first as right-hand man to 4th District Supervisor Deane Dana, and since 1996 as the supervisor himself, Knabe has been managing matters in a swath of the county that reaches from Catalina Island, to both ports, to Los Angeles International Airport, to Diamond Bar and on to the San Bernardino County line. He usually leaves the political firebrand stuff to hotheads in Sacramento and D.C.; he prefers the get-'er-done style of the small-town mayor he once was.
The safe surrender program, which lets women give up their newborns to authorities, is a surprising political achievement.
The 83 lives that we've saved -- no name, no shame, no blame. I've never been involved in a project where people in government have come together to do the right thing so quickly and efficiently. A baby thrown in a dumpster was found by our county counsel's son, so I said, let's see what we have to do to [allow] a parent to turn a baby in after birth. Within 30 days we had a hotline up -- 124 different languages, everybody came together. It was the most miraculous thing I've ever seen government do.
You were the mayor of Cerritos in 1986 when an Aeromexico jet and a small plane collided in midair there, killing people on the ground as well. How did that shape you?
The crash was absolutely a life-changing experience for me. Walking out of church that morning, seeing black smoke, the phone ringing, my wife turning on the TV and screaming. It wasn't all that far from my home. I saw [a neighbor] trying to get into the roped-off area. His house was hit and he lost his mother. My wife and I wound up like everyone else, getting some counseling, because we thought we were going nuts, but we were told we were OK. There's absolutely no book on leadership that says when you have an air crash or major disaster, you turn to Page 46, Chapter 3. Every time I see something like what happened in [Tucson] Arizona or 9/11, [I] remember the impact on those families.
What do you think of Jerry Brown's reelection? He was governor when you were starting in public service.
I believe Brown has an opportunity that I thought Schwarzenegger had [too] -- because he had star power -- to deal with things, raise the level of conversation. If Jerry Brown is able to deal with the Legislature [as] he said he could, I think there's real opportunity. It's not only a revenue issue, because we've had the revenue; we've just spent outside our means. The other issue is systemic. If Jerry Brown is willing to listen, bring the right people to the table, I think there's some real opportunity.
Government can be expensive, especially for the county, which is mandated to help the hardest cases around.
We're the ultimate safety net -- by law. And that costs money. There are people who need the system, like the mentally ill. How do you get them back on their feet and yet deal with the abuse and waste in the system? A couple of years ago I started the 10,000 jobs program, [federal] stimulus dollars to put people back to work. [Businesses] hired people, and a percentage are now working full time in nonsubsidized jobs. I tried to get it extended, to work my Republican friends in Congress, but no one is talking to anyone. I continue to raise the issue because if you really want stimulus dollars to put people to work, you [get] this to happen.
What would you say to people who use the term "career politician" as an insult?
I don't apologize for it. I would hate to take this job on without the benefit of the experience -- knowing my colleagues, knowing their staff, knowing the departments. The fact that I've been around [means] no one can pull the wool over my eyes or take something that my district should have. I've got one more term after this, God willing. If I'm reelected, that's it.
County supervisor is a nonpartisan position, although you're known to be a Republican. What lessons does the board provide for partisan political bodies like the Legislature?
There's a multilayered answer to that. Our job is to fix the problem, to be able to work together. The only partisan issues we have may be a ballot initiative, like Proposition 209, where the board will take a position 3 to 2, but most of our day-to-day actions are 5 to 0, 4 to 1. In Sacramento and Washington, the most frustrating thing to hear is, "We know that's the right thing to do but our caucus won't let us do it." And it's on both sides of the aisle.
A reorganized Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital is supposed to open in 2013. It has been a county problem for years.