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L.A. ELECTIONS

'Great 9th' may lose more of its African American political clout

In 1963, Gilbert Lindsay was chosen to fill a seat in South L.A.'s 9th District and a black power base took root. Now, a big demographic shift could upend the political landscape.

February 22, 2013|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • This 1987 photo shows a campaign office for Gilbert Lindsay, a former cotton field worker and city janitor who was chosen in 1963 to fill a vacant seat in the 9th Council District, which covered part of South Los Angeles. The appointment helped make “The Great 9th,” as Lindsay took to calling it, a hub of black political clout.
This 1987 photo shows a campaign office for Gilbert Lindsay, a former cotton… (Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles reached a benchmark half a century ago when the City Council's first African American was appointed to represent the area then known as South Central.

Gilbert Lindsay, a former cotton field worker and city janitor, was chosen in 1963 to fill a vacant seat in the 9th Council District, which covered part of South Los Angeles. The appointment helped make "The Great 9th," as Lindsay took to calling it, a hub of black political clout.

Two generations later, with the seat open and the March 5 election approaching, the area that gave birth to historic South Central Avenue and the city's black middle-class culture has a far different political landscape. It is nearly 80% Latino. Tiendas and carnicerias line its boulevards. And for the first time since the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement, voters in the coming months could elect a council member who is not black.

What that might mean, and whether it matters, has been a whispered topic in the campaign to replace Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is leaving after 12 years.

Some point to U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson, an African American lawmaker who represented south Los Angeles County and lost her seat last year to Democrat Janice Hahn, who is white. If no black candidate wins in the 9th, it will be "powerful blow" to the existing black power base, said Dermot Givens, who has worked on campaigns of African American candidates for two decades.

"For the black community, [the loss of a black council seat] is the bad medicine they'll have to swallow to get to reality and help themselves," he said. "Because the reality is, we've lost a lot of political power."

For decades, African Americans have held on to three of the council's 15 seats, even as the black population declined. With Perry running for mayor, the field of possible replacements is composed of three Latinos, three African Americans and a Japanese American, each of whom is trying to reach across racial lines.

Latinos are the overwhelming majority of residents, but African Americans still make up more than 40% of the district's voters, according to data provided by Perry's office. That means a black candidate in the district "needs to be very attuned to the Latino community and vice versa," said Raphael Sonenshein, head of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

That's evident on the campaign trail. Former council aide Ana Cubas, whose family is from El Salvador, frequently highlights her support from former Councilwoman Rita Walters, who is African American and succeeded Lindsay. Former state Assemblyman Mike Davis, who is black, talks up his promotion of a Salvadoran stretch of Vermont Avenue.

Schoolteacher Ron Gochez, who is both Mexican and Central American, points to his work with Latin American and African American students in the heart of the district. And Deputy Police Chief Terry Hara, who is third-generation Japanese American, has touted his endorsement from Connie Rice, an African American and one of the city's most prominent civil rights advocates.

The cross-cultural efforts have produced awkward moments. At a candidate forum last week, state Sen. Curren Price, who is African American, welcomed the audience with a genial buenas tardes, or good afternoon or evening. Since it was around 10:30 a.m., some in the crowd laughed.

The candidates largely describe race as incidental to the election, saying voters in the working-class district simply want someone to bring in jobs, fix sidewalks, pave streets and get a handle on illegal dumping. "They're not looking for a black candidate or a Latino candidate," said Price, whose Senate district stretches from Watts to Century City. "I think they're more sophisticated than that."

Still, candidate Manny Aldana said he has heard voters specifically bring up the topic of ethnicity and mention that "it would be great to be represented by a Hispanic or a Latino." "I say it's not about that," he said. "I'm asking them to vote for me because I've lived here the longest, longer than any other candidate."

Curtis Andrews, a 52-year-old handyman who is African American, said he's witnessed the area's demographic transformation firsthand. He understands why some of his Latino friends say they're more likely to vote for a Latino candidate.

"You want to vote for someone you can connect with," he said.

Others said race is irrelevant to the election. "The people who vote may be different races now," said James McCowan, 24, an eight-year resident of South Angeles. "But that doesn't mean they don't want the same things."

Last summer, council President Herb Wesson told a group of black ministers that if they came together "as a people," they could replace Perry with "someone who looks like you, who looks like me." Wesson, the council's first black president, has since endorsed Price.

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