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Race and politics in Council District 9

March 06, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • State Sen. Curren Price Jr.(D-Los Angeles) answers a question during a candidate debate at the Maya Angelou Community School in South Los Angeles.
State Sen. Curren Price Jr.(D-Los Angeles) answers a question during a… (Los Angeles Times )

The 9th Council District, which runs south from Staples Center into some of the city's poorest neighborhoods, has evolved from largely African American to predominantly Latino. Yet because a significantly higher percentage of the black residents are registered to vote, political power is split roughly equally between the two camps.

On Tuesday, none of the seven candidates on the ballot attracted more than half the votes cast, setting up a runoff between state Sen. Curren Price Jr. (D-Los Angeles), a former city councilman in Inglewood, and Ana Cubas, former chief of staff for Councilman Jose Huizar in the 14th District. The two candidates have a few noteworthy attributes in common -- for example, both have lived in the district less than a year, and both have spent much of their careers in the public sector. One potentially crucial difference, though, is that Price is African American and Cubas is Latina.

The candidates themselves say it's a distinction without a real difference. What matters to voters, they say, is finding someone who'll do a better job delivering basic city services to neglected communities. That includes removing the bulky trash that's dumped on the streets and alleys, fixing the streets and sidewalks, and responding faster to 911 calls. Price said the residents he talked to were concerned about the level of service, but "they didn't care who was providing it."

Leo Briones, a spokesman for the Cubas campaign, offered a similar take. "The person who’s going to win that election is the person who can put the best multicultural coalition together," Briones said. "The 9th District is not a black seat or a Latino seat. The 9th is a coalition seat." What unites the residents, he said, is that they're working people whose quality of life is challenged by widespread poverty, unemployment, bad schools, high crime and blight.

At least one community organization, though, is worried that the runoff will be an exercise in identity politics, not bridge-building. The South Los Angeles Power Coalition, an umbrella group for neighborhood groups and social-justice organizations, issued a statement Monday to protest "race baiting" in the campaigns of some unnamed candidates.

"We support the desire for both the African American and Latino community to be self-determining and have political representation from someone who understands their particular issues and concerns," the coalition said. "However, the reprehensible conduct of some CD9 candidates and their campaigns in using race-baiting in order to gain an advantage on election day is unprincipled and irresponsible."

It accused "opportunistic political consultants" of trying to "inflame existing tensions in South Los Angeles through statements like, 'It’s Latinos' turn to take over South L.A. from the black people,' or its counterpart, 'We need to keep the seat black no matter who the candidate is.'" These sorts of declarations were made throughout the campaign, the coalition asserted, "especially from some of the perceived leading candidates."

Coalition spokesman Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi said the group didn't want to accuse any candidate by name because it didn't want to be seen as taking sides. "My fear is that if we don’t check this now, that’s going to be the theme of the general election" and possibly influence other districts, Jitahidi said. What the campaign should focus on, he added, is the enormous poverty of the district, the community's complicated relationship with USC (whose main campus is in the 9th) and how the district can benefit from development downtown.

Judging from the results Tuesday, the residents of the 9th aren't so much divided as disaffected. Turnout across the city was an abysmal 16%, but in the 9th it was even worse, with fewer than 12% of the registered voters casting ballots.

David Roberts, who finished fifth in the primary, said the low turnout reflected widespread disillusionment. "In that district, they're used to being disappointed," said Roberts, a former economic development aide to two South Los Angeles council members. "They don’t believe in government. They don’t believe in City Hall. They don’t believe people will keep their word and fight for them and improve their quality of life."

There's a vicious circle at work: The less engaged the district's residents are in civic affairs, the less pressure they put on City Hall to address their problems. And the more their problems are ignored, the more disaffected they become. Whoever wins the seat will need to reverse that cycle and mobilize the residents living south of Martin Luther King Boulevard to help them win more services. "The political establishment does not know or care about that area," Jitahidi argued. "And that's real."

City Hall may not be attuned to the needs of the 9th, but special interests certainly lavished attention on the race. Price's campaign was boosted by more independent expenditures -- $455,000 worth -- than any other council candidate. That money came mainly from unions and the professional guilds representing dentists and eye doctors. When you add in the $219,000 that Price's campaign spent directly, the total was about $275 per vote cast for Price -- more than for any other candidate running for office in Los Angeles.

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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