Have a topic you’d like us to delve into, a guest recommendation, or just want to say hi? Drop us a line at [email protected]
- “The Fab Five: Shattering L.A. County’s Glass Ceiling,” Maddy Pontz, Ms. Magazine, Feb. 24, 2021.
- “Women’s Political Representation: A Dish Best Served with Reform,” Kaycie Goral, Ms. Magazine, Mar. 16, 2021.
- “All Politics is Local: Changemaking Happens Closer to Home Than You Realize,” Elaina Pevide, Ms. Magazine, Feb. 15, 2021.
- GET CAUGHT UP: “On the Issues” episode 20, “Meet the New Feminists in Congress” (with Jennifer Steinhauer + Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux, Teresa Leger Fernandez and Marie Newman)
Michele Goodwin 00:04
Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show history matters. We examine the past as we think about the future.
Now on today’s show, we meet LA’s badass all-women Board of Supervisors—they have a lot to say about running for office, fighting for a space at the table, and then resetting the table, responding to constituents needs, the importance of local governments, managing one of the world’s largest budgets, and so much more. So let’s get right to it.
I’m joined by Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Supervisor Janice Hahn, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Supervisor Holly Mitchell, and Supervisor Hilda Solis. I’m so grateful that they each individually spent time with me. And they had to spend time with me individually because of local governance laws that do not allow them to meet all together outside of performing official business.
So sit back and take a listen, as we learn so much about the importance of local governance, why what happens in DC affects us all—but what happens in your backyard is controlled by the people who are governing and ruling the pocketbooks and the towns near you. And so they’re going to tell us a lot about what that looks like in LA. But it’s a model for thinking about what’s happening all across the country, and then we follow up this episode with the next, speaking with local legislators throughout the country, telling us about how to reset the table in their states. So sit back and take a good listen.
You may wonder why we’re doing a show focusing on the LA Board of Supervisors. Well, this is no ordinary governing body. They control a $38 billion annual budget, they preside over more than 10 million residents. And if LA were a nation, it would be the 19th largest economy in the world. So I start off the show with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.
She was first elected to represent LA County’s third district in 2014, and was reelected to her second term a few years later. Before her service on the board, Supervisor Kuehl served eight years in the California State Senate, and six years in the California State Assembly. She was the first woman in California’s history to be named Speaker Pro Tempore of the Assembly and the first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to the California State Legislature.
So I would like to know from you, what does this historic moment mean? There being the first all woman Board of Supervisors for LA County. Why is that significant?
Sheila Kuehl 03:14
Well, I think it’s significant for a couple of reasons, just as it’s significant to, for instance, celebrate Women’s History Month. One of them is we’ve all suffered from a constant level of invisibility in society as women, not necessarily the five of us. But it’s just taken for granted that there would never be an all women board or an all women, anything that governs. And so I think the visibility of it, and the diversity of it is extremely important.
Substantively, it may be even more important. Although I’ve had the privilege of serving with some wonderful men in the legislature, in Sacramento and on the board of supervisors, it’s very special, because women’s life experience often, almost always, leads them to pay more attention to sort of the details of the family, of struggles to make a living, of struggles to get an education, of struggles to be taken seriously. And also, that there is a difference in the way women need services, the way women access services if they do, and again, their invisibility and so many things all the way from health surveys or research. Like you know what, “when women have heart attacks, is there a difference” kind of thing, we didn’t know that for very long, right? How many women in the homeless population are there because of domestic violence? What’s the interconnectivity of our issues, not to mention our communities, what do we have in common?
So the five of us are also, I think, exhibiting what I’ve seen from a lot of women when they get together, and that is, we’re used to collaborating more, you know, we don’t think of, “Can I take power over these other four people and make them do what I want?” It’s more like, hey, girlfriend—I mean, one of my colleagues called me yesterday, and said, you know, and I was in a room, I put it on speaker, and she said, “Hey, girlfriend, you know, how’s it going?” And they’re looking at me, like, Wow, there’s two supervisors going, “Hey, girlfriend.”
Michele Goodwin 05:39
That sounds like me, in my meetings when I get on the phone, but I think that’s, that’s wonderful. But you’ve been a pioneer for some time. And in 1994, you became the first open, gay person elected to the California State Legislature. So you’ve been in the space of leading for quite some time.
Sheila Kuehl 06:02
Well, it is… It’s true. And also, we were talking about example, everybody’s got their eyes on us now. How are those girls going to do? Although I have to say in 2021, there’s—
—You’ve been called the Fab Five.
Yeah, I know, at least we’re not called the five little queens, like the men were called the five little kings. But there is I mean, all eyes are on us, but it’s a little less critical than it probably would have been 25, 30 years ago. We don’t have to prove a lot about women because we’re standing on a lot of shoulders. And you know, Holly Mitchell, who just joined us, I first met her when she was barely out of her teens working for State Senator Diane Watson, who, of course, Diane went to Congress, became an ambassador. And Holly stands on her shoulders.
And I stand on the shoulders of every gay or lesbian person that ever did anything, before I was elected, because I could not have been elected were it not for them. So I think leadership is interesting. It’s more like you take what you get, and you try to pass it on.
Michele Goodwin 07:09
But you know, it’s also interesting that today, I think it’s possible that people wouldn’t understand what it means in 1994, to stand as an open candidate for an election or to be in an office at that time. And you think about Senator Jesse Helms being notoriously homophobic, and intersectional, homophobic and sexist at the same time, and racist, so he is truly intersectional in that way. You know, coming out of an AIDS crisis, and so much more, because today with the backdrop of marriage equality before the Supreme Court, a case like Bostock before the Supreme Court saying that there can be no employment discrimination against LGBTQ folks. With that backdrop, it could be really hard for folks to understand just what courage and backbone it took for you to stand up for the communities that you are committed to protecting.
Sheila Kuehl 08:07
Well, you know, it’s really true, I got so many death threats that security, even before I was elected, made me wear bulletproof vests when I went out to speak. It was, obviously, we’ve been a gun happy country for a really long time. And there were a lot of threats. Primarily, though, it was hatred from people who don’t know why they even hate you, you know, that kind of fear. I know. Just looking at all of you here on the screen, you know exactly what I’m talking about, from different boats as it were. And no gay person, openly gay person had ever gotten through a primary, much less been elected to the legislature. So there was a lot riding on it.
But of course, since I had been in three television series before that, including “Dobie Gillis,” in which I had a rather popular character, really smart girl, fortunately, a lot of people really liked my character Zelda Gilroy. So it was kind of like, well, let’s see, I don’t like gay people, but I like Zelda. And, you know, they had to take out their prejudice and kind of look at it. And finally just said, Oh, screw it. Where do you stand on education? You know, or like, what are you going to do about housing? And got right down to it.
Michele Goodwin 09:32
Where the issues really matter.
Sheila Kuehl 09:33
I had a lot of fun too in the legislature, because the homophobes, the minute I went in, I’d run up and give them a big hug and say, you know, it’s catching.
Michele Goodwin 09:44
You terrified them! Well, let’s talk about what it means to be in local leadership and how local leadership can be powerful. We’re coming out of an election process, perhaps almost like none other in the United States. That was contested with 61 lawsuits, 60 of which the former president lost, an insurrection on January the sixth of 2021. In that backdrop, people might think all of the action is in Washington, DC, and may not be paying as much attention close at home. So can you tell our listeners a bit about why local elections matter? And specifically, the LA County Board of Supervisors, the power that you all wield?
Sheila Kuehl 10:32
Well, I think a LA county supervisor has more power than anyone in the state of California, except for the governor. And that even includes the Speaker and the President Pro Tem of the Senate. And the reason is, there are 10 million people in LA County. If we were a state, we’d be the eighth largest state. And it’s governed by five people, not an executive branch and a legislative branch that have to agree with each other, No, just five people.
Counties are very different from any other form of government, because they are both executive, and legislative. So every week when we meet, we might bring 40 different motions about all of the different things that we govern as the executive branch, and we can enact them that day, having given notice, and public hearing, and that becomes the law in LA County. And so all of the programs that we do for homeless people—I mean, we have a budget of $38 billion altogether. LA County is the 14th largest economy in the world. It’s sort of amazing.
Michele Goodwin 11:41
That is amazing.
Sheila Kuehl 11:43
Yeah, and it’s run by five women now. And five women who can make a decision on how that budget is spent. So the other thing is that counties are in charge of everything. The executive branch is in charge of everything: housing, transportation, foster kids, juvenile justice, adult justice, because we run a jail, re-entry, diversion, all of the justice reform that we’re doing now, completely up to us. We also have parks, libraries, I mean, you know, a master river plan, it’s all the environmental stuff. It’s, it is a complete government, like a state government, running things that states do, only we carry out a lot of it, and it’s just five of us running it.
Michele Goodwin 12:46
It’s an enormous responsibility running one of the world’s largest budgets, presiding over millions of people and addressing tough issues. I turn to supervisor Kathryn Barger. She serves the residents of the fifth district. This encompasses 22 cities and 70 unincorporated communities. Supervisor Barger was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2016, and served as Chair of the board and was reelected to her second term in 2020. She has been particularly concerned about foster children, seniors, veterans and those with disabilities, and also communities that are struggling through mental illness.
And so we talked about those issues, including the fact that in LA County, the largest provider, server of people who have mental illness happens to be LA county jails. That’s complicated. It’s sad and horrific. So I wanted to know why the local matters, and not only whether women in governance makes a difference, but also how.
Kathryn Barger 13:53
First of all, it is an honor to represent LA County with some very remarkable women. Each one in their own right has a career that has spanned the federal government, local teaching and university, Supervisor Kuehl was a professor of law, it’s really an honor. And when you talk about LA County, we are the size of actually Rhode Island. Our budget is larger than many states, approaching $38 billion. And what I like to tell people is an LA county government truly does serve the most vulnerable people in our community, as well as just every day, registrar recording, the voting, our parks, and I can’t think of a more incredible group of women to represent LA County politics with.
Michele Goodwin 14:44
And this is the first time in which there’s been an all-women Board of Supervisors.
Kathryn Barger 14:50
Yeah, when I first started, I’ve been with the county over 30 years and when I first started in 1989, it was all men. And now to be on a board with all women just tells you how far we’ve come. I’d like to say we have not broken the glass ceiling, we shattered it.
Michele Goodwin 15:07
You truly did shatter it. And I want to go back to something that you mentioned, which is that you control a board of $38 billion in annual budget, presiding over more than 10 million residents. If this were a nation, I have a statistic here that you’d be the 19th largest economy in the world, is that right?
Kathryn Barger 15:29
That is correct. And we, through LA County, you’ve got the ports, what we bring in many goods, and we’ve got a lot of movement through the state, actually across the entire region. And we are truly at the cutting edge of all things having to do with silicon, you’d think of the Silicon Valley up north, but in fact, here in LA County, in the Santa Monica area, we’ve got high tech coming in. It’s just, it’s an amazing, amazing region. And what we do here, we continue to grow.
Michele Goodwin 16:04
Mm hmm. Well, you know, it’s interesting that you say that, because when people think about Silicon Valley, they do think of Northern California, they don’t necessarily think of the LA area. But it seems to me, you’re presiding over so many different issues, again, thinking about the 19th largest economy in the world, that also means quite a bit of racial diversity. People who are coming in, who are immigrating to the area, people who are coming in and contributing in meaningful, wonderful ways, but I imagine that there are also some challenges that you all have to consider as well, what are—let’s consider both of all of those issues in balance. So, how do you think, you know, what kind of leadership do you think that women bring to addressing the breadth of those kinds of issues, and then we can dive in just a little bit more?
Kathryn Barger 16:56
Well, first of all, I think that women bring a whole different thought process as relates to tackling problems. I have had the honor, prior to Supervisor Mitchell being elected, working with three of the women that are currently on the board. And I do believe that we do approach problems in a more, I don’t want to say diplomatic, but I think it is diplomatic way of looking at it. And we try to come to some consensus, recognizing that you have to have a bit of empathy, especially when you’re dealing with the issues surrounding immigration. And recognizing that with DACA, it’s no fault of these young people that came into this country, many as babies that are now here, and are stuck in limbo, and can’t get legal, and yet want to be a part of our system.
And so I truly believe that women bring a different perspective. But recognize, it’s not just about those coming from south of our border. I represent the largest Armenian community outside of Armenia, in the entire nation, actually, in the entire world, living here in LA County. We’ve also got a lot of Asian Americans. And with COVID, we’ve faced many challenges for those that were creating hate crimes against our Asian population, believing that they were the reason why we have COVID. And so you know, in LA County, we have challenges. But again, we’ve truly tackled them, I think from a state of empathy, but also compassion, and also an understanding that we have the ability to change people’s lives. And we can do it locally, we don’t have to wait for the state or federal government, we in LA County, have been very aggressive in terms of protecting people’s rights, whether it be immigration, or even those that have been challenged through hate crimes.
Michele Goodwin 18:40
So I’d like to unpack that a little bit further. You’re right, I mean, sometimes people think that all of the power is in Washington DC, right, this sort of sense that you elect a president and the vice president there in DC, you send forth senators to DC and folks in the House of Representatives, and it can be lost the power that exists at the local level. And you’ve just touched on that. Can you tell us a little bit more, then, about the power of the local? What does that mean for people who are thinking about where their resources go?
Kathryn Barger 19:14
Well, for example, here in LA County, I mean, we do work around, with the last administration, there were many challenges with the immigration policies. And this board set up a fund to help financially protect those that have legal challenges that otherwise couldn’t get access to representation. So we did a work around. We worked around, recognizing that the federal government has the ultimate authority, but we have the ability to provide support and and financial support, as well as you know, the resources to being a representative of 10 million people.
When I went back to Washington, DC and I talked to a couple senators, they said to me that I represent more in my district with 2 million people than they do their entire state. So here in LA County, when we do the work around, we also have the ability to support legislation that can make effective changes, again, both at the state and the federal level. So when LA County weighs in on something, it’s taken very seriously.
Michele Goodwin 20:17
That’s pretty amazing that you represent more folks in your district than there are some senators who represent in terms of an entire state. I think that’s really powerful for our listeners to hear. So I’m wondering then, given how large this nation is that you govern, that we call LA County, I’m wondering how you all are addressing COVID-19. We’re in the middle of a pandemic right now. It has exposed underlying institutional and infrastructural inequalities. What’s top of mind for you and your colleagues, just in terms of how you address it?
Kathryn Barger 20:58
Well, you know, it’s interesting, and I appreciate that question. Because even before COVID, my background is health and welfare policy for the county of Los Angeles, and inequity within the healthcare system has always been a challenge. And it’s not only a challenge in getting the clinics into underserved communities, but it’s also about educating the communities about the need for preventive health. And it has been a challenge, but COVID has really put the spotlight on just how much of a challenge we have. And we need to be more aggressive, not only in getting the health care into the community, but also waking people up, that preventive health care is vital, whether it be diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, which now with COVID is is an increased problem. We need to do more on the preventive side. And with this board, we brought in policy changes through COVID, to address the inequities. And I know post-COVID it’s going to continue to be a challenge, and it’s something that government alone cannot fix. We need to educate people about the power that they have to put in play within themselves to make changes that will be beneficial to their health and also to their mental health as well.
Michele Goodwin 22:33
Right now, as women are breaking barriers and leading, they are also taking on the most challenging issues. They’ve inherited strapped economies, homelessness, poverty, pay disparities, fights regarding minimum wage, and even questions about reparations. And so I wanted to know, how do they govern under such circumstances?
So I turn to supervisor Holly Mitchell. She was elected to serve the second district of LA County in 2020. And previously, Supervisor Mitchell served in the California State Legislature, she held the distinction of being the first African American to serve as chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee in the California Legislature. And I wanted to know what it’s like when women lead, but not only that, what it means when women of color lead and step forward.
So Supervisor Mitchell you have been such an amazing contributor to the political life of your community. And I want to ask you what I’ve asked your colleagues: what does this historic moment and being a member of the first all-women Board of Supervisors mean to you?
Holly Mitchell 23:55
I appreciate that question. And it feels like I think my answer changes every time the question is posed, and trust me, it’s posed a lot. I was watching CBS morning show this week and they did a piece on the picture the young women playing in March Madness took of their gym versus the men’s gym. And this piece talked about this nonprofit organization that has started to help women athletes. They’re elite athletes who are still struggling compared to their male counterparts. And this nonprofit is going to put financial support behind women who are attempting to qualify for the Olympics. And they interview a couple of track stars who once they decided to marry and have children retired, but a couple who have come back. And the young woman who is leading this nonprofit organization use the term “motherhood penalty.”
And I thought, that impacts so many sectors. When we look at the wealth disparity for women, when we look at pension disparity for women, women carve out critical years for caretaking. If not for our children, for our elderly parents, aging partners, sick partners. And so we have these gaps in service, if you will. And then I thought about the women policymakers and legislators I’ve served with who have done things like change the law, where you don’t have to report your past salary to get a new job.
So when women are in positions of authority, when women are the majority in this instance, when we are the complete policymaking entity? Those kinds of policies change. And so I just wanted to give you that concrete example of, so many instances where women and girls and our unique needs are lost through systemic genderism, gender bias. And when you have a body, when you elect more women, we have the intestinal fortitude to bring those policy issues to the forefront. And change happens. And so I look forward to the amazing policy changes that won’t just benefit women and girls in LA County. But will reflect our own lens and our own life experience as women. And I think we’ll make it better for everybody in the county. I’m excited about that possibility.
Michele Goodwin 26:51
That is a really exciting possibility. And one of the things that you’re speaking to, is this underlying, it’s not even a question. It’s a history of invisibility. And so part of what I’m hearing you say is that the very policy issues that women can bring to the table, thinking through these issues, appreciating these issues, reflects women seeing women and the fact that historically, women just simply haven’t been seen and the concerns that they have have not made the platforms that men think worthy of addressing in the political sphere.
Holly Mitchell 27:26
And not only women seeing women, but because we have an experience of being unseen then I think that we’re hypersensitive. And so as I just said a moment ago, then that creates an opportunity for us to see others as well, other underrepresented groups. And I think that’s what we bring to the table.
Michele Goodwin 27:44
Well, let’s speak about other underrepresented groups. Because what does this also mean? Is there something special about it, you know, with your place on the board of supervisors, as a Black woman in terms of seeing the concerns of other people, of people of color and other marginalized groups? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Holly Mitchell 28:03
That’s absolutely the role I play, without a doubt. You know, I just left the California legislature, I served in the Senate for seven years where I was the only Black woman. And so from that perspective, you know, I—and let me just add that I was the fourth elected since statehood.
Michele Goodwin 28:25
You know, I’m pausing, you’re pausing. And I just think we should just repeat because you said you were the only Black woman in the Senate.
Holly Mitchell 28:36
Currently serving. And I was the fourth elected since statehood. Since California became a state. When I was elected to the California State Senate in 2013, I was number four.
Michele Goodwin 28:53
Holly Mitchell 28:54
It’s stunning. And I share that as often as possible for people to fully understand how far we have to go. The first Black woman elected to the California State Senate was in 1978. She was the second woman elected to the Senate.
Michele Goodwin 29:16
Stop. Stop. Okay, well, this is another moment of pausing.
She and Rose Ann Vuich. Voice was the first woman from the Central Valley, elected just a few years before Diane. And so this is very recent history, even for the progressive blue state of California. And so that’s why it gives me such great pride to see the number of women elected across the board. Black women, we still lag behind many of our sisters from other ethnic groups in terms of being elected to the California legislature, which is why the keep the seat movement that happened in this State several weeks ago, several months ago was so important. Representation is important. It really is. And so I say that because I was clear that I not only represented the million people who called the 30th Senate District home, I had to stand up and represent for my sisters, and all underrepresented, unseen women.
Michele Goodwin 30:40
Supervisor Hilda Solis has a lot to say about this also. Prior to becoming supervisor, Solis served as Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama, becoming the first Latina to serve in the United States cabinet, believe it or not. Supervisor Solis was sworn in as LA county supervisor for the first district of Los Angeles County in 2014, and was reelected to a new four year term in 2018.
Hilda Solis 31:09
This is the first time we also continue to have a CEO who’s actually our chief administrative officer who is a woman of color. We had an Asian Pacific Islander woman for the past six, seven years, and now she went and retired. So now we have the highest ranking CEO here, who’s African American. And I want to say that diversity, I mean, we’ve seen a dramatic change in our department heads, we also have appointed people to some very top positions, also in our departments that are leading the way, that are showing I think, a compassion, sincerity, intelligence, and also ability to manage. And that’s really critical, because we’re not just putting women in because that’s the good, that’s a politically correct thing to do. It’s about their abilities, their strengths, their history. That’s really the bottom line.
Michele Goodwin 32:02
So I want to build on that in light of what we’ve seen today, uptick in racial hate, particularly hate against members of Asian American, Asian American Pacific Islander communities, and the board voted unanimously to approve a motion that you authored. And this was to immediately identify funding to expand the county’s anti-hate program in an effort to combat hate against Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. What inspired that from you, and the program is LA Versus Hate, which was established in 2019. So it was even before COVID. And before seeing the racist vitriol that has been happening against members of our community who are Asian American.
Hilda Solis 32:53
Well, it goes back to what happened during the past four years, when we had an administration, the Trump administration, that demonized people of color, particularly Asian Pacific Islander, people of different religious backgrounds. And so this was something that our Human Relations Commission worked with us on. And there’s a great need to help empower that commission to have more so to speak teeth and substance so that we could actually begin to do some greater activities and have more impact.
And part of it was now requesting funding. We knew the data was very clear that there was a lot of underreported attacks against AAPI Community. It started back when this administration was in power. And then it went on, and part of that had to do with immigration, immigration related topics where they didn’t want to allow for people to come into this country and to deport people.
Michele Goodwin 33:52
The Muslim ban, and anti-Mexico rhetoric which started even before Trump came into office.
Hilda Solis 34:01
And I would say it just it got exacerbated when we saw COVID. For the President to call this, the Wuhan and all these very horrible stereotypes—
Michele Goodwin 34:10
—incredible, deeply offensive, and we’ve seen the attacks that, people having chemicals tossed on them, people being punched, kids being spat upon, stores being shot, and just really horrific. And by a very recent account, just in the last 12 months, about 4000 incidents that have been reported—that doesn’t include those that haven’t been reported.
Hilda Solis 34:36
Right. Right. And I think that this there’s a self awareness now. And I think there’s an opportunity for the API community to also come and speak out, and they are. There are many good groups, legal based organizations that represent and are Asian Pacific Islander that are demanding, hey, justice. And now that the new administration, the Biden administration is actually coming out with similar recommendations, similar to what we did here at the county. So it starts organically at the local level, it starts by I think strong women, too, because some of the leaders that approached us and in my office and convened press conferences were some of the women.
And part of it is because yes, there is institutional racism. I mean, the fact of the matter is, why is it that someone has to ask you, if you look different, oh, where were you born? You’re not American, right? Where were you born? And I’ve had those questions asked of me, quite frankly, in circles, where maybe I was the only minority or woman, female minority in a group, which was made made up of whites or anglos. And people would say, oh, but you don’t speak like those other people. And you look different. Where were you born?
Michele Goodwin 36:06
Supervisor Solis has also been deeply involved for a long time on matters involving hate and hate directed at trans communities. She’s also been vocal when many politicians remained silent. And I asked her about that.
Hilda Solis 36:23
Well, that’s been part of my values, it’s been something that has been a part of my ability to speak out because it is necessary, and especially an elected official that represents such a diverse community, I feel it’s very important to represent all residents that live in my district, especially when they’re coming under attack. And this isn’t the first instance, that’s also underreported, quite frankly. So we need to have more assistance there, law enforcement has to get more sensitized and trained, and to actually go after individuals that are attacking or creating havoc against the transgender community.
And you know, for me, this is something that is very personal because we have so many members of our community that are transgender, this isn’t something new. For the last 20 or 30 years that I’ve been engaged in public office, we’ve had issues with healthcare access for the transgender community, and people experiencing HIV and AIDS, the fact that there was lack of access, and even a formalized program to help assist them and go to get assistance. So we know that that a lot of that information is shoved underground, so to speak, I hate use that term but appropriately speaking, we need to elevate that. And our public health director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, I know is a big advocate of the transgender community as well, and that’s really important because it’s about public health, the safety and well being as well as looking at at violence, that’s also a health issue.
Michele Goodwin 38:01
I return to Supervisor Solis later in the show. For now, let’s turn to supervisor Janice Hahn. She began her career as a teacher, went on to serve on the LA charter Reform Commission, and the City Council representing the 15th district. And after serving in local government, Supervisor Hahn was elected to Congress, representing first the 36th district and then the 44th District after redistricting. I could have spent hours with her learning about what motivated her to serve her community and quite honestly, the messy side of government and governance. She’s had much to offer over time. And I was particularly interested in her efforts to engage in reparations and restoration with legacies, literally, in her district’s backyard.
Janice Hahn 38:55
I have to go back to my dad. And that’s kind of how I learned about the need to pay attention to people who many times really are overlooked, or worse, are systematically discriminated against. My father, when he was a county supervisor, represented a predominantly Black district. In fact, my dad was the only elected official that had the courage to greet Dr. King when he came to Los Angeles in the early 60s. And you know, he famously built the hospital in Watts after the Watts riots, because it was clear that people in that community did not have access to quality health care and to a hospital. And so he built the hospital which is named Martin Luther King hospital. So I sort of had those lessons ingrained in me.
But I will tell you honestly, I never realized, growing up in Los Angeles, that we had the kind of systemic racism and discrimination that we saw, for instance, in the south. You know, I went on a civil rights pilgrimage with Congressmember John Lewis when I was in Congress, and I went to Selma, and Montgomery, and Birmingham. And the images that you see there are so shocking, and for some reason I thought Los Angeles escaped that kind of racism. And so to find out about this story that happened right in our backyards, right in Manhattan Beach here in LA County, was really eye opening for me.
Here’s this couple, Willa and Charles Bruce, African American, who purchase beachfront property in the early 1900s, the early 1920s, and created a beach resort, where African Americans could feel safe coming and enjoying themselves by the seaside. At that time African Americans were not welcomed at the beach. In fact, I think there’s another beach in Santa Monica, Inkwell, that was another one that was famous for being an okay place for African Americans to enjoy themselves.
So here’s this couple creating a resort. And then there were some other, there was about five other Black families who decided to purchase property adjacent to this resort, feeling like this was a great community to put your roots down in. And then they experience, all of them experienced the kind of racial harassment and discrimination and outright cruelty. You know, there were neighbors that would put up ‘no parking’ signs so that people that were coming to the beach had to park a mile away and then and walk around the long way to get back to the beach. The Klu Klux Klan harassed them in very visible ways. But you know, they stood firm, they were like, No, we own this property. We’re landowners, we have a beach resort, and we’re going to keep it. And the city council of Manhattan Beach, really, in my opinion caved in to the the white neighbors who just did not feel comfortable having the Bruce’s own property in Manhattan Beach.
So under the guise of eminent domain, they said publicly that they needed that property to build a park—because it could only use eminent domain if it’s for a public purpose. And I think the Bruces asked at that time, like $120,000, for fair market value. And instead the city gave them $14,000 for their property.
How shameful. I mean, they basically use the law to commit a crime. And the sad thing was, they never built that park. It was like 30 years later, I think someone doing their graduate thesis, was studying this and said, Hey, you took that property saying you were supposed to build a park, you never built a park. So the city quickly sort of built a grassy knoll that they then declared a park.
But when I realized this story, and it really came to light for me last year, as a lot of things came to light last year, for this country, we really had to face a lot of our racist past. I was shocked, and I was a little embarrassed that I did not know this story. And then, under further, you know, observation, I realized that the actual property where that hotel stood now belonged to the county of Los Angeles. The city earlier had transferred that to the state of California, and I don’t know if it was just so they could kind of be done with it. And then in the 80s, 1995, the county got the property back to maintain the beach. And I don’t know, I’m still searching records, whether or not the county of LA knew the history, or was aware of the history. But it doesn’t really matter to me now, I was just curious.
But now that I found out that it is owned by the county of Los Angeles and it and it has a lifeguard administration building, there’s about 12 employees that work there. I thought, Oh my gosh, we, this county, Los Angeles has a role to play in righting this wrong. And I want to explore everything, from giving the property back, to maybe paying rent on the property to the Bruce family, for 99 years or something so we could keep the lifeguard building there, but pay them market value rent, to, you know, giving them financial restitution to the remaining descendants of this family. Finding a price, a present day value of what that property would be valued at, and pay that to the family.
I have spoken to the great, great, great grandson, Anthony Bruce. And it was a very, gosh, you can only imagine.
What was that like?
Oh, it was, it was painful. You know why? Because he said this story was a painful story that this family had told, sometimes not wanted to talk about it. But it was this thread of pain that had weaved its way through the entire family and its descendants. And he talked about the wealth gap. He was pretty sure that the descendants of Charles and Willow would have all been millionaires by now. Can you imagine owning property in Manhattan Beach by the ocean? Even if they have sold it, even in like maybe the 70s or 80s, they would have been very wealthy.
And I think a lot of people don’t understand the whole concept of wealth inequality, and where it starts. Where it starts, it starts by government sometimes, taking property, or through zoning laws, not allowing African Americans to even purchase or live in certain areas. Government has really, through redlining, caused a lot of this wealth inequality. And will we ever be able to make that up for this family? Probably not now. But I want to do something that I can say created some sense of justice here in Los Angeles County, for the Bruce family.
Michele Goodwin 47:07
Well, you know, it’s interesting that you should say that because in the year since the nation, the world really watched in eight minutes and 46 seconds how the life was snuffed out of George Floyd. And as you look at that, it’s, one could reduce it to one person with his knee on the neck of another person. But it’s cultures, it’s histories that create that, it’s complicities that come together. And this is really the story that you’re telling about how you have gotten involved in this, about how you’re thinking about these issues in terms of histories colliding, individuals, the Klan, the city, coming together, to undermine and to push out and harm this Black family.
So I want to turn back to history because your father, you’re sitting in the seat in some ways of where your father was. History matters to you and your family, that’s very clear. And it’s very clear that you’re bringing on a kind of value and respect for understanding the history of the community that you serve, which is also so incredibly impressive. And so I’m wondering then, how you think about what moves forward? What you’ve learned from thinking about the role your father occupied, what you learn by being a member of Congress… How does that inform how you think about the future for LA County?
Janice Hahn 48:39
Well, it’s clear that growing up, as the daughter of this incredible county supervisor, really influenced how I looked at problems, how I looked at what public service meant. I mean, it was very common for us to have people knock on our door on a Saturday morning, and my dad would bring him inside and sit down in the living room and, you know, what’s your problem? How can I help you fix it? And, you know, seeing how he bent county government towards the needs of the people. So, you know, “You can’t fight City Hall” slogan was probably never said in my dad’s district, because he worked every day to bend county government towards the people. He didn’t want them to feel like they were fighting government to get what they needed. He was notorious.
And now that I look at some of these stories of racial injustice, about African Americans not being able to swim in public swimming pools, even in Los Angeles. I think that that shaped him because he was notorious in his own district for building pools and parks and recreation centers for the Black community and probably have a lot to do with this idea of them at the time not being welcome elsewhere. So I sort of learned about serving your constituency. And my brother grew up to be mayor of Los Angeles, I had an uncle who was in the California State Assembly. So there was a political gene running around in the Hahn family, and I certainly have that DNA in me.
But I do take a very different tact to governing. I do like just talking to people, I don’t mind when people stop me in the grocery store, or knock on my door and say, Hey, I have a problem, can you help fix it. And I’ll go into work that morning, like, my neighbor came over, and this is a problem we need to fix. Because I’m pretty sure if it’s a problem for that person, you know, representing 2 million people, it’s got to be a problem for for a lot of people. And I just work whether it’s transportation projects, or money that we can make sure goes to the underserved communities in Los Angeles County, I want to do that. I just think it’s about people getting their fair share of county resources.
But I also think I come with a great deal of compassion, and empathy, which I also think I learned from my dad. And, you know, that’s why, you know, the homeless crisis is so heavy on my heart, and it’s something that I campaigned on. And it’s something that I still work very hard on the thought of 60,000 people last night sleeping outside here in LA County, and it rained here, which it never does, you know, breaks my heart.
Michele Goodwin 51:40
What do we do about that? Yeah, that was actually one of my questions. So do you see that as one of the biggest challenges ahead for you and your colleagues?
Janice Hahn 51:50
I do, no doubt about it. Once we get through this pandemic, which has sort of been our only focus in LA County was trying to curb the spread of this virus here. It’s been all consuming for the last year. But we know that this pandemic has laid bare inequities in LA County, still, everything that people were already suffering from, people who are already on the brink of not being able to pay their rent or already were in low wage jobs or service jobs, people who already didn’t have access to health care… Boy, this pandemic just laid it bare.
So it just made it even worse. And we were scrambling to keep people in their homes and eviction moratoriums, and this vaccine rollout, making sure that the communities who are the hardest hit, our Black and brown communities, are getting the vaccines. But when we get through this, and I think we are getting through this, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, we’ve got to, again, have that same sense of urgency towards people who are living on the streets. We have to treat it like a FEMA emergency. If this many people were displaced because of a fire, or a flood, or an earthquake, man, it would be all hands on deck, and every one of those people would get a roof over their head, or we wouldn’t sleep at night.
Michele Goodwin 53:29
Clearly an hour is not enough when thinking about the scope and scale of the work at hand for the women running LA County, which is the size of a state, with a budget that ranks in the top 20 of all governmental budgets in the world. Supervisor Holly Mitchell shared more about her work in environmental justice, for example, and how communities hardest hit by lead poisoning, toxins in the air and soil happened to be Black and brown. Supervisor Solis shared with me that her political engagements and trajectory dated back to high school and doing work with those who are working with regard to farm workers and so much more. We’ll be sharing clips that we’re not able to air in this show. But I wanted to turn to silver linings. And we close out with Supervisor Solis
Hilda Solis 54:19
Well, I think the COVID pandemic really is showing us where the gaps are in terms of our government services, number one, and how we have to change laws and policies, because they are not as relevant today as they were maybe 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago. And I really want to encourage people to get engaged, to be active, and we saw it, whether it was coming out recently in the last year, and now as we see portrayed on television, in the media with respect to the horrible killing of Mr. Floyd. I mean, this was horrible. And that happens in the Latino community. It’s happening in other communities of color as well. But they may be underreported. And now we’re shining a light on it. We’re saying, this has to stop. But we also have to take control. And the way we take control is by advocacy. And that means getting ahold of your elected officials and making the case, just as we saw in Georgia, where we had, remarkably, two new US senators, my God, the first African American vice president, API, and African American.
These things are possible, but we shouldn’t have to wait 100 years for them to happen. And if we mobilize, we can really make those changes, and not be fearful. Fear shouldn’t drive what we do. The alternatives for us are that we need to unite, we need to share information, and we need to be in unison. And that’s how we make real change, I think and lasting change. And I’m really hopeful that this new administration, the Biden and Harris administration, will help us provide the launching pad.That’s not the cure all for everything, because it really, it really means that we have to take action at the local level to continue to support what they want to do, because we’ve told them what we want and we have to hold everybody accountable.
Michele Goodwin 56:26
Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guests: Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Supervisor Janice Hahn, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Supervisor Holly Mitchell and Supervisor Hilda Solis, for joining us and being a part of this critical and insightful conversation. And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you will join us again for our next episode, where we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is with special guests tackling issues related to local governance. It will be an episode you will not want to miss.
So, for more information about what we discussed today, head to msmagazine.com. And if you believe as we do that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to visit us at Apple podcasts. Look for us at Msmagazine.com for new content and special episode updates. Rate, review and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google podcasts, Stitcher, wherever you get your podcasting news from. Now if you found value in this episode, then please leave a rating and review on Apple podcasts, it helps people to discover our show. We are ad free and reader supported. And help us reach new listeners and bring the hard hitting content that you’ve come to expect by rating, reviewing and subscribing.
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This has been your host Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Mariah Lindsey. We thank Oliver Haug for research and digital assistance. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, and music by Chris J. Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.