The Root Cities: Who's Got the Power in the City of Angels

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n' Waffles, the landmark soul food eatery tucked in a dreary lot at the northern extremity of L.A.'s 10th City Council District, is a popular gathering place for the hip and the hungry. Slumming celebrities, multimillionaire athletes and just plain folks mingle among the tourists and the curious at the Southern-style diner, opened in the mid-1970s by transplanted Harlem restaurateur Herb Hudson. From morning until way past midnight, Roscoe's clientele is a testament to five-term Mayor Tom Bradley's dream of an international city, apparently come true. 


While L.A.'s status as the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the nation remains intact, the state of black politics in Los Angeles has become much less certain. When Bradley, the city's only African-American mayor, was elected in 1973, blacks were just 8 percent of L.A.'s population. By the time Bradley left office in 1993, the police chief was black (Willie Williams), three of 15 City Council seats were held by blacks (Mark Ridley-Thomas, Rita Walters and Nate Holden) and a black woman (Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke) sat on the powerful, five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. 

Since then, rapidly shifting demographics have transformed many historically "black" areas of the city into majority Latino enclaves, including much of South Central L.A. As a result, while blacks still hold the three historically "safe" City Council seats, these seats become less secure each year as the black population dwindles and the Latino population — now about 48 percent — grows. More important, Latinos are much more politically organized than they were when Bradley was mayor. Indeed, the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Ramón Villaraigosa, is Mexican American.

Many astute observers of Los Angeles politics believe that African Americans made a critical mistake by not supporting Villaraigosa in 2005. Instead, black political leadership backed Villaraigosa's opponent, incumbent James Hahn, son of the late former Los Angeles City Councilman and L.A. Country Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, a longtime political ally of black Angelenos. While the decision to support Hahn was understandable, some believe the price of such sentimental loyalty may ultimately diminish the city's black political future. 

Still, the history of black political power in L.A. is an impressive one. In 1950, L.A.'s racist restrictive covenants in housing barred citizens of color from living anywhere except segregated sections of the city. They could not live in upscale neighborhoods like Hancock Park or Beverly Hills; Los Angeles was largely a "whites only" enclave — and for the most part, so was its political scene. According to historian Raphael J. Sonenshein, "No African-American, Latino or Jewish person held elected office in the city of Los Angeles between 1900 and 1949, when a Latino, Edward Roybal, was elected to the City Council." 

Bradley, a political supporter of Roybal, joined him in 1962 and, along with Gilbert W. Lindsay and Billy G. Mills, became the first African-American member of the City Council. Since then, the three districts the men represented — the 8th, 9th and 10th — have been considered "safe seats" for an African-American candidate.

By 1973 Bradley had cobbled together his historic coalition of black pastors, labor activists, white liberals and Jewish and Latino progressives (Roybal among them), a transracial, transcultural alliance that would defy L.A.'s power elite and make Bradley the first African American elected mayor of a major U.S. city where blacks did not make up a plurality. 


Seething over his city's entrenched policies of racial injustice and discrimination, Hawkins began advancing a progressive agenda of welfare, anti-discrimination, quality education, access to health care, decent jobs and housing that would inspire and inform L.A.'s black political establishment into the 21st century. In 1962 Hawkins became the first African American from California elected to Congress. He was instrumental in establishing both the UCLA law and medical schools, was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and sponsor of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. He retired from Congress Jan. 3, 1991, and died Nov. 10, 2007, at the age of 100.

Mervyn Dymally was another progressive-minded Democrat who emerged in the '60s. He began his career as a special education teacher and an organizer for the United Auto Workers of L.A., but soon focused his attention on L.A.'s segregated schools. He was elected to the California Assembly in 1962 and the state Senate in 1967, and became lieutenant governor in 1975. He was elected to Congress in 1981, and then again was elected to the California Assembly in 2002, where he served until his defeat by Roderick Wright in 2008. While in the Assembly, Dymally co-authored a bill, unique in U.S. history, requiring that African-American history be added to the curriculum in California public schools. 


Throughout the '70s, black L.A. began to drift westward out of the storied Central Avenue corridor, where it had languished for generations under de facto policies of segregation. Black homebuyers filled the vacuum left by whites, who had taken flight from the tree-lined avenues and hills of the Crenshaw District following the Watts Riots of 1965. Black folk soon spilled over into the contiguous 8th and 9th City Council districts, southeast of the 10th District, where their numbers reached 80 percent.

According to Willis Edwards, a longtime L.A. political strategist and activist who now sits on the board of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Foundation, today's "power bloc" in the city is held by Mark Ridley-Thomas and Maxine Waters. Until her retirement last year, Edwards says, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) "was probably the most electable elected official there was, because of her ability to communicate with all constituency groups within her own district and give them a voice at the table that made them feel wanted rather than excluded." (In 1978 Watson became the first black woman elected to the California state Senate.)


Ridley-Thomas, who began his career as a schoolteacher and served as director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, is known for his ability with grassroots organization. After having served on the L.A. City Council, the state Assembly and the state Senate, Ridley-Thomas is now one of L.A. County's five so-called little kings, serving more than 10 million Angelenos in the nation's most populous county.

Teaching also served as an entrée to politics for Waters, who began her career as a Head Start teacher. In the early '70s, she became chief deputy to City Councilman David Cunningham Jr., who filled the 10th District seat on the City Council that was vacated by Bradley in 1973. 


"I thought she was a pretty brilliant young lady," recalls Cunningham, now a public affairs consultant. "I brought her in, and history tells you the rest of the story." Waters was elected to the state Assembly in 1976 and currently represents the 35th Congressional District, a post (formerly the 29th) once held by Gus Hawkins. In 1996 she was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She is currently under congressional investigation for alleged ethic violations.

Then there's Herb J. Wesson Jr., a former member of the state Assembly representing the 47th District, where he served as its 65th speaker. Wesson now represents L.A.'s 10th Council District. He honed his political skills as chief of staff for former 10th District Councilmember Nate Holden, as well as former 2nd District Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.


Bernard Parks, former chief of the LAPD, won sympathy and support from many in the black community when he was fired from his post by Mayor Hahn (read: the white man) in 1997. He won a seat on the City Council in 2003, representing the 8th District, and sees himself as a fiscal conservative and heir to Bradley's legacy. "This current class of black leaders is pretty strong," says Edwards, a keen observer of L.A. politics for the last 35 years. "They all have different visions of what they want to see in their districts."

And yet with the city's rapidly changing racial demographics and ongoing tensions between L.A.'s black and Latino communities, once "safe black seats" on the City Council, county board of supervisors and in the U.S. Congress are increasingly less secure, because of an unwillingness or inability to build the kinds of political coalitions that elected Tom Bradley and kept him in office for two decades. Some also say that the current black incumbents have done little to cultivate new black talent to succeed them.


When Villaraigosa was elected mayor in 2005, beating Hahn by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent, it was not his first attempt. Parks had run in the 2001 primary against Villaraigosa and his political nemesis, Hahn, and finished in fourth place, even though he garnered 54 percent of the black vote. In the 2001 runoff between Hahn and Villaraigosa, Hahn beat Villaraigosa by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, with Hahn winning 80 percent of the black vote and Villaraigosa winning 80 percent of the Latino vote — mirror images. Villaraigosa aggressively courted black voters for the election in 2005, and split Hahn's margin with black voters in half. 

In a symbolic gesture meant to resonate from City Hall to the streets, Villaraigosa asked Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit to administer the oath of office. Judge Reinhardt had performed the same duty for Tom Bradley, Villaraigosa's political idol. Though blacks had not initially supported Villaraigosa's candidacy, in a February 2008 interview with Tavis Smiley, the mayor said, "In the first election, if you remember, Tavis, when I lost 80-20 among African Americans, people said that African Americans wouldn't support a Latino and I said, 'Hold it — they supported the other candidate because they knew him better.' And the second time around, when they knew me better, I won a majority of that support. In fact, right now my strongest support is among African Americans, Latinos and liberal Democrats."


In the 10th District and all across the city, conflicts between blacks and browns are increasingly threatening that support and, some argue, ultimately the future of black political power in L.A. Last December the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations, while noting "a sharp drop in the number of hate crimes" overall in Los Angeles, warned that hate crimes between blacks and Latinos were "disturbingly high" in 2009. The commission also reported that Latinos had perpetrated 77 percent of hate crimes against blacks, while blacks accounted for nearly half of the hate crimes recorded against Latinos.

"Black and Latino leaders have long papered over tensions and conflicts between the two groups by putting on the happy public face of blacks and Latinos marching in lockstep to do battle against race discrimination and poverty," observes political essayist Earl Ofari Hutchinson. "There are many well-documented instances where black and Latino leaders have joined forces to battle conservative Republican policies that harm black and Latino interests. That cooperation, though, has mostly been among blacks and Latinos at the legislative level, in Congress and in state legislatures, and not on the ground, in communities where blacks and Latinos uneasily rub shoulders."


"We as a community have got to become something stronger than the Tea Party," quips Edwards. "We've got to become the Coffee Party. We have to learn how to organize and grow candidates who are accountable, and have the skills to get all the 'deliverables' their constituencies need, whether they are blacks, Asians, Latinos, whites or anyone else."

Today the city of Los Angeles is home to 4 million people — 48 percent Latino, 31 percent white, 11 percent Asian and 10 percent black. Much of L.A. is still segregated, although no one ever speaks of it in those terms — of whites living only with whites, of blacks only with blacks. 


Sooner or later, L.A.'s new leaders will have to deal with that. At stake is nothing less than the racial harmony of the City of Angels, its reputation as the most diverse city in the nation and the future of black politics.

Emory Holmes II is a Los Angeles-based journalist and author. He is currently working on a crime novel set in the San Fernando Valley. Sylvester Monroe is a regular contributor to The Root and a former Angeleno.