Even in a state known for its diversity and progressive culture, women remain seriously underrepresented in California’s state and local government.
The 15-member Los Angeles City Council has only one woman on it, and a report released two years ago found that women occupied fewer than 30% of elective city, county and state posts.
But with Tuesday’s election, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has become a major exception. Voters elected Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger to the panel that oversees the nation’s largest local government agency. They join current supervisors Sheila Kuehl, Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas to form a rare major government body in which women make up the large majority.
Barger, who has worked in L.A. County government for 28 years, said the new composition of the board is remarkable.
“When I started, it was five men,” she said. “It's happened in just such a natural progression. It's changed, but so has the county."
The vote also moves the board further to the left, continuing a shift that began several years ago as longtime supervisors were term-limited out of office. Hahn, a Democratic congresswoman, replaces Republican Don Knabe, while Barger takes the seat held by Michael D. Antonovich. Barger and Antonovich are both Republicans, but she is considered more moderate and was supported by public employee labor unions, which typically support Democrats.
The officially nonpartisan board’s leftward shift began in 2014 with the election of Kuehl and Solis, who along with Ridley-Thomas began advocating more liberal causes including boosting the minimum wage and increasing oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. The current board has been more fiscally liberal than the previous generation of elected officials, which prided itself on limited spending, he said.
Experts believe this trend will accelerate with the new board. Labor unions have made it clear in recent years they want more influence over the supervisors and have donated generously to try to make it happen. Traditionally, the unions have found a more friendly reception at Los Angeles City Hall than at the county Hall of Administration when the previous boards have clashed over labor contracts.
As supervisors, Hahn and Barger will each represent about 2 million people and have wide-ranging responsibilities, including homelessness, child welfare and management of parks and transportation.
The board’s new female majority is both a “huge deal for women” and a bright spot in an election year that actually resulted in fewer female elected officials in the state Legislature, said Rachel Michelin, executive director of California Women Lead, a nonpartisan association that recruits and trains women to run for public office. Although some races were too close to call, California Women Lead projected that the number of women in the state Legislature fell from 31 to 27, out of 120.
“Here we were, poised to possibly elect the first woman president and thinking there were going to be coattails for women,” Michelin said. “It’s interesting to see L.A. kind of buck the trend for women. This is the one little bright shining star in the context of this election cycle where there were so many hopes for women in the political arena.”
From the outset, the supervisors’ races were sure to bring about change. The term limits approved in 2002 limited supervisors to three four-year terms. The board’s most conservative members, Knabe and Antonovich, are being forced out of office after having been elected in 1996 and 1980, respectively. Antonovich ran for the state Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who was termed out. Antonovich lost on Tuesday to former Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Portantino.
Democratic Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina, widely seen as more centrist than their liberal successors, were forced out by term limits in 2014, after having each served two decades in the office.
Hahn, a Democratic congresswoman, received 56% of the vote in the county’s 4th District, defeating Steve Napolitano, an aide to Knabe.
Barger, a moderate Republican and the longtime chief of staff for outgoing Antonovich, received 59% of the vote in the 5th District, defeating Darrell Park, a green energy entrepreneur and former White House budget staffer.
In recent years, supervisors have increased the county’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, downsized plans for a new men’s jail and allocated hundreds of millions of dollars toward affordable housing. They’ve supported a property tax measure to build housing for homeless people, and a parcel tax to improve park space in the county.
The liberal “supermajority” has also come with warnings from former supervisors. Just before Yaroslavsky and Molina left office, the board increased the number of votes required to approve raises for county employees to four.
"You could spend all the money you want to spend, whether you have it or not, with a four-fifths majority," Knabe previously told The Times.
For Hahn, the election marks a milestone in her family’s political dynasty. Her brother, James, is a former mayor of L.A. Her father, the late Kenneth Hahn, served four decades as a popular county supervisor who helped arrange the Dodgers’ move to the city and designed the county flag and seal.
Janice Hahn will serve in the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, named for her father.
Hahn did not return requests for comment.
Her campaign has been dogged by a finding by the county registrar-recorder that she broke campaign finance rules by accepting almost $300,000 more than the limit imposed on contributions from political action committees.
Napolitano, her opponent, filed a lawsuit, and she, in turn, slammed him as “a slumlord millionaire” trying to silence working people.
Hahn’s campaign also faced another campaign finance controversy after a Times investigation last month revealed that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been contributed to politicians, including her, by people with ties to a single developer pushing through a controversial apartment complex.
Hahn was the largest beneficiary of the questionable contributions, receiving more than $200,000. She told The Times then that there had been no indications of illegality.
On Tuesday, Napolitano said he was concerned about the possibility of a liberal supermajority “where everybody can ignore different needs and different issues out there” and “take us down a path of deficits and dysfunction.”
In the 5th District race, Barger, who has worked for Antonovich for 28 years, was criticized by her opponent as an establishment figure with few new ideas. Park, a Democrat, tried to compare Barger to Donald Trump and often brought up some of the more controversial positions of Barger’s conservative boss, Antonovich, who has decried county money spent on “illegal aliens” and fought to have a Christian cross placed on the county seal.
On Tuesday night, before the results came in, Park told The Times that voters he had met on the campaign trail signified they were “tired of the county being much more like a kingdom than a democracy.”
Barger, who has been widely praised for her ability to work across party lines, said she couldn’t wait to get to work.
“I love what I do,” she said of her years in county government. “This is my passion. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and put into play what I’ve promised the voters I’m going to do.”