Los Angeles’ latest election has doubled the number of elected women leaders at City Hall. The total is now two.
In unofficial results, former Board of Public Works Commissioner Monica Rodriguez beat out Karo Torossian, a planning and environment deputy for Councilman Paul Krekorian, in Tuesday’s runoff for the City Council seat representing District 7 in the northeast San Fernando Valley.
If the result holds up, Rodriguez will join Nury Martinez, also representing the East Valley, as the only women on the 15-member body.
“It really is a shame in one of the most progressive cities in the country that we don’t have more women on the City Council,” said Wendy Greuel, a former council member and former city controller.
It wasn’t always this way. L.A. elected its first female City Council member in 1915. At the time, Estelle Lawton Lindsey championed issues that hadn’t previously been taken up by the all-male council, including public health and more female police officers to investigate crimes against women.
By the 1980s, four women sat on the council, and for a brief period in the late 1990s, five women served at the same time. But by July 2013, the number had dwindled to zero.
Meanwhile, four out of five members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors are women, and women comprise 22% of the state Legislature and more than one-third of California’s delegation to Congress.
A 2015 report by Mount Saint Mary’s University found that men accounted for 80% of all candidates in several recent district races and elections for citywide office in Los Angeles.
“Female candidates win at similar rates to male candidates,” the report stated. “In order for Los Angeles to elect more women to public office, more women … need to run.”
Why don’t they?
“One of the biggest reasons is frankly the cost to run for city office in Los Angeles,” said Rachel Michelin, executive director of California Women Lead, a nonpartisan group that helps women run for office.
Being able to raise money is an essential prerequisite for a successful campaign, but it’s not always something women are prepared for, political observers and former elected officials said.
“It’s not the most glamorous part of running for office — it’s one of the most uncomfortable parts of running for office,” said former City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
Michelin said candidates often have access to more money if they are running for statewide, rather than local, office. Large unions and their political action committees, for example, will give more money to a state candidate because they want to influence statewide legislation, she said.
Once donors have given money to a candidate, and that candidate also has name recognition, it becomes much easier, in turn, to run at the local level.
That’s partly what happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after California voters approved term limits and reduced the retirement benefits of state legislators.
“A lot of people suddenly discovered the virtues of L.A. City Hall,” including better salaries, living in Los Angeles and still wielding considerable influence, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
That influx meant stiffer competition, and those who had previously held elected office had a leg up.
“I think that’s a temporary thing that’s going to change,” Sonenshein said.
Current and former female elected officials said running for office is a combative, time-consuming and labor-intensive process that’s not for everybody.
“To be competitive, to put yourself out on the line, is challenging for a lot of women,” said Greuel, who now works, among other things, to expand the pool of women running for office.
It’s also not something many women with families can or want to put themselves through.
“I always had to engage on a very block-to-block, very relationship basis, and at the same time raise money, mobilize my community, make sure I was out there talking to people,” Perry said. “For women who have children — you have to have a support system in place in order to do that.”
Women also continue to face stereotypes that men don’t. Greuel said she remembered being pregnant in her first year of office.
“People would ask, ‘Are you going to quit your job? How can you be a good mom and a good elected official?’ Those stereotypes and those challenges still exist,” she said.
Rodriguez said Tuesday that despite being a native of her district, having a decade more experience than her opponent and having run for office before, she still faced doubt from others.
“I had to validate myself. As someone who had all the credentials, it was still like, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ ” Rodriguez said of people’s initial reactions to her campaign.
By Wednesday morning, that validation had come. Though Torossian had yet to concede, Rodriguez was welcomed warmly at a City Council meeting.
“I have been waiting for this moment for four years,” said Martinez, who was elected in 2013.
Martinez and Rodriguez, who both grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Pacoima, are only the second and third Latinas to be elected to the Council. Gloria Molina was the first, in 1987, and there have been several Latino councilmen.
“Women bring a different perspective to any debate,” said Martinez, who has led efforts to stop human trafficking and prostitution and brought a focus to homeless women and children. She is currently pushing to overhaul the Los Angeles Fire Department’s maternity leave program.
In a race in which high-speed rail and homelessness dominated voter attention, Rodriguez has so far not made women’s issues an explicit focus, but she said having “two strong Latina voices from Pacoima” is a good thing for all of L.A.
“We know the struggles of women,” she said.
Times staff writer Dakota Smith contributed to this report.