Michael D. Antonovich was elected to the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1980 and has been there ever since. Most of his board colleagues also served for multiple decades until two years ago, when a term-limits measure that was adopted in 2002 finally kicked in and ended the tenure of two of them. Term limits will claim two more this fall, including Antonovich, whose sprawling 5th District includes about 2 million people divided among the northern part of the San Fernando Valley; the medium-size cities of Pasadena, Glendale and Santa Clarita; a host of smaller foothill and San Gabriel Valley communities; sparsely populated mountain and desert regions; and the Antelope Valley cities of Lancaster and Palmdale.
Eight candidates are vying to succeed Antonovich in the June 7 election and a possible Nov. 8 runoff, but two stand out from the pack — Glendale Mayor Ara Najarian and Antonovich's top deputy, Kathryn Barger. It's a close call between two very different candidates. The Times recommends a vote for Najarian.
How much has this district changed since Antonovich was first elected? So much so that it's hard to take in. Santa Clarita, now the county's fourth-largest city, did not yet exist. Glendale was still the headquarters of the American Nazi Party. Non-whites in the Antelope Valley were a rarity. A San Fernando Valley-led anti-busing campaign slowed school desegregation statewide. Pasadena, in image at least, was the home of blue-haired old ladies and blue-blooded country clubbers. The area's politics ran from establishment Republican to the beyond-conservative fringe.
Antonovich was then and remains today the Board of Supervisors' most conservative member, even as the district has shed much of its rightward lean — although in some ways he bucked the liberal's image of a conservative; for example, he long had the county's most racially diverse staff and put women in positions of responsibility early on.
The district has undergone enormous demographic and political change and could conceivably now, for the first time in 36 years, with a good candidate and a skillfully run campaign, elect a Democrat to the board. So it's curious that only one Democrat — Darrell Park — entered the race. Most of the seven Republicans seem to recognize their district's changing electorate and are downplaying their conservative message — except when it comes to the fiscal realm.
Najarian is an appealing representative of the new 5th District. He is a decidedly moderate Republican. In Glendale, he helped put the brakes on rampant over-development while instilling a new environmentally oriented ethic. His city recycles water at a rate that should make other regions take notice. He has transportation knowledge and know-how, gained in part as a board member of both Metro and Metrolink (as a county supervisor he would continue to be on the Metro board). His position has compelled him to grapple with housing costs, homelessness and job development — all of which must be top priorities for the Board of Supervisors. He has demonstrated creative thinking and a talent for problem-solving.
Of course, being mayor of Glendale is not the same as being mayor of Los Angeles. The job rotates among City Council members, who serve part-time and make their living doing other things. Najarian is an attorney.
Critics say he can be a bit of a hothead, which on the Board of Supervisors is no small matter. Personality quirks may make for amusing tales in large legislative bodies like Congress or the state Assembly — but they can completely shut down business on the too-small, oddly structured, sort-of executive, kind-of legislative, quasi-judicial, five-headed beast that is the board. Following the county's success in dealing with the fiscal near-collapse of the 1990s, for example, the board's progress on crucial issues was hampered less by political differences than by the members' personal rivalries, stubbornness, backbiting and credit-grabbing.
The irrationality of the board's structure, with a scant five members representing 10 million people, becomes especially apparent at election time. If the current board is making some good progress — and it is — should a voter focus on how well any new member might blend in, the same way someone making a party guest list might need to think about who hates whom, and who is dating each other's exes? Voters, who get to pick only their own board representative, cannot be expected to do that, but should select the person they believe best suited to the job, regardless of who else now serves or may serve on that body. The Times recommends Najarian as that person.
Barger is the one who could and would most likely blend in seamlessly, having already been working on county issues for 15 years as Antonovich's chief deputy. She has endorsements from county employee unions and, in addition to Antonovich, a current supervisor (Sheila Kuehl).
Barger's difficulty is the same one that often faces top staffers who try to step up to replace their bosses: She must articulate either why voters should stay with the status quo, or how she will be different and better than the person whose staff she led for so many years. She makes a valiant, but so far insufficient, effort to make that case.
There are better-known and better-funded candidates running as well. Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander touts his role after the natural gas leak in Aliso Canyon, but his work on the council has been unexceptional. Prosecutor Elan Carr is a one-note candidate, unable to break away from his law-and-order message. State Sen. Bob Huff presents his case much like a termed-out lawmaker in search of his next job, which he is. Voters are likely to see one or two of them in a November runoff — but that would be a shame. Najarian and Barger are the two candidates best-suited to the job, and Najarian is the better of the two.