The 9th Council District in South Los Angeles suffers from a toxic combination of entrenched poverty, blight, high unemployment and lagging job skills. With its current representative, Councilwoman Jan Perry, termed out and running for mayor, it is seeking a replacement who can improve the district's lot on a shoestring budget. Of the seven candidates in the field, the one who stands out as having the most thoughtful and achievable program to meet those challenges is David Roberts.
The key-shaped 9th runs directly south from Washington Boulevard to East 95th Street, with an offshoot extending north to Staples Center and L.A. Live. When the City Council redrew district boundaries last year, it carved out the most economically vibrant part of the district — a swath of downtown that included the financial district, Little Tokyo and the Fashion District — but added in the USC campus. The new district has almost 200,000 fewer jobs and a level of business activity that is among the city's lowest.
Roberts is refreshingly clear-eyed about the limits the city's financial straits place on its ability to improve the district's fortunes. Instead of just arguing for more services and a larger share of the pie, he says the district needs to find alternative resources. In addition to tapping foundations and nonprofits — many of which he's worked with — he would expand business improvement districts and shift some public safety funds into less police-centric approaches to deterring crime. One of his goals is to generate enough funds to put low-skilled, unemployed young adults to work removing litter, graffiti and dumped furniture and refuse from the business districts.
The focus on dumping and other impediments to the district's quality of life makes sense; shabbiness is a daunting barrier to investment. Progress will require cleaning up the commercial corridors and developing a more capable workforce at a time when there's a shrinking amount of local, state and federal money available for such efforts.
Success in the 9th is crucial not merely because failure saps the community's spirit and requires crime- and blight-fighting resources needed citywide, but also because it could provide models for less-desperate but still cash-strapped parts of the city. One of the tests of the new council member will be to advocate vigorously for these South L.A. neighborhoods while helping to move the entire city to sounder financial footing.
The other candidates are short on skills, solutions or both. State Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) and former Assemblyman Mike Davis argue that their experience will help them deliver. But they offer proposals recycled from their years in public service, not new ones tailored to the district. The polished Price, for example, talks about the need for more affordable housing and cleaner streets without outlining any new ways to pay for them. And the genial Davis wants to combat unemployment by holding more of the jobs fairs and talent showcases he staged while he was a legislator, an approach that hasn't made much of a dent in the problem.
Ron Gochez, a high school teacher in the district and a community activist, has passion and creativity, and he shares Roberts' focus on cleaning up the district and putting young adults to work. But his politics can be extreme, founded more in grievance and protest than in progress and opportunity.
Ana Cubas cites her personal history — born to working-class Salvadoran immigrants, she earned degrees from UC Berkeley and Princeton before landing jobs at the U.S. Department of Education and as chief of staff for Councilman Jose Huizar — as a model for the upward mobility she'd like to bring to the district's families. But while she has political skills, she lacks a clear vision for how she'd transform her ambitions for the district into reality. Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Terry Hara has a solid understanding of the needs of the 9th and its residents, thanks to three decades of service with the department spent largely in the gritty divisions of this district. But he offers no concrete approaches to solving the district's problems. And Manuel "Manny" Aldana Jr., a UPS package sorter, offers little more than the fact that he's the only candidate who's actually lived in the district for more than a few years.
Roberts moved into the district last year when Perry appointed him to the commission that proposed new district lines. But his 11 years as a council staffer in the neighboring 8th District, including a stint as Councilman Bernard C. Parks' director of economic development, give him a leg up on his rivals when it comes to understanding what it will take to bring dollars and jobs to the 9th.
A new spirit of activism is igniting the 9th District, but residents need support from their City Council member. Roberts is the candidate whose skills, connections and ideas best match the challenges ahead.