Last week's elections provided plenty for political wonks to chew on. Incumbent statewide officeholders, all of them Democrats, cruised to significant victories, and though they face nominal runoffs in November (the result of the new, top-two primary system), none looks to have trouble. Wendy Greuel lost her second tough race in a year, this time in the hotly contested Westside congressional campaign, and may be at the end of the road politically. A potentially pivotal L.A. school board race will head into round two still very much up for grabs.
But the most lasting effect of these contests will be on Los Angeles County, where decades of political deep freeze is giving way to a historic thaw. Supervisor Gloria Molina, the first Latina ever to sit on the board, was forced out by term limits and will be replaced by Hilda Solis, who won easily despite a campaign of saying just about nothing. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, one of this region's most recognizable political figures, also hit his term limit and will be replaced by the winner in a runoff between former legislator Sheila Kuehl and former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver. Between them, Molina and Yaroslavsky leave with 43 years of supervisorial tenure.
The county also is poised to get a new assessor; the winner last time, John Noguez, is on leave while facing criminal corruption charges in connection with an alleged bribery scheme. The race to succeed him is largely about which candidate, Jeffrey Prang or John Morris, can best clean up Noguez's wreckage.
Meanwhile, L.A. voters recently elected the eminently capable Jackie Lacey as district attorney (the first woman and the first African American ever to hold that job) and, wonder of wonders, are on the verge of picking a new sheriff.
As my colleague Rob Greene recently explained on this page, that last election is perhaps the most remarkable, given L.A.'s long history of uncontested sheriff's elections. This one promises to be anything but: The front-runner, Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, is campaigning as the agent of change for a battered department; his opponent, Paul Tanaka, is a veteran of the sheriff's office who, as a top aide to Lee Baca, helped make the agency what it is today, for better and for worse.
As these races make clear, the changes in county government are the result of many forces: term limits, retirements, scandals. But the transformation is happening very fast, and for those who work with and for the county, it's a bit bewildering: This is a county whose reigning supervisor, Michael D. Antonovich, has held office for more than three decades. He's termed out in two years along with the only other veteran supervisor, Don Knabe.
What all this means is that, in the space of just a few years, every important county office will have changed hands.
That's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a vast amount of experience is heading out the door, and in the case of those forced out by term limits, it's not at all clear that their constituents want them to go. It is inconceivable, for instance, that Solis would have run against Molina for this seat, or that either Shriver or Kuehl would have stood a chance against Yaroslavsky.
Experience counts, and the newcomers, at least initially, won't have the depth of knowledge that their predecessors do. And yet, this will have some advantages. The county is an exasperating place — where the supervisors seem patently unwilling to let their managers run their agencies, where policy whipsaws in response to headlines, where desirable candidates for top jobs often sniff out the political environment and decide that life is too short to be spent under the yoke of a demanding, irascible board. (There are few things more painful to watch than the cantankerous Molina dressing down a department head.)
The board's bad habits have solidified over time, with real consequences. Good people have left the government and others have stayed away. Competing approaches to foster care have buffeted the agency responsible for the county's most vulnerable children. The county administrative officer is told to manage, only to periodically have the supervisors swoop back in and try to run things themselves (Yaroslavsky has been among those most prone to micromanaging). The Sheriff's Department has shrugged off decades of attempts at reform.
If there's an argument for term limits, it's the Board of Supervisors, and if there's a need for new blood, it's in the rest of the county's elected leadership. Change is badly overdue, and it is coming fast.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times