It was more than a quarter of a century ago when the Great March on Washington took place, when four girls were bombed to death in a Birmingham, Ala., church and when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. These historic events happened in 1963, the same year that Gilbert Lindsay desegregated the Los Angeles City Council. Indeed, Lindsay’s appointment as the first African-American on the City Council was a momentous occasion, for at that time there were barely more than 500 black elected officials nationwide. Lindsay, then 62, has been reelected to seven consecutive terms.
Sadly, the councilman is now in poor health--shrouded in legal entanglements--which has set off numerous discussions about what is best for his City Council District in view of Lindsay’s incapacity. We are faced with the classic conflict of personal well-being versus the public good.
Postponing decisive action is untenable. Redistricting lies ahead, complicated by a growing Latino population; several major development projects are incomplete, affordable-housing shortages are worsening and constituent complaints are mounting. Those who are paying attention--developers, lobbyists, residents, council members and prospective candidates--are acutely aware that something has to happen soon.
Many have raised the question, “Why has the community and its leaders waited so long to address this crisis?” The answer, in part, is deeply embedded in the long struggle for black political empowerment. The very notion of criticizing African-American leaders once they’ve attained elective office has been anathema in the community because of the challenges and unwarranted attacks against them by some of their white counterparts. Thus the inordinate power of incumbency in African-American politics. Add to this the extent to which elders are venerated in the community and, in Lindsay’s case, celebrated. These are delicate issues for the often indelicate world of local politics.
Interestingly, under the City Charter, incapacity is insufficient grounds for declaring a council seat vacant, unless the member is judged insane. Otherwise, the member has to resign or die for the seat to be declared vacant. This is the passive approach. The more active approach is removal from office because of a felony conviction, official malfeasance or unexcused absences.
What should happen in the 9th District? There are at least three options:
Stay the course . Leaving the chief legislative analyst’s office in charge of the district is not a viable option because there is no one to vote on behalf of the district, no one to participate in the give and take of council business, no one that other council members are obliged to respect by virtue of talent, tenure or temerity.
Do the unconventional . Appointing a replacement is a possibility. Ironically, it would be another example of history repeating itself, since Lindsay himself was initially appointed to the council. The tough part would be to find a suitable or acceptable candidate around whom a consensus could be reached. There is no one who could just step in; a lot of skillful work would have to be done to find and package such an individual.
This option is usually rejected because of concern that the right of the voter to determine his or her representative would be usurped. In addition, the advantage of incumbency that an appointee would have in an election would only compound the denial of real voter participation and of equal opportunity for all candidates.
Let the people decide . A special election could be held in conjunction with the regularly scheduled municipal primary in April to fill the unexpired term. This means that the district would remain under the supervision of the chief legislative analyst’s office for another six months--a tough pill to swallow for those with pressing matters that require shepherding.
It is also possible that a combination of the above could be worked out.
However it turns out, a decision must be in the making, because on Jan. 2, Lindsay, who is hospitalized in Inglewood, will have forfeited his seat (unless he is moved back to Los Angeles), according to the City Charter; it allows for the removal of a council member who is absent from the city without the consent of the council for 60 consecutive days.
The scurrying, the debating, the in-fighting, the negotiating, all point to an intense interest in what the future holds and how best to prepare for it. The private caucuses and the public meetings make for healthy exchanges of views and the 9th District stands to benefit. This could be a moment of political maturation for the African-American community.
When Lindsay first came to office, the agenda for African-Americans across the nation was political accessibility--accountability was mistakenly assumed. Now, sobered by hard-learned lessons, the agenda has shifted to political accountability. Nothing can be taken for granted. In the 9th District as well as in other offices, holding public officials to a standard of performance worthy of the public trust is the mandate of the hour.
At the risk of offending those who would tenaciously cling to the status quo or frightening those who lack the vision or the courage to set forth a progressive agenda that aggressively works on behalf of the poor and working poor in the 9th District, there is no better time than now to promote a new set of priorities. No more nostalgia, pity or excuses. There is too much at stake.