Job Hunting With Burke and Watson

No area around here has been hurt worse by the recession and the end of the Cold War than the broad belt of industry stretching northwest from Carson through Culver City.

The shrinking of the defense industry has resulted in layoffs and closings at big plants and small subcontractors around Compton, Carson, Hawthorne and Los Angeles International Airport. The troubled economy has made the situation worse.

If they believe any level of government can help, the concerned workers and residents of the area probably look to Washington, a major source of the big bucks that provided many years of prosperity.

I doubt if many of them look to the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration for help. The cupboard is bare in the Civic Center. And the county supes haven't been out front on job-saving efforts.

But the plight of the workers is on the minds of Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a former congresswoman, and state Sen. Diane Watson as they campaign against each other for the county supervisor seat in the 2nd District, which encompasses the hard-hit area.

When I asked Watson Saturday what would be her first task if she won, she quickly replied, "economic development, jobs." A couple of weeks before, Burke had told me the same thing.

As is the case with much else about these candidates, however, their ideas differ widely on what do to about it.

I rode along with Watson and a couple of aides during a day of campaigning in the vast district.

She was forceful in her speech, but also a bit wary, concerned over the details of the campaign, checking on whether things would be ready when she arrived at an event. That was understandable. The Watson campaign has had rough times, with frequent changes in management. After she was forced into a November runoff by underdog Burke, Watson hired veteran campaign consultant and lobbyist Alma Fitch to guide her through the fall campaign. But even with Fitch on board, I got the idea that Watson wants to personally know about every detail.

Watson and I talked about unemployment. She wants government to solve the problem by putting people on the payroll.

"I'm carrying a piece of legislation in Sacramento that would establish a WPA in California," she said. For you readers of the post-Depression generation, the WPA was the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that employed people on massive public works projects during the '30s.

It's an idea that has fallen out of favor, a victim of the Reagan anti-government revolution and lean government treasuries. But Watson remains a firm believer.

"What we have to do is develop jobs in the public sector and put people to work," she said. "If people have a livable income then they don't have to go on welfare . . . Are we focusing on getting people jobs? Is this going to be one of our focuses? With me there, it certainly will be."

"Government jobs have been able to accomplish a lot. In the 1930s, Roosevelt put people to work and we got out of the Depression. When people are working, they are not homeless or on welfare. And they are actually building infrastructure."

I asked how this could be financed with the county's limited resources. "With the limited resources, you don't remodel the administrative offices," she said. She meant that if the county had not spent $3 million on remodeling County Administrative Officer Richard B. Dixon's office, and financed other perks, it would have had money to put people to work.

Burke reminds me of her old political mentor, Mayor Tom Bradley. When things go wrong, Bradley figures it's best for the power players in business and politics to go behind closed doors and figure out a solution.

Burke said she would work with the ailing industries to persuade them to remain in Southern California. And, she'd persuade other companies to relocate here. She recognizes government's insolvency.

You can see how Burke and Watson will approach the jobs issue.

Burke will be quiet, invoking common sense. Put her in office, and you'll have plenty of meetings with corporate hot shots, and not much publicity. She'll navigate behind the scenes, traveling a tortuous route between government regulators, bankers, corporate CEOs, and political leaders.

If Watson wins, expect more press conferences than meetings. With her street sense, Watson will grasp the popular path and follow it. Expect corporate chiefs to be bashed more than they are consulted.

Whoever wins, it will be a change. The county supervisors have not done much to stop the erosion of jobs in the afflicted cities. After the election, the hard-pressed industrial belt will move up on the county agenda.

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