To be effective, must a city council member be a longtime resident of the political turf he or she hopes to represent?
The question is stirring fierce debate among candidates for Los Angeles’ 15th Councilmanic District, which stretches from Watts to San Pedro. Not surprisingly, the battle pits candidates who are longtime residents against those who just moved in.
Incumbent Joan Milke Flores, businessman Rudy Svorinich and Louis Dominguez, all of whom have lived in San Pedro for years, say a history in the 15th is a must.
“Basically, it’s hard to know the district or any area unless you’ve actually been there for a while,” said Dominguez, a member of Mayor Tom Bradley’s staff. “I was born in El Paso, but we moved out when I was a year old. I don’t think I could go back and run for city council.”
Such sentiment doesn’t sit well with newcomers Janice K. Hahn, daughter of former County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and Los Angeles Unified School District Board member Warren Furutani. Hahn says an appealing political philosophy counts for more than a hometown address.
“I think we finally got it, we finally understood, when we elected Bill Clinton and Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein,” said Hahn, owner of a marketing business. “Having a philosophy about how to treat people truly impacts the people they represent. It’s the philosophy that matters.”
The other two candidates in the race, Diane Middleton and James P. Thompson, are both longtime residents of San Pedro. Middleton declined to comment, and Thompson could not be reached.
District residency has become a particularly prominent issue in the campaign because Hahn and Furutani--aside from Flores, the candidates with the greatest name recognition and strongest organizations--both had to change addresses in order to run.
City election regulations require candidates to have lived in the district they seek to represent for at least one month before they file papers with the city clerk.
Last summer, Hahn moved from Long Beach to San Pedro, and Furutani moved from Gardena to Harbor Gateway.
Dominguez says the moves raise important questions. “If these people don’t make it, will they be around six months from now? Are they dedicated to making things better here in the district?” he said.
Dominguez, who works in Mayor Tom Bradley’s office as director of computer operations, said his observations at City Hall convince him that even the best of council members can begin to feel as though they work for downtown associates rather than people in the district.
“It’s very easy to start thinking of those as your constituents as opposed to people at home,” Dominguez said. “And if you don’t have that commitment to begin with to your district, it’s a lot easier to get sucked in.”
San Pedro native Svorinich is openly irritated by Hahn’s and Furutani’s moves into the district.
“Basically, they’re just carpetbaggers,” he said. “Why aren’t they public servants in the communities in which they resided? That’s the question I and the voters are asking them.
“The voters will not believe that divine revelation has inspired them to run for the 15th Los Angeles Council District.”
Svorinich, who touts family roots of 70 years in San Pedro, acknowledges that no one candidate can be from all parts of the 15th District and that strong grass roots in San Pedro do not translate into a knowledge of Watts.
“But it then becomes a question of their motives,” he said.
Flores’ campaign manager, Harvey Englander, is equally pointed about Hahn and Furutani.
“Someone moves from Long Beach, someone moves from Gardena, that’s a carpetbagger. They can try to make that case to voters, but tell that to the people of San Pedro, and they’re gonna say ‘Hey, he’s not one of us. He doesn’t know the concern about the stop sign at that corner that we have.’
“Remember, all politics is local. And city council races are the epitome of that,” Englander said.
Yet Flores moved to San Pedro 12 years ago in order to run for office. And Furutani charges that she’s been doing her best in recent years to leave the district, running first for state treasurer, and last November for Congress.
“It’s (Flores) who’s run for office twice outside the district now. What does that tell voters?” he said. “The fact that she didn’t announce (reelection plans) for almost two months after she lost the congressional race feeds into the concern about her desire to represent the district.”
For her part, Hahn says longtime residence can hurt more than it can help.
“It’s not about whether you’ve lived your whole life in one particular community,” she said. “Some people who’ve lived their whole lives there have become used to things and insensitive. I come in with a new set of eyes that are appalled at some of the living conditions in some communities in the district that others have come to accept.”
L.A. Councilmanic District 15
% of Total Population: Anglo: 28.24 Black: 18.91 Asian: 7.33 Latino: 46.31
% of Registered Voters: Anglo: 49.77 Black: 29.58 Asian: 3.11 Latino: 17.74