In their first radio appearance together, the three candidates for the 10th District City Council seat abruptly shifted talk to another race.
Incumbent Nate Holden said he once ran the Los Angeles marathon to raise money for youth sports.
“You never completed the marathon,” challenger Stan Sanders said with a snicker, prompting Holden to angrily fire back.
“I’ve got medals. You can call the marathon office,” Holden shouted, then read the phone number over the air (Holden completed the race in 1990 and 1991; Sanders admitted later that he didn’t know whether Holden had finished.)
The radio show’s host vainly tried to steer the discussion back to the issues, while third candidate Kevin Ross--the only one of the three to finish this year’s marathon--chided the two others for their digression.
It’s been that kind of campaign heading into the April 11 primary. Bitterly personal, less than what might be hoped for in a race pitting Holden, one of City Hall’s most colorful figures, against Sanders, one of the city’s favorite sons, for the seat once held by the elder statesman of black politics in Los Angeles, former Mayor Tom Bradley.
But it’s no surprise that the two have clashed in their quest to represent a region that includes large sections of the Crenshaw District, Koreatown, Mid-City and West Adams. Though they reside in the same district (and even that has become an issue as Sanders has accused Holden of really living in Marina del Rey), Sanders and Holden are of starkly different worlds.
The contrast is clear even when they are not attacking each other.
Sanders often speaks broadly about bringing the best out of the diverse residents of the district. He repeatedly refers to himself as a leader and a role model, suggesting that the strength of his character can be leveraged into more police officers and new businesses for the district
Holden sticks to the familiar, mentioning street corners at which he has placed signal lights and taking credit for bringing a new supermarket to the Midtown Shopping Center. He seldom proposes new initiatives, preferring to list his accomplishments to date.
Their lives reveal different paths to prominence. Sanders was an overachieving golden boy; Holden a determined late-bloomer.
Holden, who quit school at 16 to join the Army, finished high school at night before coming to Los Angeles in 1955 to work in an aerospace plant. He worked his way through West Coast University and became an aerospace engineer before starting his bumpy 27-year political career.
In his eight years on the council, he has become a master of constituent services, inspired by his longtime job as an aide to former county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who built an unparalleled political career on filling potholes and cutting ribbons.
“Nate’s background is that of a guy who’s streetwise and savvy,” said former 10th District Councilman David Cunningham.
Sanders, a Rhodes scholar who was born and raised in Watts, likes to compare himself to another Rhodes scholar, Bill Clinton. He notes that both are Yale law graduates with daughters named Chelsea. His years of public service have been spent on city commissions and boards of nonprofit groups, much like that of Mayor Richard Riordan, whom Sanders backed and features on the first page of his campaign mailer.
Favoring rep ties and conservative suits, Sanders moves comfortably among the city’s business elite. “He’s been touched by ivy and has that aura of transcending his roots,” Cunningham said.
It’s fitting that the 10th District would produce such different candidates. It is one of the city’s most vibrant and diverse areas. Bisected by the Santa Monica Freeway, its population of 218,000 is increasingly Latino and Asian American. Latinos make up 41% of the district’s residents, followed by African Americans at 35%, Asian Americans at 14% and whites, 10%, according to the 1990 Census.
African Americans and whites, however, still dominate voting. Latinos and Asian Americans account for fewer than 2,000 of the district’s 72,000 registered voters, according to political consultants who have analyzed the district.
Voter turnout is often low. Holden won his council seat in 1987 with fewer than 11,000 votes in a runoff with former Bradley aide Homer Broome Jr. It took about twice as many votes for District 6 Councilwoman Ruth Galanter to win her runoff that year.
Holden says this will be his last run for the council.
It’s also his 12th. He has won three races, getting to the state Senate in 1974 and on the council in 1987; he lost runs for Congress, mayor and the State Board of Equalization.
Holden, 65, said he decided to enter politics as a 6-year-old in Macon, Ga., when he heard a candidate on the radio vow “to keep the niggers down.” Though his family moved to New Jersey when he was 10, that boyhood decision would follow him to his adulthood in Los Angeles.
Throughout his career, he has been a magnet for publicity. On the council, he has bought assault rifles from their owners to get the weapons off the streets and, in an effort to fund police foot patrols, passed up a pay raise.
A former amateur boxer, the image he likes to portray is that of a fighter. As a state senator, he got in a fistfight with then-Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) at a television studio after both men had argued heatedly in a debate.
His image notwithstanding, some say Holden has not always chosen his political battles wisely. He voted with nine other council members to reinstate now-departed Police Chief Daryl F. Gates when the city’s Police Commission put the chief on administrative leave after the beating of Rodney G. King by officers. Holden has said he voted that way not to support Gates, but only to ensure due process for the chief and to settle a lawsuit.
Still, the vote angered many of his constituents. Holden received death threats at his office, and said police directed him to take refuge in a high-rise condominium he owns in Marina del Rey.
That move haunts him today. Sanders often attacks Holden for his time in the marina, and says that Holden only recently moved back to his house in the district because of the election.
An unannounced visit to the house in March by a reporter found the councilman at home, and neighbors also said they have seen him there regularly.
Some constituents also were angered when Holden, running for mayor in 1993, supported the proposed breakup of the Los Angeles Unified School District, an idea more popular in the San Fernando Valley.
Korean American business owners, who have supplied more than a third of his campaign contributions, laud his help in moving them through the city bureaucracy.
But Koreatown activists complain that Holden has not shown leadership to match his financial support from the community. “He’s helpful when we approach him with a project, but he has no vision or plan for Koreatown,” said Bong Hwan Kim, executive director of the Korean Youth and Community Center.
Latinos, meanwhile, have criticized him for scaling back city involvement in a lawsuit to fight the anti-illegal immigration measure Proposition 187, which voters approved in November but has not gone into effect pending a federal court decision on the suit.
Holden is not aligned with either of the city’s African American political factions, those tied to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Though he ran against Bradley in the 1989 mayoral race--and almost forced the entrenched incumbent into a runoff--he used a picture of himself with the former mayor on the front page of a recent mailing. “It’s hard to say who his allies are; he’s very much an individual,” notes former Councilman Mike Woo, who grew up in the district and ran against both Sanders and Holden for mayor in 1993.
Holden may be vulnerable in this campaign because of sexual harassment allegations by three women who worked for him. Two of the women have filed lawsuits against him, and as a council member, Holden’s legal costs are covered by the city. Holden has stoutly denied the charges.
He maintains that criticism of him is often politically motivated.
“They’re misrepresenting the facts about me,” Holden said of those who question his record. “It’s clear what I’m for. I’m consistently against crime and for the working men and women of the community.”
Like Holden, the 52-year-old Sanders began life humbly. The son of a city garbage collector who lived in Watts, Sanders was inspired to succeed by his older brother, Ed, who in 1952 became the first American to win the Olympic gold medal in boxing.
When Stan Sanders graduated from Whittier College in 1963 as an All-American wide receiver, he chose to attend Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship over an offer to play football for the Chicago Bears.
After law school at Yale, Sanders returned to Los Angeles to practice law. His public life has been more as a civic leader than activist. He served on the city Recreation and Parks Commission, the Coliseum Commission and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.
Sanders is 0-1 as a political candidate: He finished sixth out of 24 in the 1993 mayoral primary, just ahead of Holden both citywide and in the district.
That run, and Sanders’ backing of Riordan in the runoff against Woo, could work against him, even though he got more 10th District votes than Holden in the mayoral primary.
“He’s remembered as a shill for the mayor,” said Joseph H. Duff, a civil rights lawyer who lives in the district.
Political consultants say that Sanders’ edge over Holden in 1993 won’t necessarily be repeated in a council race that draws fewer voters and has just two candidates.
Sanders has not downplayed his ties to Riordan, even though the mayor did not return Sanders’ 1993 favor by endorsing Sanders in the council race.
In addition to mailers attacking Holden for his support of Gates, Sanders has written a 24-page glossy booklet that details his plans to double on-street police patrols, seek state money to beautify neighborhoods along the Santa Monica Freeway and hold neighborhood issue forums. He hopes to show a broader policy vision than Holden, but it’s not clear that voters care.
“His talk is more esoteric and cerebral, but I’m not always sure people want to deal with that,” said former Councilman Cunningham.
kern,2 Holden, who often begins his stump speeches by pointing out that he got wastebaskets for the city’s bus stops, sometimes refers to Sanders as “the Rhodes scholar” or “the lawyer” in a disdainful tone.
One anti-Sanders flyer passed out at a debate, which Holden denies having any connection to, read: “Just because he is black does not mean he is a brother.”
Sanders dismisses those jibes. He points out that he chose to live in a Mid-City neighborhood over wealthier areas, that he was active in Watts when he returned home on vacation from Oxford and Yale, and that his sons attended Howard University and Morehouse College, two of the nation’s best-known historically black colleges.
Yet Sanders can’t help sometimes coming across as haughty. “I have certain talents I can put to use to benefit my community,” he said in an interview. “Someone else might be more effective at labor organizing or cookie sales or Boy Scouts, while my skills are in areas like raising money, organizational skills or bringing various communities together.”
His glossy policy booklet, prepared with the help of UCLA and USC professors, twice spells Normandie Avenue “Normandy.” “There’s a move by some residents to change the spelling, it reflects that,” Sanders explained.
Many district activists complain that the candidates have overlooked important issues. Neither Sanders’ policy booklet nor Holden’s campaign flyers, for instance, mention how they would confront the city’s projected $200-million deficit in the coming fiscal year.
Said Denise Fairchild, a candidate in the district’s 1987 council race: “The reality we face is dwindling resources and an increasing demand for services. That will require leveraging low government resources with private sector money. It’s a central issue and both candidates have an opportunity to do something, but I don’t see a vision from either of them.”
Fairchild, a consultant to housing and neighborhood development groups, and others said they would also like to see the formation of advisory groups that would let residents provide ongoing input, such as those that council members Mark Ridley-Thomas, Ruth Galanter and Jackie Goldberg have set up. Backers say such councils are especially important in a district with a large population of immigrants who do not or cannot vote.
Manuel Pastor, an Occidental College professor who has studied Latino economic and political participation in the area, points out that immigrant entrepreneurs and hourly workers in the district need different kinds of economic development projects than those that appeal to the homeowners who dominate local politics. “Politicians tend to go for trophy projects, ones that you can stand in front of and cut a ribbon, like supermarkets.”
Pastor said that many immigrant workers would benefit more from policies that would help workers start or expand small businesses. Directing city deposits to banks that actively lend to minority businesses, for instance, has helped to boost capital for minority businesses in other cities, he said.
Few, however, expect the race to turn on complex issues. Observers of the district say the concerns of voters remain simple.
Said Duff: “In the end people will vote for the guy who promises good services and to keep the criminals away.”
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Council District 10: The district includes all or parts of the Crenshaw District, Mid-City, Koreatown and West Adams.