Yvonne Brathwaite Burke's life has been full of triumphs against tough odds--including her 1992 election to the County Board of Supervisors by a margin of 0.6 of a percentage point.
As she runs for reelection March 26, the odds this time are entirely in her favor: She is running unopposed.
The 2nd District supervisor is seeking reelection with $760,000 raised in the last year, a war chest that scared off prospective opponents.
Those who know Burke and Los Angeles politics say her safe perch was also earned through decades of consensus-building, quickly mending fences with rivals and sticking to the basic civil rights and social welfare issues that are important to the African American voters who dominate her district.
"What's there for someone to run against?" asked Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. "She knows what it means to collaborate and goes about the task of doing her work. That leaves no point of vulnerability."
Although Ridley-Thomas backed state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) against Burke in 1992, the councilman said Burke has been supportive of projects in his district and even endorsed him in 1995.
Burke's successes have come from her ability to balance her views with realities. A staunch advocate for labor and social welfare causes, Burke cites as a role model former U.S. Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins, an old-line liberal who was the first African American elected to Congress from the West.
But county budget shortfalls, as well as tightened federal and state purse strings, have turned her into a fiscal conservative. Last month, Burke voted with the other members of the board to slash monthly general relief payments to the county's poorest residents. She called the move "devastating," but said the supervisors had "come to the end of our rope."
With government in such dire financial straits and conservatives in control of Congress and the state Assembly, Burke has said that job training programs and policies to promote business growth will have to make up for cuts in social programs. "There's a negativism towards anything having to do with social issues. We have to use a different approach to solving social problems," she said.
Burke, who emphasized job creation in her 1992 campaign, contends that programs she initiated in her first term have created about 10,000 jobs in her district.
Jack Kyser, an economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County, said it is difficult to determine how many jobs have been created in an area as small as a supervisorial district, much less attribute them to specific programs. But he nevertheless praised Burke's work on economic development.
City governments have more power to create jobs by offering tax breaks and incentives to businesses, Kyser said. But by pushing improved transportation networks, job training and defense industry conversion programs, Burke has been "a very, very supportive player who can pull together all of the complicated threads of an issue," he said.
When word spread in 1994 that Thrifty drugstores planned to move its corporate headquarters from Burke's district to Oregon, she quickly set up meetings with company officials to try to persuade them to stay. For two months, she worked with the company to secure federal and state tax breaks through programs administered by the county.
The company moved anyway, criticizing Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan for inaction while praising Burke.
"She came forward, sat down with us and asked why we were leaving and what she could do to keep us. I absolutely commend her leadership," said Adrienne Gaines, corporate affairs consultant to Thrifty Payless Inc.
Burke's even-handedness comes from such varied experiences as growing up the daughter of a janitor in south Los Angeles to becoming a corporate lawyer and serving on the Federal Reserve Board.
At 63, Burke's life has highlighted many of the strides made by women and minorities since World War II. In 1979, she became the first African American and first woman to serve on the county Board of Supervisors when then-Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. appointed her to fill a vacancy. Earlier, Burke was the first black woman to serve in the California Legislature and to represent California in Congress.
Her background is well-suited to the diverse 2nd District. It stretches from Wilshire Boulevard and Koreatown to the north, through the Crenshaw district, USC and Culver City, to affluent black enclaves such as Ladera Heights, View Park and Baldwin Hills, as well as Inglewood. Many traditionally black neighborhoods in Watts-Willowbrook, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Compton and Lynwood are increasingly Latino. At its south end are Carson, with a large Samoan and Pacific Islander population, and Gardena, home to a Japanese American community.
With 1.8 million residents, the district is 40% Latino, 35% African American, 15% white, and 9% Asian American and Pacific Islander.
Having no challengers and abundant campaign funds, Burke is using her money and influence to back political allies seeking office. Burke deputy Carl Washington, a minister and gang truce organizer, is running for southeast Los Angeles County's 52nd Assembly District seat. Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent has received more than $6,000 from Burke for his 51st Assembly District race, and Burke Chief of Staff Herb Wesson is seen by many as a likely candidate for the 10th District Los Angeles City Council seat now held by Nate Holden.
"I think succession is very important," Burke said of her efforts to groom like-minded leaders. She has not said whether this will be her last term on the board, only that she would "like to stay awhile."