Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke is coming to the end of a long political run, a once-interrupted 40-year stretch during which she has won 10 elections in the face of changing demographics and crises that have swallowed many of her peers. Barring something unexpected, Burke plans to step down from her seat on the board when her term ends in 2008.
“I’m inclined to say that it’s time for me to move on,” Burke said in an interview last week, confirming the rumblings within political circles. “I think I’m ready.”
For Burke, 73, retirement will culminate one of Los Angeles’ most durable political careers, tested in the fast currents of the city’s racial politics.
Once described as “earnest but bland,” Burke pioneered African American political power even before Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley came to embody it with his election in 1973. She weathered early acts of overt racism and later incidents of more subtle discrimination. She has witnessed progress -- and a discouraging lack of it. Today, few surviving members of her leadership class are more associated with the rise of African American political power in the 1960s and 1970s -- or with its scattering and dissolution in more recent times.
“She’s one of the few people who straddles the earliest days of black political success to today, a more confusing and ... complicated period,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton who has written extensively on Los Angeles political history. “She really does bridge the whole history.”
Burke’s public life began at what for modern Los Angeles was the beginning, the Watts riots of 1965. She was then a recent law school graduate, and Judge Earl Broady, one of the early African Americans on the local bench, recommended her for a staff position with the commission assigned to investigate the causes of the riots.
The chairman was John McCone, a former director of Central Intelligence. The vice chairman, Warren M. Christopher, proved even more important to the history of the city, periodically playing vital roles in leading and stabilizing Los Angeles. They agreed to hire Burke, and she, Christopher said last week, “performed brilliantly on the staff” in that first public assignment.
Today’s Los Angeles is different from the one Burke first examined with the McCone Commission, different from the one she represented later in the 1960s, when white conservatives controlled most political life in the city but Burke managed to defeat a member of the John Birch Society to become the first African American woman to win a seat in the state Assembly. It’s different from the one she represented in the House of Representatives in the early 1970s, when she rode the allegiance between blacks and white liberals and became the first African American woman from a Western state to take a seat in that chamber. Soon after arriving, she became the first member of Congress ever to give birth while in office.
And it is a different one from the place where, in 1979, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to fill out an unexpired term as a county supervisor. Running for reelection the next year, Burke confronted naked expressions of racism. One prominent business leader, she remembered, called together residents of Burke’s district to sound the alarm. In front of a large group of constituents, he announced: “We’ve got to get that black bitch out of there.” Burke lost that election and figured she was through. “I cannot imagine any circumstance under which I would run for elective office again,” she bitterly declared in 1980, a few days after her loss to Deane Dana in that campaign.
But after a decade of nursing her wounds, Burke returned in 1992 and won the 2nd District seat on the Board of Supervisors. She has held on since, even as her district has changed markedly. Once predominantly black, the district -- which runs from Culver City to South Los Angeles to Carson -- now is largely Latino, and its African Americans have steadily declined in numbers and influence.
Today, she sees progress. One church in her district offers Mass four times a day -- in Tagalog, Spanish, English and Korean. Others share facilities. The beaches along the western shore of her original district, the 4th, once were segregated by customs as strong as any law; today they are mixed. The same is true of shopping centers and movie theaters, which once catered to whites or blacks or Latinos but rarely to more than one group.
She feels that progress personally as well. In her early years on the Board of Supervisors, when Burke would visit the prestigious Jonathan Club, she was asked to enter through the back door. “I thought it was because people were dressing or something,” she recalled. That does not happen anymore.
Still, she is the first to admit that evolving sensibilities have not ended strife. Today’s Los Angeles, she noted, has its distressingly familiar racial moments, as tensions flare with depressing frequency in schools and jails, and race continues to influence local elections and deepen otherwise unrelated controversies. In recent weeks alone, the recurring violence in the county’s jails has pitted black and Latino inmates in conflict, and uneasiness from those riots has surged through the city at large.
Some of Burke’s contemporaries built careers around that tension, either fanning it or explicitly attempting to address it. For the most part, she has not. Burke’s long political history is not dominated by ideological or philosophical triumph. She lacks the stature and gravity of Bradley, the city’s first black mayor, who was elected in 1973 and who made racial issues a centerpiece of his administration. Antonio Villaraigosa, with his kinetic energy and rapid-fire plans, also sees the creation of an interracial coalition as a deliberate aspect of his governance.
Burke is a politician of an older school -- gracious, moderate, devoted to public projects for her district. Her advocacy, Christopher recalled last week, is “all the more effective because it [is] presented with dignity and an unusual sense of serenity.” Burke’s admirers, Christopher included, often mention those qualities. And yet, there is about her career also a vague sense of disappointment, that the young woman who had so much ahead of her in 1965, who was profiled by U.S. News & World Report in 1976 under the headline, “A Woman President ‘Any Day Now,’ ” instead settled into a safe county board seat and stopped aspiring for more.
That too reflects an aspect of Burke’s personality. She dislikes the partisanship of Sacramento and Washington. She liked being a member of Congress but tired of the travel. She tends to speak of accomplishments in physical, not philosophical, terms.
The outer office of her suite in the County Hall of Administration is dominated by a montage of 19 pictures. All taken on sunny Los Angeles days, they feature the public buildings of her district, including the Coliseum, the Forum, Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center and the Carson Animal Shelter.
Asked to consider her achievements, Burke started with those buildings and the parks that surround some of them. “I’ve tried to upgrade the way the district looks,” she said, deliberate in her speech, her carefully chosen words mirroring her dapper, meticulous appearance. “I’ve brought in public buildings. Everybody doesn’t always want them, but I’ve tried to make them look nice.”
But the buildings she takes such pride in were approved and constructed in the world of Los Angeles politics, where race is an undercurrent that Burke agrees has run through much of her life -- and that, despite the evidence of progress, continues today.
When, after winning her election in 1966, Burke arrived in Sacramento to join the state Assembly, the owner of the building where she spotted an apartment refused to rent to a black woman. She sued. “And I won,” she said with emphasis.
At home, she has witnessed the evolution of racial tension but has not seen it disappear altogether. In the early years of her public life, Burke recalled, Los Angeles’ defining racial tension was between blacks and whites; then, in the years leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, it was between blacks and Koreans; flashpoints included the killing of Latasha Harlins, a black teenager, by a Korean grocer. During the riots, armed Korean merchants fended off African American looters in bloody gun battles along Vermont Avenue.
Most recently, there have been conflicts between Latino and African American inmates and clashes in schools, where young people, often members of gangs, come to blows in hallways and on playgrounds. Whether in jail or at school, Burke said, that violence is the expression of Los Angeles’ gang culture, with its racial overtones.
“That antagonism,” she said of the racial and gang stress, “is something that keeps everyone scared.”
Racial divisions are not always expressed in violence. When Burke tried to limit gatherings of day laborers in Ladera Heights, some Latino constituents accused her of favoring the complaints of African Americans over the needs of Latinos. And she steadfastly -- stubbornly, some would say -- defended the staff of King/Drew hospital in the face of growing evidence that its failings were costing lives and exposing the county to liability. Critics furiously charged her with pandering to a black institution while ignoring the increasingly Latin American population it serves.
She rejects the criticism of her efforts in the King/Drew controversy and insists that she was not motivated by racial identity. The hospital staff, she said, has become less African American over time. Those who accuse Burke of defending King/Drew because of its racial history, she said, are behind the times. “It’s difficult for people to accept change,” Burke added curtly.
Even where there is progress, sometimes it is so incremental that it is hard to recognize. In decades past, she said, a black or Latino family moving into a white neighborhood would sometimes find a cross burning in the lawn. No more. “They don’t burn a cross out front,” she said, then paused for effect. “But they’ll burn a car.”
Moreover, the insults of years past have not been forgotten. Burke still sees some of the men and women who attended the meeting that night in 1980 when the organizer denigrated her with a slur and urged them to push her from office. She’s tempted to remind them but does not. “I have to stop myself,” she said.
With rumors of Burke’s retirement circulating almost since she was reelected in 2004, potential successors are circling. It is testament to the enduring importance of race in politics -- and of her seat in particular -- that all three leading contenders are African American even though the district is largely Latino. Los Angeles City Councilmen Herb Wesson and Bernard C. Parks and Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) each have their constituencies and supporters.
“To lose that board seat would be a huge deal” to the African American community, Sonenshein said, adding that he thinks that is unlikely, especially given the field that has begun to gather for the contest.
Race does not separate those three politicians, but generational attachment does. All three are younger than Burke, but Wesson worked for the supervisor and thus is connected to her tenure. And Parks is part of Los Angeles’ long-established African American leadership through his time at the Los Angeles Police Department, where he rose to chief even as Burke was wending her way through the region’s elective offices.
Ridley-Thomas is associated with younger African American leaders and residents and was quick to ally with Villaraigosa, whom he endorsed in 2001, the first time he ran for mayor, well before some other black leaders, including Burke, were willing to commit.
Asked about the campaign to succeed her, Burke volunteers her admiration for Wesson, then notes that she and her husband are longtime friends of Bernard and Bobbie Parks. She does not mention Ridley-Thomas. She does not mention any non-black candidates.
When Yvonne Burke goes to the Jonathan Club these days, she enters through the front door. Opponents do not openly cite her race as a reason to dump her from office. She wishes for more robust coalition politics, where cross-racial support is more common and where allegiances are easier to strike and hold. But she is not naive.
Racial politics, said Burke, a veteran of more of it than most, does not let up overnight.
“It never stops,” she said. “It never ceases.”