County Officials Are Shoo-Ins -- Again
A year after James K. Hahn became the first incumbent Los Angeles mayor swept from office in a generation, history seems unlikely to repeat itself with Los Angeles County’s elected officeholders.
With the possible exception of the sheriff, not one of the four county officials up for reelection this year -- including two of the county’s five supervisors and the assessor -- faces a serious challenger in the June 6 primary.
And when the filing period for candidates closed Friday, it appeared all but certain that at least three of the four incumbents would waltz to reelection, even as the county continues to wrestle with rioting in its jails and juvenile lockups, gang violence and a still-struggling Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.
Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is running for her fifth term, saw the lack of competition as an endorsement of her record.
“I’m sure that if we had tremendous failings in one area or another, [it would] be easy to work at running against us,” Molina said recently.
But several longtime political observers said the virtually uncontested races underline a different political truth: Los Angeles County’s enormous size and the obscurity of many county offices have combined to discourage strong challengers, making most political races meaningless.
“Unlike Supreme Court justices, county supervisors don’t automatically serve for life,” said longtime Los Angeles Democratic political strategist Darry Sragow. “But when you look at recent history, it’s pretty close.”
Indeed, in the last quarter-century, only four county officials have been driven from office. Three of them were district attorneys.
And in the last 10 years, county supervisors, who oversee the largest county government in the nation, with an annual budget of nearly $20 billion, have run completely unopposed in six elections.
This year, Molina drew three opponents: county public works employee Andrew Ahlering, county employee Sylvia Luna and teacher David Sanchez.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is running for his fourth term, attracted two: former insurance adjuster David R. Hernandez and Sheriff’s Sgt. Randy Springer.
County Assessor Rick Auerbach, who is running for his second full term, will face one: John Lower Taxes Loew, a deputy county assessor who legally changed his middle name before he ran for assessor in 2002.
And Sheriff Lee Baca, who is trying for a third term, faces four: Sheriff’s Sgt. Paul L. Jernigan Jr., Sheriff’s Capt. Ray Leyva, retired Sheriff’s Capt. Ken Masse and Glendale Police Lt. Don Meredith.
None of the challengers has held a county or state elected office.
Unseating an incumbent has never been easy. And until term limits increased turnover among city and state officeholders, it was not uncommon for politicians to serve decades without facing a serious electoral challenge.
Los Angeles County voters adopted term limits for county supervisors in 2002, but the limits do not take effect until 2012.
Also, mounting a campaign in a county of 10 million people, or even in a supervisorial district of 2 million, is almost prohibitively expensive, strategists say.
“It’s too big to walk precincts and too small to do TV advertising economically,” said retired Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum, who worked on Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s successful 1980 campaign -- the last time a challenger ousted an incumbent supervisor.
Raising the millions of dollars necessary to run television ads and send out millions of mailers has become even more difficult since the county limited individual contributions to $1,000, strategists say.
Incumbents, meanwhile, routinely tap large numbers of county contractors for contributions, campaign records show. In the supervisorial races, for example, Yaroslavsky had amassed a campaign war chest of $682,561 and Molina $158,255 by the end of last year. Their nearest competitor had $1,258.
Unions, which have become an increasingly powerful political force in the city of Los Angeles and in state politics, have the money to back a political campaign in Los Angeles County.
But labor leaders have struggled to come up with a viable candidate, as local politicians are typically little known outside their cities and state legislators tend to be viewed unfavorably by voters, if they are known at all.
In 2004, the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs backed a former sheriff’s deputy against Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke only to see him trounced after it came out that he had been involved in a major police brutality case.
Adding to the difficulty is the obscurity of most county offices, strategists and pollsters say.
Unlike a Los Angeles mayor, whose duties are well understood by voters and whose failings are typically splashed across the pages of local newspapers, a county supervisor post, though powerful, has always had less visibility.
“Nobody knows what a supervisor does exactly,” said Paul Goodwin, a longtime Democratic pollster. “They are low-profile positions, so people aren’t blaming them for the problems in the county.”
Political strategists say the district attorney is really the only county official whose job voters understand. “Over four years, a district attorney in Los Angeles Country is pretty much guaranteed to have at least one high-profile trial,” said campaign consultant John Shallman, who ran Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s successful 2000 campaign to oust incumbent Gil Garcetti.
Los Angeles County supervisors can be almost certain they will never get that kind of scrutiny, Shallman said.
Times staff writer Stuart Pfeifer contributed to this report.
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