Members of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party voted Wednesday to endorse former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl in the race for two open seats on the county Board of Supervisors in June's primary election.
They also threw their support behind Jeffrey Prang, a West Hollywood City Council member and special assistant in the county assessor's office, in the race for assessor.
But controversy arose over which candidate to back in an upcoming special election to fill the Los Angeles Unified School District board seat formerly held by Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December.
The party's endorsement committee recommended backing George McKenna, a retired senior administrator in the district, but the members — and a pair of high-profile elected officials who spoke at the meeting — were divided.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) backed McKenna, saying, "No one in this race can match the experience of George McKenna."
On the other side, County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas appeared on behalf of his aide, Alex Johnson, who is also a candidate in the race. Ridley-Thomas asked the members not to make an endorsement, saying there are "seven viable candidates" in the race and that the party should wait until after the primary election to back one of them.
"This is a moment of intense dialogue, and we should allow that dialogue to continue…. There should be no endorsement at this point in time," he said.
In the end, McKenna fell short of the 60% of votes needed to secure the endorsement.
The Solis and Prang endorsements passed unanimously. Some spoke against endorsing Kuehl, saying there were other viable Democrats in the race, but she won 80% of the 100 votes cast.
Kuehl said of all the endorsements up for grabs in the race, the party's endorsement is "the most important one."
"Democrats, I love you," she told the members. "Thank you so much. It means a great deal to me."
The party did not make an endorsement in the race for sheriff.
The races are officially nonpartisan, but in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1, the official imprimatur of the Democratic Party can carry weight with voters. It can also give the chosen candidates a boost in raising money and drawing their fundraising efforts, and can bring volunteers to their campaigns.
Candidates in competitive races often woo the delegates with personal phone calls and enlist political allies to help with their lobbying efforts ahead of the party vote. But in races with more than one strong Democratic contender, candidates can find it difficult to secure the party's endorsement.
In last year's race for the Los Angeles mayor's seat, no candidate secured enough votes to win the party endorsement in the primary election or the run-off between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, both Democrats.
In recent years there have been few competitive county races, making the party endorsement less important. But this year there are four open county seats in the upcoming election. Longtime Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky are being forced out by term limits, while Assessor John Noguez and former Sheriff Lee Baca opted not to seek reelection amid scandals in their departments.
Noguez — who won the Democratic Party endorsement in 2010 when he ran successfully for the assessor's seat — is fighting public corruption charges, and the sheriff's department is the subject of a federal investigation into abuse of inmates in county jails.
Eight candidates have filed in the race for Yaroslavsky's seat, which includes West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Kuehl and Bobby Shriver, a former Santa Monica mayor and member of the Kennedy political dynasty, are considered by political observers to be the top contenders. A smaller field of three is vying for Molina's seat, which includes downtown and eastern regions of the county. Solis is widely expected to win that race. Twelve candidates are vying for the assessor's post and seven for the sheriff's seat.