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Why political party matters so much in a nonpartisan race to replace a county supervisor

Darrell Park and Kathryn Barger
Darrell Park and Kathryn Barger are running to replace L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who is being termed out of office.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The hour was getting late and the audience growing tired when Darrell Park took the stage last week in a San Fernando Valley church.

Park, seeking to replace longtime Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, was the final speaker at a forum of candidates for state and local office. And he made one particular point crystal clear: his party affiliation. 

“My name is Darrell Park and I’m the Democratic candidate for the 5th District supervisor seat,” he said — a fact he would repeat.

Two days later his better-funded opponent, Kathryn Barger, mingled with business leaders and hugged sheriff’s deputies in a hotel lobby before the annual Santa Clarita state of the city luncheon. Barger, who is Antonovich’s current chief of staff, talked hiking trails with an environmental activist and told a reporter that she wanted to work with people on both sides of the political aisle.

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Officially, the Board of Supervisors is a nonpartisan governing body. But the race to succeed Antonovich — a conservative forced out of office by term limits after more than three decades — largely has come to be defined by political affiliation and the value of experience.

“Experience is only useful if it’s positive and things are working well,” said Park, a green energy entrepreneur and former staffer in the White House Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

One of the main themes of his campaign is that the county needs new ideas — and has too many problems for Barger to brag about her decades working for Antonovich. 

“There’s not a single person in this district who can say things are working well,” he said in an interview before the forum in Lake View Terrace last week. “We’re paying first-rate taxes and getting third-world services.”  

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Experience is only useful if it’s positive and things are working well.
Candidate Darrell Park

Park points to the county’s problems — homelessness, the jail scandals and the massive Aliso Canyon natural gas leak — as signs that new ideas are needed after years of longtime incumbent leadership.

He also is hoping to capitalize on anti-Donald Trump sentiment that has marked the presidential contest. In a proposed candidate statement he planned to distribute to voters with their sample ballots, Park said Barger would support Trump’s “extreme Republican agenda.” Barger challenged the wording in court, and a judge ordered it stricken.

Endorsed by labor groups that typically support Democrats, Barger — a moderate Republican — started working for Antonovich as an intern 28 years ago and has been his chief of staff for the last 15. She also has the backing of four of the county’s five supervisors, two Republicans and two Democrats.

“In a time of partisan bickering, I’m focused on solving problems,” Barger said. “And I can work across party lines.”

The diverse 5th District is by far the largest geographically. With a population of about 2 million,  it encompasses 2,800 square miles through much of the San Gabriel Valley and foothill communities of the San Fernando Valley and into the High Desert communities of the Antelope Valley. 

During Antonovich’s 36 years on the board — an era that saw a courthouse and regional park named after him —  the 5th District became more racially diverse and shifted to the left. According to the county registrar’s office, Democrats outnumber Republicans, 42% to 29% (25% of registered voters declined to state a party preference).

Barger won a hotly contested June primary over seven other candidates, pulling in 30% of the vote. 

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Park’s second-place finish, at 15%, was a surprise. He defeated better known and better funded candidates like state Sen. Bob Huff and Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, both Republicans. 

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said that while the split Republican primary vote was enough to get Park into the runoff, “it’s going to be much more difficult for him in a general election” because Barger has been able to reach across party lines.

“It’s hard to think of another Republican candidate for any level of office in recent political history who’s done as effective a job of reaching out to labor and other Democratic interests without sacrificing their own core principles,” Schnur said of Barger. 

Born and raised in the district, the 56-year-old Barger says she would focus on job creation, child welfare, mental health and homelessness.

“I believe I’m the right candidate because I understand the diversity,” she said. “What’s right in the Antelope Valley is not going to be reflective of what’s needed in Santa Clarita or in the east San Gabriel Valley. I know the district.”

Park, 48, has lived in the district for 11 years. He describes himself as a policy wonk who reveled in the minute details of working with the federal budget and has run a campaign fueled by grass-roots activism. 

He is quick to speak about solar energy as a solution to many of the county’s financial ills, saying he wants to get solar energy “on every rooftop” and increase jobs by growing new solar companies. He said he envisions “former gang members having really successful solar companies” and sees Southern California being “the innovation center of the world.”

“With the longtime supervisors and their staffs, you just get this narrow vision,” he said. 

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“There’s just such an amazing chance to change this … to get this county really working.” 

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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