Nearly 40 years ago, as a conservative wave swept the country and installed Ronald Reagan in the White House, two Republican politicians unseated Democratic members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
That year, 1980, was the last time an incumbent on the board lost a seat. It’s a notoriously rare occurrence — and one that is not expected on Tuesday, when two members of the powerful five-person board seek reelection.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl faces little-known opponents, while Supervisor Hilda Solis is running unopposed.
Experts say the lackluster races reflect the difficulty and expense of mounting a campaign against an incumbent, and the general lack of familiarity among voters with what the supervisors — each of whom represents roughly 2 million constituents — actually do.
“You’ve got a monstrous constituency, they’re buried in a major media market … and [the supervisors] toil in obscurity,” said Douglas Herman, a political consultant who worked on Kuehl’s campaign in 2013 but is not involved in this year’s supervisorial races.
Jaime Regalado, an emeritus professor at Cal State L.A. who has studied the Board of Supervisors, said that “unless they’ve done something seriously wrong or there’s been some big scandal … they’re either not going to be contested or they’re not going to be contested seriously.”
So far, neither Kuehl nor Solis has faced any such scandal.
Solis, who represents the 1st District, covering the county’s eastern stretches, and Kuehl, whose 3rd District includes many coastal areas, were first elected to the board in 2014.
Their elections marked a shift leftward on the nonpartisan governing body, which at the time had only one reliably progressive voice, Mark Ridley-Thomas. The shift continued with the 2016 elections of Janice Hahn, a Democrat, and Kathryn Barger, a moderate Republican. The current board has put forward sweeping tax measures to raise money for parks, transit and homelessness.
Kuehl, a former state legislator, has championed reforming the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, worked to improve access to services for the LGBTQ community and sponsored “green” bills.
In an interview, Kuehl cited the creation of a civilian oversight commission over the Sheriff’s Department and the board’s collective work on homelessness as some of her signature accomplishments.
She has also earned a reputation as a consensus builder.
“She is the first to say to me, ‘KB, I know you’re not really keen on this, but what can I do in my motion to get you to agree?” Barger said of Kuehl. “How can you not get along with someone [who] operates that way?”
Kuehl’s opponents in the race are Daniel Glaser, a real estate agent, and Eric Preven, a journalist and frequent critic at weekly board meetings.
In an interview, Glaser said he thought Kuehl hasn’t done enough on homelessness. He said he would “do more” to get homeless individuals off the street and to create jobs for them, but he provided few specifics.
Preven said he joined the race because he believes voters deserve an alternative. He said Kuehl has betrayed the liberal principles for which she was elected by limiting transparency, selecting a pro-law enforcement interim public defender, and supporting a new women’s detention facility in Lancaster.
“This is unthinkable for the movement Sheila once belonged to,” he said.
Solis, a former state legislator, congressional representative and U.S. secretary of labor, has no opponents. As supervisor she spearheaded a parcel tax to expand parks and playgrounds, lobbied the state to fund the Exide battery plant cleanup and advocated for resources for young people transitioning out of foster care.
She has also pushed for some immigrant protections in the Trump era, including a motion to create a legal fund for immigrants facing deportation.
“Constituent services … really is for me what the bottom line is,” Solis said in an interview.
The two supervisors helped select new leaders for more than half of the county’s 34 departments, including the long-troubled Children and Family Services, Coroner-Medical Examiner, Mental Health and Probation departments.
Some observers noted that the board’s overall ideological alignment and collaborative style has made it more nimble than previous boards.
“You have a different board … it’s more willing to ask the voters for taxes,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former 3rd District supervisor who is now a lecturer at UCLA.
Yaroslavsky, who took office in 1994 as the county teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, served on a board that was much more fiscally conservative.
Jennifer Braun, executive director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, said both Kuehl and Solis have been out front on issues affecting young people in foster care, supporting more placements with family members and stepping up efforts to provide stable housing for older youths.
Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU Local 721, credited Solis and Kuehl for adding hundreds of social workers to the Department of Children and Family Services and for passing a $15 minimum wage.
Both supervisors, as well as their colleagues on the board, have been backed by major labor groups.
That relationship is a cause for concern among some. Compensation for the county’s 110,000-plus employees eats up a large chunk of its annual budget.
“We hope that they’re very cost-conscious in terms of their labor contracts because every one of those contracts also has long-term impacts on the pension liability,” said Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
Solis and Kuehl defended the board’s spending as reasonable, noting it has been judicious with salary increases and mindful of putting reserves into a “rainy day fund.”
Solis and Kuehl can each serve up to two more terms. Kuehl needs more than 50% of the vote Tuesday to avoid a race in November.