Even as Hillary Clinton fell short in her quest to become the nation’s first woman commander in chief, Los Angeles County voters added two more women to the Board of Supervisors, giving a government body labeled in living memory as “the five little kings” a four-fifths female supermajority.
The election of Kathryn Barger to succeed her current boss, Michael D. Antonovich, and Janice Hahn to follow in the footsteps of her late father, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, should not be dismissed as a mere consolation prize to those who identify the glaring paucity of women in American politics as shameful. Nor should the continuing service of Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl. There can be no substitute in substance or symbolism for a female president of the United States, and we will most certainly have one, although not as soon as had so recently seemed likely. If the delay in gender equality in the most powerful job in the land lasts longer than we would like — and indeed the delay is nearly unforgivable — it is in part because of the unconscionable delay in opening the ranks of city, county and state government to women. Kuehl and Solis, and now Barger and Hahn, help fill the void.
The number of people, even in Los Angeles County itself, who are familiar with the members of the Board of Supervisors and their their powers and duties, is probably not high. Local government already is somewhat obscure, and unlike big cities, which have mayors who become a municipality’s face and voice, California counties are governed by five-member committees that tend to make less news than school boards.
No society that chooses its leaders from among only half its eligible citizens can be said to be truly free, just, fair and inclusive.
But that unwarranted anonymity covers over the fact that counties are the chief entity responsible for basic human services: public health, public safety, jails, parks, hospitals, transportation, sanitation, care for the homeless, the jobless, the abused and neglected, and more. The grand designs of the president and Congress, and of the governor and the Legislature, turn into money and mandates that are spent and carried out in counties by five supervisors elected by voters. Los Angeles is the nation’s most populous county and its government the most influential in California outside Sacramento.
Women in elective office fall far too short of their numbers in the general population, and let us not pretend that that’s not a serious problem or one less important than racial disparity, or one that we will automatically outgrow without effort and political struggle. No society that chooses its leaders from among only half its eligible citizens can be said to be truly free, just, fair and inclusive. No person — woman or man — is adequately served by a government drawn from a narrow segment of society, whether that group be all one race, one social class or one gender.
As a state, California serves its populace with a government more representative than most — but still vastly under-representative, with just a quarter of state lawmakers and a quarter of statewide elected officials. The city of Los Angeles has no women in citywide office and just one among 15 City Council members.
It matters, because elections for state and local office fill the bench: They make up the supply chain for higher office. It is no knock on Hillary Clinton to say that she was not only the first but very likely the last serious presidential contender whose path included being first lady before assuming elected and appointed office.
The bench is filled by thinkers, advocates, academics and others who apply for staff posts and then run for office because they see government as a profession that is not only honorable and consequential but open to advancement. It is filled by people like Barger — and, importantly, by people like Antonovich, who appointed her. It is filled by people like Hahn who refuse to accept that their fathers can be succeeded only by their sons. It is filled by people — and should be filled by more of them — who believe, or perhaps insist, that they live in a nation in which their ability and call to service can take them to the most powerful post on the planet.