Ninth District Race May Determine Fate Of Women On L.A. City Council
This story also appears on L.A. Currents.
Seven people sat onstage last Saturday at a candidate forum for Los Angeles City Council’s 9th District, each trying to win the hearts—and votes—of a crowd of nearly 300 South L.A. residents.
Only one of the seven candidates, Ana Cubas, was a woman.
The scene is a familiar one in this year’s city council elections, in which just six of the 40 people running for an open council seat are women. In some races, like that for the popular 13th District, there are no female candidates.
The number of women on the L.A. City Council has declined steadily since the late ‘90s, when a record third of the 15-member governing body was female. Today, the council has but one female member, 9th District representative Jan Perry, who is ineligible for re-election due to term limits. With so few new women on the ballot, it’s possible that the next council may be composed entirely of men—a prospect Perry finds “really unfortunate.”
“When you have too much of one thing, you don’t challenge each other in your thinking,” she said. “Diversity—in ethnicity, gender, age and life experience—produces much better policies.”
Perry, now running for mayor, said women’s issues would not necessarily fall to the wayside under an all-male council. She identified City Councilman Bernard Parks and retired Councilman Greig Smith as examples of men with “good views on working with women.”
For Lindsay Bubar, PAC chair of the National Women’s Political Caucus, it’s not so much a matter of women’s issues as it is of equal representation.
“Women make up more than 50 percent of the population,” Bubar said. “We should be represented that way in government.”
But Bubar, who is also working on City Controller Wendy Greuel’s mayoral campaign, said the low number of women running in this year’s city races does not surprise her.
“When there are so few women in office, women don’t have examples to look up to,” Bubar said. “You just don’t see women (run for office) without mentors.”
Former City Councilwoman Joy Picus also emphasized the importance of encouraging and teaching other women about public office.
“Men look to political office as something they might do,” Picus said. “Women don’t usually look in that direction, so women in office need to look out for others who are capable and have a feeling for government.”
Picus, who represented the western part of the San Fernando Valley for 16 years, credited Pat Russell, L.A.’s first female city council president, with her success.
Picus said she first came under Russell’s tutelage in the 1960s when she was an active member of the League of Women Voters, of which Russell was president. Russell helped familiarize Picus with the inner workings of L.A. city politics, which gave Picus the confidence to navigate that world on her own.
“I don’t think I would’ve been a council member without her,” she said.
But having a mentor does not always guarantee that a woman will run for office. Perry said she groomed two possible successors in recent years, but the logistics of campaigning—like raising money—proved too “daunting” for them.
Rachel Michelin, executive director of California Women Lead, an organization that trains women interested in holding public office, said several factors particular to Los Angeles could deter women from running and winning a council election.
“(The L.A. City Council) is one of the best elected positions (in the state),” Michelin said. “You get paid a lot more than in Sacramento, you’re in L.A., and there’s just a lot of power to that. So when you look at the races in L.A., you see a lot of elected state officials running.”
Not only do those state officials bring campaign and legislative expertise, Michelin said, but they also bring financial connections from outside the city and even outside the state, making it hard for political outsiders to compete.
That was the experience for Charyn Harris, a community activist who raised about $20,000 to run for the 9th District seat before she had to pull out of the race in December, when redistricting moved her out of the district by one address. Candidates considered competitive in L.A. usually raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds.
“(State legislators) come in with connections and with money,” Harris said. “It’s crazy how much is spent on candidates by special interest groups. Having those connections to really catapult you makes a difference.”
The weight given to fundraising and political connections puts the pressure on female candidates like the 9th District’s Cubas, who have managed to be successful in both arenas.
Given the amount of money she’s raised, Cubas—former chief of staff to 14th District representative Jose Huizar—is perhaps the only woman with a fighting chance in the March 5 primary. Cubas has raised more than $160,000 in contributions, according to recent figures from the L.A. City Ethics Commission. (The woman with the next largest sum of contributions is District 3 candidate Joyce Pearson, who has raised $89,731.)
Cubas said in an interview Thursday that she would report a new total of $266,000 in funds, which could have her outpacing all six male opponents, though not in independent expenditures in support of her. Being a woman could actually give Cubas an edge in the 9th District, which has elected a woman for more than 20 years. Perry has not yet endorsed a candidate for her district, but Cubas has support from Perry’s predecessor, Rita Walters.
Cubas said she hopes voters will recognize the potentially “dire situation” of no women at City Hall and elect her, but also believes she’s not the only hope for a woman on the Council. Two strong female candidates—outgoing L.A. School Board Member Nury Martinez and former Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez—were recently approved for the May 21 special election to fill Tony Cardenas’ District 6 seat, which he vacated when he was elected to Congress in November. Cubas says it’s likely one of them will win that race.
But even if both Cubas and one of the other two women are elected, Cubas says more must be done to funnel in future female officials.
“If elected, I’ll establish a women’s caucus within the council even if I’m the only one on that caucus,” she said. “And when I’m termed out… I will not endorse a man. I don’t care how good he is—I think women are just as good.”