Over the past year, the political landscape in Los Angeles has been dramatically reshaped for Black Angelenos. A city scandal exposing the efforts of City Hall politicians to wrestle away power away from African Americans, the conviction of Mark Ridley- Thomas— one of the Black community’s most powerful and effective politicians and the election of Mayor Karen Bass have all shed light on the complexities surrounding Black political power in the City of Angels.
“The Black community is in a constant state of survival – at all levels of government,” said Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove. “We are battling a widening wealth gap, the onslaught of gentrification, rising unaffordability, a shrinking demographic in historically Black neighborhoods, and anti-Black rhetoric that routinely turns violent. Oftentimes, it feels like we are under siege.”
Despite the conviction of Ridley-Thomas, political consultant Kerman Maddox highlights the recent election of Mayor Karen Bass as proof of the enduring potential of Black political influence.
“For the past twenty years Mark Ridley-Thomas was clearly the most effective black elected official in Southern California,” states Maddox, who runs Dakota Communications, one of the city’s top political consulting firms. “Some politicians are more vocal, some are more well known, some are more well liked, but none have been more effective in advancing a Black agenda. The packed crowds in the courtroom during his trial are evidence of how people in the community feel about him. However, despite his departure from elective office, all is not lost. The recent election of Mayor Karen Bass is clear evidence that despite reports of our imminent demise, black political power can still swing a major election in Los Angeles.”
The trajectory of Blacks in L.A. politics is particularly striking given that while two thirds of the settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1781 were of African descent, no African American person held elected office in Los Angeles between 1900 and 1949.
In the decades since, blacks have risen through the political ranks on every front, from the halls of Congress to the recesses of Los Angeles City Hall with the likes of Gil Lindsay, Augustus Hawkins, Mervyn Dymally, Nate Holden, former L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke, five-time mayor Tom Bradley, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, former Congresswoman Diane Watson and veteran legislator Mark Ridley-Thomas leading the charge.
Yet, while blacks have played key roles in city politics in the post-Bradley era, rapidly shifting demographics have transformed many historically Black areas of the city into Hispanic enclaves.
Of the nearly four million people who call Los Angeles home, Latinos make up 48%, Whites stand at 29%, followed by Asians (12%) and Blacks (8%). And as the state’s minority population has dramatically risen, political insiders have long predicted blacks would decline in power.
However, the election of Mayor Bass, along with the elections of Dr. Shirley Webber as Secretary of State and Malia Cohen as California’s first Black state controller, signal that reports of the decline of Black political influence have been premature.
In a 2022 interview, City Councilman Curren Price pointed out that while the African American population might be small, the community holds considerable leadership positions at local, state, and federal levels and have consistently punched above their weight. Despite the increasing Latino majority in council districts traditionally held by African Americans, Price along with other figures like City Council President Pro Tem Marqueece Harris-Dawson, believe in the resilience of the Black community and its political representation.
Said Price, “Many of us are elected in the areas that are not primarily African American, demonstrating an ability to work with others—an ability to reach across the aisles and meet those needs of residents where they are, regardless of race.”
“We’re as challenged now as we’ve ever been, but we’re also the strongest we’ve ever been,” said Harris-Dawson. “The struggles that produced people like Mark Ridley-Thomas and Karen Bass are still there. Our values are still there. Our institutions are still there. And we’re still producing leadership. So, no matter what they throw at us—and they’re always throwing stuff at us—we’re going to be able to take that, turn it around and use it in our favor.”
Kamlager-Dove calls Mayor Karen Bass is an incredible addition to the history of Los Angeles.
“She brings practicality, a political heft and inspiration to the needs of this city. She walks everyday with her eyes wide open and remains unafraid of the challenges ahead.
“On the opposite side of the political spectrum, the loss of MRT will be felt across the Black community. He created Days of Dialogue in direct response to the riots, he was a clarion voice on the issue of homelessness well before everyone else understood it to be a crisis, and he was instrumental in the re-opening of King Drew Hospital. We still need that kind of power and provocation as we battle what is ahead for the Black community.”
If the name Ridley-Thomas frequently emerges in discussions, it’s for a good reason: any conversation about the influence of Black politics in Los Angeles over the last forty years would be incomplete without acknowledging Ridley-Thomas at its heart.
“It is absolutely a blow to our community to have Mark on the sidelines,” observed Mayor Karen Bass, “but somehow, I think that’s going to change in the future. Still, I think the state of black politics in L.A. is strong. The question and the challenge for all of us is to maximize our power in developing an agenda and fighting for an agenda that moves Black Los Angeles forward. And as far as I’m concerned, our number one issue is the extreme disproportionality with homelessness. We’re 9% of the population and 34% of the people on the streets.
“What a lot of people might not know is that we all work together, we meet together, we know what each other’s doing, and we’re supportive of each other. So, I think we’re in a good situation.”
L.A. County Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell underscores the importance of Black political power in creating progress that benefits all Angelenos.
“We know this because anti-Blackness serves as the blueprint for all forms of oppression that we must end,” Mitchell explains. “There is a shared benefit that reaches every person when you have Black leaders who are not afraid to stand up to injustice, when you have Black public servants that see how we are all connected. Black political power continues to become more inclusive and multi-generational.”
And for those who believe power to be a matter of numbers, Harris -Dawson disagrees.
“This is one of the misnomers that really irritates me because the power and the influence of black people has never been based on the amount of us that there aren’t. When Tom Bradley got elected, it wasn’t as if we were 51%.
“There’s no magic number,” Harris-Dawson continued. “It’s a magic story. Imagine the struggle and imagine the commitment to values that make people look at our community and say, ‘We want to follow their way of life. We want to follow their vision for justice, and their vision for society’.
“That’s really, how we’ve been able to ascend to leadership at all—under any circumstances and no matter what the demographics were.”
“Our population has declined but in recent elections we have over performed our vote compared to other groups, which has allowed us to hold on to and win seats in districts where the demographics don’t favor us,” Maddox reflects.
“We have Holly Mitchell on the board of Supervisors, Jim Butts is the Mayor in Inglewood, Rex Richardson was recently elected Mayor in Long Beach and two of the most powerful positions in Los Angeles City Hall are held by African Americans. We clearly don’t have the political power we had in the 80’s and 90’s but we remain major political players. Now, our elected folks just need to deliver.”
Some however argue that political power is not just left to politicians to exercise.
“Influence can be exercised by a minister, a politician, a great community leader, an educator,” said one political insider. “I think there are people who do exercise power in all of those areas—each different from the other.”
Community Build CEO Robert Salcedo also stresses the need for leadership at every level of people who can understand the problems and have the capacity to work to resolve them.
“If we only rely on our elected representatives, we have limited our power base immensely,” Salcedo contends. “You’ve got people like Tavis Smiley with the launch of KBLA and radio host Dominique diPrima who are providing a platform to drive social change. You’ve got black business leaders who are coming to the forefront and community activists and a number of faith leaders who are driving transformative change in their communities.”
Center of Hope pastor Dixon is one of them. With small business advocacy, youth development, battling human sex trafficking and supporting foster care among his many programs, Dixon is excited by the dynamic group of faith leaders he believes will assist in the transformation of the L.A. County particularly as it relates to the African American community.
“There are tons of leaders I consider to be contemporaries that have been in the woodshed getting ready. They’ve been laying the foundation and I believe that in the next ten years, we’re going to see these leaders — who have been emerging all this time—really come to the forefront and what has been in like a proof-of-concept stage on a smaller level is going to be amplified in short order.”
“There’s much more of an emphasis on preaching a strong gospel in church on Sunday and then mobilizing on Monday to make sure the quality of life of our constituencies is being raised in every shape, form and fashion—social, economically, relative to health disparities, relative to the justice system.”
Even more exciting for L.A.’s seasoned black leadership is those coming behind them.
Observed Mitchell, “I am excited about the next generation of rising leaders who are working alongside us to end anti-Blackness and create the future we all deserve.”
Among the political leaders making headway in the Southland and in the California legislature are State Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, Assemblywoman Tina McKinnor and Assemblyman Isaac Bryan (55th Assembly District).
On July 3,2023, Bryan— at the age of 31—was named as majority leader of the California State Assembly.
“Change isn’t about a person,” Bryan said after the announcement. “We all have the power to make a difference in the lives of others. Let’s use that power.”
L.A. Focus’ 2023 list of L.A. power players is listed below:
Karen Bass, L.A. City Mayor
Marqueece Harris-Dawson (CD-8), President ProTem
Heather Hutt, 10th District
Curren Price, 9th District
COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS
Holly J. Mitchell, Second District
Maxine Waters, U.S. Rep., 43rd Congressional District
Sydney Kamlager-Dove, U.S. Rep., 37th Congressional District
Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, 26th District
Steven Bradford 35th District
Isaac Bryan, 55th District, Assembly Majority Leader
Tina McKinnor, 61st District
Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, Sr, 57th District
Mike Gipson, 65th District
Yvonne Wheeler, President, L.A. County Federation
Shomari Davis, IBEW Local #11
L.A. COUNTY MUNICIPALITIES
Compton Mayor: Emma Sharif
Carson Mayor: Lula Davis-Holmes
Inglewood Mayor: James Butts
Long Beach Mayor: Rex Richardson
Gardena: Tasha Cerda
Lawndale: Robert Pullen-Miles
Kerman Maddox, Dakota Communications
Lisa Richardson, Rise Communications
FOUNDATIONS, AGENCIES & BOARDS
Cynthia McClain Hill, President—Board of Water and Power Commissioners (LADWP)
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, CEO — L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA)
Dr. Robert Ross, CEO — California Endowment
Nichelle Henderson, Vice President—Los Angeles Community College District
Capri Maddox, Executive Director—Civil + Human Rights and Equity Department
Matt Johnson, Los Angeles World Airport
Erroll Southers, President, L.A. Police Commission
Gene Hale, Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce
Bishop Charles Blake/Pastor Charles Blake II, West Angeles Church of God in Christ
Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, Faithful Central Bible Ch.
Bishop Clement Fugh, Bishop, 5th Episcopal District
Bishop Noel Jones, City of Refuge
Pastor Geremy Dixon, Center of Hope
Pastor Troy Vaughn, Christ Centered Ministries—
President, L.A. Mission
Pastor K.W. Tulloss, President of the Baptist
Ministers’ Conference of Los Angeles
Pastor Michael Fisher, Greater Zion Church Family
Pastor J.P. Foster, Faithful Central Bible Church
Pastor Xavier Thompson, Southern-St. Paul
Apostle Beverly “Bam” Crawford, Bible Enrichment Fellowship Int’l
Michael Lawson, Urban League
William Smart, SCLC
Kellie Todd-Griffin, CA Black Woman’s Collective
Charisse Bremond, Brotherhood Crusade
Avis Ridley-Thomas—Institute for Non-Violence
Adrian Shropshire, BPAC Fund
NAACP Los Angeles
Robert Salcedo, Community Build
Tavis Smiley, KBLA
Stevie Wonder, KJLH
Regina Wilson, California Black Media
UP AND COMERS
Yasmine McMorrin, Culver City Vice Mayor
Michelle Chambers, Former Compton Councilmember, Candidate for State Senate
David Price, Civil + Human Rights/Equity Dept
Pastor Eddie Anderson, McCarty Memorial Church