Imagine if Los Angeles, with a population that is roughly half Latino, had just one or even no Latinos in elected office. There would be protests and political recriminations in every election cycle. There would be lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. The Justice Department would be scrutinizing voting procedures.
But Los Angeles is half female, and it is quite possible that in a few weeks, its 18 elected officials will include not a single woman. It would be the first time since 1968 that the City Council was all male.
"Shame, shame," said Laura Chick, the first woman ever to hold citywide elected office in Los Angeles, a breakthrough she achieved with her victory in the 2001 controller's race. Today, Chick is retired from public office but continues to work to elect women throughout the state.
Granted, it's possible that Los Angeles will not return to an all-male leadership. Ana Cubas is a candidate for the 9th District council seat currently occupied by Jan Perry, so that seat could remain in the hands of a woman. There are also two strong female candidates, Cindy Montanez and Nury Martinez, in the special election to replace outgoing Councilman Tony Cardenas, though that field includes four men as well. And, of course, Controller Wendy Greuel is in the runoff against Councilman Eric Garcetti to become the next mayor.
But at least 13 of 15 council seats will be filled by men after July 1. The city attorney will be a man, as will Greuel's successor as controller.
Does it matter?
"Absolutely it makes a difference," Chick said. "Our brains are different. We have different perspectives.... There's something terribly wrong with this."
Lots of people agree. I spent a recent afternoon with Cubas touring her district. We dropped in on a park where some young men thanked her for goading the city bureaucracy into installing benches where they can play cards and dominoes (Cubas is a former chief of staff to Councilman Jose Huizar, so she knows what levers to pull). We heard from supporters who talked of trash and jobs and safety. Cubas outlined her ideas for converting abandoned warehouses into a biotech corridor and for capitalizing on the creative and economic potential of USC, by far the largest enterprise in the 9th Council District, which stretches south from downtown to Watts.
As we talked with potential voters, over and over they said the same thing: They like that she's a woman. I asked one group of supporters why they were backing Cubas. The very first answer, delivered in Spanish: "First of all, because she is a woman." Others nodded in agreement, and one added, "Women are more able to understand change that is needed for children."
The city's sudden dearth of women in public life represents a startling setback. The first woman elected to the council was Estelle Lawton Lindsey, a socialist who was elected in 1915. She used the office to rail against billboards, a remarkably current topic.
She had enemies, though, including this newspaper, which described her behavior during the billboard campaign in 1917 as "agonized heroics and blasphemous melodrama." She had, one writer concluded,
"laid herself on the altar of public ridicule." She was gone in two years, and no other woman was elected to the city office until 1953, when Rosalind Wyman won a seat on the City Council.
In my early days of covering Los Angeles government in the 1990s, there were four women on the 15-member council: Chick, Rita Walters, Ruth Galanter and Jackie Goldberg. In 1997, they were joined by Cindy Miscikowski. Parity began to seem possible, if not imminent. Then, abruptly, those trends reversed. Chick, Galanter, Goldberg and Miscikowski all were replaced by men. Today, Greuel and Perry are the only two elected women in Los Angeles, and both will vacate their current jobs this summer.
Despite that, there seems little attention — or concern — about the evaporating place of women in local government. Private polls show that Greuel's attempts to energize female voters by emphasizing that she could become the city's next mayor have little resonance with the electorate.
How did this happen? Some say women are more reluctant to engage in the nitty-gritty of politics — the fundraising and deal-making that are distasteful but necessary to win. Others suggest that some women don't see life as an elected official compatible with family life.
Chick agrees that those are factors, but she offers a more sobering possibility. Women, she says, are more often drawn to politics by the opportunity to accomplish something rather than the satisfaction of their egos or their quest for power. Looking at the problems of Los Angeles gives them pause.
"I'm so saddened by it," she said. "But women take a look at what's going on and decide they don't want a part of it."