In Waxman's West LA Congressional district, it's not all glamour and glitz

Enrique Banuelos cuts Phil Jahnke's hair at the barbershop he opened four decades ago on Olympic Boulevard in the Pico neighborhood.
Enrique Banuelos cuts Phil Jahnke's hair at the barbershop he opened four decades ago on Olympic Boulevard in the Pico neighborhood.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 3.0MB

By some accounts, the 33rd district on L.A.'s Westside is the second wealthiest Congressional seat in America. But the area still has pockets of poverty, something that hasn't gotten much attention in the race to succeed longtime  Congressman Henry Waxman. 

The Pico neighborhood  of Santa Monica straddles the Santa Monica Freeway from Centinela Avenue to the Pacific Ocean.  It is the poorest area in the congressional district, with a median household income of $57,000, according to the U.S. Census. That's on par with Los Angeles County as a whole, but it pales in comparison to the wealthiest part of the district, Bel-Air, which has a annual median household income of $182,000.

Pico is a decidedly working class neighborhood.  It's home to a large cemetery, auto repair shops and service centers for the mentally ill and homeless. And there are environmental concerns.

"We call it the toxic triangle," said Pico resident Oscar De La Torre during a recent tour of the neighborhood. "You have the freeway, which people are already dealing with a lot of pollution and contaminates from that, then the city dump and the trash collection that goes on there, and now the maintenance yard," 

The Pico area has none of the glamor of neighborhoods that are just minutes away. But it's very much a part of the 33rd Congressional district. 
There hasn't been a competitive race here in four decades so it's become a free-for-all with 18 candidates on the ballot. Some have name recognition, such as state Senator Ted Lieu and former L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel. Matt Miller is somewhat known – he's a public radio host and former advisor to President Bill Clinton. And popular spiritual speaker Marianne Williamson is a dark horse candidate.

"This is a high-profile, high-participation district where people know their elected officials, they vote and they're actually a lot less anti-government than in a number of other places around the country," said Raphael Sonensehin, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Also in the race is attorney David Kanuth. At a debate this month, Kanuth highlighted the importance of reaching out to all parts of the district.

"It's criminal on our behalf to allow young people's success, their access to the American Dream, to be dictated by where they're born or where they grew up – their ZIP Code," he said.

But that often is the case for children living in the Pico neighborhood. According to the Santa Monica Youth Wellbeing Report Card, children living in the Pico ZIP Code are more likely to have trouble reading. And they're more likely to go hungry.

Another candidate is Elan Carr, an Iraq War veteran and deputy district attorney who's running as a Republican. At that same debate, Carr spoke about issues that are relevant to the Pico neighborhood, if not elsewhere in the district — such as improving educational and work opportunities for disadvantaged teenagers.  

"When are we gonna get serious about this?" Carr said. "We have broken schools, unsafe classrooms. We have to have job training in our schools, we have to have more after school programs." 
Back in the Pico neighborhood, De La Torre — a member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board — is watching the election to see which candidate would best serve his community. But it's hard for him to be optimistic.
"No one that's ever ran for Congress has stepped into the Pico neighborhood as far as I can remember," he said. "You know, I've never heard of any Congressional candidate seeking votes in the Pico neighborhood." 

The election is June 3. The two candidates with the most votes will go on to the November runoff.