The race features someone who has worked in the trenches of Los Angeles County government against a longtime elected official who's also among the region’s political elite.
Put another way, the contest between Steve Napolitano and Congresswoman Janice Hahn is between and a man who is spending more than a million dollars on his own campaign against a woman who seeks to follow in the footsteps of her politically famous father.
Napolitano and Hahn are competing for a seat on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors – a five-member panel that controls a nearly $29-billion budget and huge public agencies, including the health department, child welfare agency and sheriff's department.
Napolitano and Hahn want to represent the fourth district, an area that stretches from Manhattan Beach along the coast to Long Beach and sweeps east to Rowland Heights. Supervisor Don Knabe represents the district now, but is being termed out of office.
Knabe’s departure – along with that of Supervisor Mike Antonovich in the fifth district – marks a turning point for the board. If Hahn wins (and fifth-district candidate Kathryn Barger prevails over her opponent Darrell Park), the board long dominated by men will have four women and just one man (Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas). Even if only one wins, women will make up the majority of the board.
While the race is non-partisan, the departure of Republicans Knabe and Antonovich could also represent the end of conservative influence on the board. Both were elected at a time when the Republican party had more influence in Los Angeles.
Napolitano, 50, has been a top aide to Knabe for the past 11 years. He is also a lawyer and former city councilman in Manhattan Beach. That’s where he was born and raised. He lives there now – and still plays beach volleyball.
Working as an aide to Knabe, he’s helped negotiate important deals -- for more public libraries, additional affordable housing, and campaign finance reform that requires more disclosure, he said.
“I’d argue that in the job I have now, I’ve been able to get more done than a lot of other elected officials,” Napolitano said during a recent interview with KPCC.
Hahn, a congresswoman and former member of the LA City Council, dismisses the idea. Serving as an elected official is more important training for supervisor, she said.
“I’ve represented and taken votes on behalf of many more cities than my opponent has,” Hahn said.
Hahn, 64, was raised in South L.A. and attended Abilene Christian University in Texas. She came back to teach elementary school and first got involved in elective politics when voters in the Watts and San Pedro areas chose her to represent them on the L.A. Charter Reform Commission in 1997.
She was elected to the City Council in 2001 and to Congress in 2011.
Napolitano is a Republican and Hahn is a Democrat. But the two share many of the same priorities. Take homelessness:
“You’ve got 47,000 people living on the streets,” Napolitano said. “You got veterans out there. You got families out there. We have to end this.”
Hahn expresses similar frustration.
“If we had 47,000 people who were displaced from their home by any other disaster – earthquake, a fire, a flood – we would bring all the resources to the table.”
But they disagree on how to pay for those resources. Hahn is quick to say she backs raising the sales tax to pay for homeless services.
“I would support something like that,” she said. When you talk to voters, this is their number one issue," Hahn said.
Napolitano is more cautious. He’s open to a tax but first he wants to know if current county homeless programs are working.
“We need to analyze what we are doing right now and make sure the dollars we are spending are being spent effectively and efficiently,” he said.
Policing is another issue where the two take different views.
The county board controls the budget for the sheriff’s department, which has come under fire for beatings in the county jails and for a rash of police shootings that led to multi-million dollar lawsuits against the county.
A KPCC investigation found that between 2010 and 2014, a third of people shot by sheriff’s deputies were completely unarmed. That’s compared to less than a quarter at the LAPD.
The county recently approved a civilian watchdog commission to put more oversight on the department, but some argue that panel will have little power if the appointees can’t access deputy personnel records.
Those records would tell them, for example, if deputies are disciplined for acting out-of-policy and how often a deputy has shot at civilians. Hahn supports giving the panel subpoena power to access those records.
“The more authority, we can give them, the more we can empower them will be better,” she said.
Hahn is quick to add that she must consult the Association of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies, which has endorsed her. The union opposes subpoena power, and says it would create an adversarial relationship with the sheriff’s department.
“I’ve never been afraid of adversarial powers,” said Hahn. “That’s called checks and balances.”
Napolitano, like Knabe and Sheriff Jim McDonnell, told KPCC that the county's Inspector General, another type of watchdog, is already getting the personnel records from the sheriff's department, so it's not necessary to push for subpoena power.
“I wouldn’t want to put something else in place that would have everybody on their defensive,” he said.
It's easy to draw distinctions between Napolitano and Knabe, but Napolitano insists he would not be a carbon copy. He and his boss disagree from time to time, he said. For example, Napolitano supported last year’s $15-an-hour minimum wage proposal. Knabe did not.
Yet, Napolitano’s been forced to wear two hats during this campaign. At the annual Buckaroo Days festival in Rowland Heights recently, he took the stage in his bright orange campaign t-shirt.
"My name is Steve Napolitano," he bellows into the crowd. "I am here on behalf of Supervisor Don Knabe."
After 11 years in his position, traveling around the district and talking to so many constituents, he said, he knows the fourth district better than just about anybody else.
Hahn, who lives in San Pedro, says her congressional district covers much of the fourth district --- and, that she’s been preparing for this job her whole life. She’s the sister of former L.A. Mayor Jim Hahn and the daughter of legendary county supervisor Kenny Hahn, who served 40 years on the board.
“I think I’ve always wanted to be a supervisor since I was a small child and watched my dad,” Hahn said.
She recalled sitting in the backseat of the car with her brother as her father drove around his district looking for potholes and other problems that needed fixing.
Hahn and Napolitano each have taken in about $2 million in campaign contributions. For Hahn, many of the largest contributions have come from labor unions. Napolitano, has self-funded most of his campaign, pouring in $1.4 million.
It’s all to win one of the most powerful jobs in local politics – and one where it’s rare to be voted out of office. So whoever comes out on top will likely be elected to not just a 4-year term, but 12 years of power.
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