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Groundbreaker Burke says new Board could bring new priorities

Former Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke with colleagues, from left, Pete Schabarum, Kenneth Hahn, Baxter Ward and Ed Edelman. ..

In 1979, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke landed unexpectedly on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors – making history and remaking a governing board known back then as “the five little kings.”

When Burke was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to fill a sudden vacancy, she became the board’s first woman and first African American – and was greeted with “plenty of hostility,” she said.

Her constituents accepted her; the powerbrokers did not. “There were some incidents that were not so great,” she recalls now. People made racial slurs behind her back. She said she was pilloried by political opponents, who vowed publicly to run her out of office.

And the county was so unprepared for her presence that the lone private restroom for board members was off-limits.  It was lined with urinals and labeled “MEN”.

“I had to use the general public restroom until they were able to make something available,” she said. That “something” was a closet-sized facility that Burke would share with a growing corps of female county employees.

“I always had to share with staff people,” she said. “And they were kind of pleased, because they got better facilities once women joined the board.”

It would actually be another 12 years before “women” joined the board.

Burke lost her seat in a close election in 1980, the year after her appointment. She ran successfully for an open seat in 1992 and joined Gloria Molina, who’d been elected to the board the year before.

The two women—one black, one Latina—were “different personalities,” Burke said. “But it was good to have another woman on the board.”

Another woman--or two or three.

In fact, on Monday when two new board members—both women—are sworn in, Los Angeles County will make history: Four of the five members on its governing board will be female.

That changing-of-the-guard delights Burke, who has a string of firsts in her political history:

She was the first black woman elected to the state Legislature in 1967. And in 1973, she became the first Congresswoman to give birth during her term in office. That baby girl, Autumn Burke, was elected two years ago to the California State Assembly.

Former Supervisor Burke said that being the “first woman” may be losing its luster. “I don’t think that women, particularly a younger generation of women, believe it’s that important. They have seen women in positions of power… The attitude that I discerned during this election was, ‘Well, if a woman doesn’t get elected [president] this time, certainly in a few years one will be.”

It’s the critical mass of women that makes this Board of Supervisors milestone special. “Symbolically it’s great to be able to look and see four women sitting there,” she said. “It means a great deal, when it wasn’t that many years ago there were no women on the board.”

Each supervisor represents more than 2 million people; more constituents than the populations of some states. “It’s a power position,” said Burke. “A visible, constant reminder of the fact that there are women making major executive decisions. That’s the significant thing.”

Supervisors can serve three consecutive four-year terms, so this supermajority could last a decade or more. And that would bode well for Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable residents, Burke predicted.  

“I think there will be a careful look at children and family services, in a way that maybe we haven’t seen before,” she said. “This will be an opportunity for women to emphasize issues that are not always on the top agenda of male representatives. 

“You can’t expect all of the women to think the same,” she said. “But one thing I expect will be similar with all four women is their concern about issues that impact women. And I think that will make a difference.”