Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

LA's black political leaders negotiate shifting demographics 40 years after Tom Bradley's election

Newly elected Compton Mayor Aja Brown faces changing demographics in her city.
Newly elected Compton Mayor Aja Brown faces changing demographics in her city.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Forty years ago this week, Los Angeles elected its first black mayor, Tom Bradley. He served for two decades – ushering in a new era of African-American political power in Los Angeles. Today, changing demographics mean black leaders must pursue new strategies.

Aja Brown is well aware of that. She is Compton’s newly elected mayor.

Brown, 31, was born in Compton, but grew up in Altadena - her mother moved the family away after her grandmother was murdered. The tragedy didn’t stop Brown from moving back to Compton and going to work as an urban planner for a city undergoing big changes.

“Our community is very diverse,” Brown said recently as she sat outside a Starbucks on Artesia Blvd. “We have our first Latino council member this year.”

Latinos now comprise 60 percent of Compton’s population – a challenge for black political leaders like Brown.  She says the makeup of her family helps her understand the importance of inclusiveness.

"My husband is actually biracial. He is Caucasian and African American. And my brother’s fiancé is Latina,” Brown says. “So we have a colorful family.”

To be effective as the mayor of Compton, Brown says she needs to go back to school. She plans to take a Spanish class at Compton College. She already knows a little of the language.

“I think we are living in an age where we really need to have bilingual leaders so that we can communicate with our constituents,” said Brown.

Despite L.A.’s dramatic demographic changes, blacks wield considerable political power: California’s attorney general, the L.A. County district attorney, the L.A. city council president and the chairman of the L.A. County board of supervisors are all African American.

One reason black candidates continue to win: blacks vote at a high rate. In L.A.’s ninth city council district, for example, African Americans make up less than 20 percent of the population, but more than a third of the people who vote. Curren Price, who is black, beat Ana Cubas for the seat – even though the district is 75 percent Latino.

Still, L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks worries about the future of black political power.

“Our population numbers and our participation is diminishing,” Parks said. “What’s worrisome is you could become a non-issue in a city of four million people.”

Parks notes that two-thirds of black voters supported the losing candidate in the L.A. mayor’s race. It was largely a Latino and white coalition that elected Eric Garcetti.

Congresswoman Karen Bass harbors no such concerns about African-American political influence. She represents parts of South L.A. and the westside, and enjoys strong Latino support. 

“The communities were always multiracial. What has changed now is the demographics with the rising Latino population,” she said. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that Latinos will not vote for African Americans.”

But people do consider race when choosing candidates, said political scientist Matt Barreto.

“We still see in places like Los Angeles – which likes to consider itself progressive – a very strong degree of racially polarized voting,” he said.

Barreto, who teaches at the University of Washington’s Institute for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, has studied voting patterns in L.A.. He says particularly in non-partisan elections, people tend to vote for candidates who look like them. 

“It doesn’t necessarily imply that there’s overwhelming malice on the part of the voters,” he said. “Voters still desire representation from someone from their community.”

That dynamic bodes well for Latino and Asian American politicians, whose communities are growing, but not for African Americans.

In 1990, blacks comprised more than 14 percent of L.A.’s population. Today, they account for 9.5 percent.

The Inland Empire is a different story. Since 1990, African Americans have gone from 5 to 7 percent of the population in Riverside County, and from 8 to 9.6 percent of the population in San Bernardino County.

“That’s a region where the African-American political influence has grown significantly over the past couple of years,” said political consultant Kerman Maddox.

Maddox pointed to Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown’s recent victory over Joe Baca Jr. in a district with 52 percent Latinos and 15 percent blacks. Brown, a former newspaper publisher, successfully campaigned on a platform of creating jobs. 

Good candidates talking about the right issues can trump race, Maddox said. Nonetheless, he recognizes the new demographic challenges facing black candidates.

“Candidates have to run a lot smarter and they have to be much more effective in terms of building coalitions,” said Maddox, who has advised dozens of black candidates over the years.

For a long time, Latinos were considered a sleeping giant African Americans did not have to worry about.

“Now, both are wide awake, and well aware of each other,” said Raphe Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A.

New Compton Mayor Aja Brown is acutely aware of the changing political dynamics. Brown might be brushing up on her Spanish, but she says she’s also focused on the issues Latinos and African American care about: jobs, education, and public safety.

“There’s always some difference between your Latino and African-American communities,” Brown said. “But we definitely have more similarities than differences.”

Brown acknowledges the need to repair relations with Compton's Latinos, who have long been shut out of city hall.

“I think in the past, there’s always been a promise from some African-American leaders to include Latinos,” she said. ”Sometimes they’ve held up their end of the bargain and sometimes they haven’t.”

It’s a new era, Brown said.