Keith DeLawder, Contributor
With a resounding victory in November’s general election, former State Senator Holly Mitchell is now representing the 2nd District on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Mitchell, who defeated former City Council President and veteran politician Herb Wesson by over 130,000 votes, cemented the hard-fought campaign she ran on social welfare, criminal justice and alleviating the housing crisis with a seat on the largest and most powerful local governing body in the country which oversees a $35 billion budget.
Though the steadfast Mitchell has been confident about her chances since she announced her candidacy at the beginning of the year, receiving over 66% of the vote against an opponent with as much experience and name recognition as Herb Wesson was surprising, even to her.
“I, like many people, was quite frankly surprised at the vote margin between myself and my opponent,” Mitchell tells L.A. Focus. “But what it really said to me was that the voters related to our values-based campaign and the messaging we talked about on how to recover from COVID-19 — acknowledging the fact that there are structural issues that the county really can weigh in on in a meaningful way to help communities who were suffering quite frankly before COVID-19. I think people understood my track record, my 10 years in the legislature and my work to alleviate poverty. So, I’m proud of what we were able to do and very humbled by the response from the voters.”
Mitchell’s election to the board is also significant because for the first time in the Board of Supervisors’ 150-year history, the five-person body is comprised entirely of women. In the past, the gender disparity at the board was painfully apparent as it took 125 years to elect the first female representative– which earned the body its tongue-and-cheek nickname, “the five little kings”.
While Mitchell acknowledges that the new all-female board, which some have dubbed “the fab five”, is a great symbolic victory for equality in policy making, she rebukes the notion that the new board will be anything but business as usual.
“I imagine that for the 125 years when it was all male, the first question asked to male candidates wasn’t, ‘[the board] is all male, what do you think about that?’ I don’t think those are the questions that were posed to men,” remarks Mitchell. “The four women that I have joined on the board are all brilliant stateswomen with very diverse backgrounds and experiences. The one thing we probably all have in common is our gender, but we all are very diverse and bring our own set of experiences and lens to the policymaking arena.”
During her swearing in ceremony in early December, California Supreme Court Justice Martin Jenkins shared a quote from the late Ruth Bater Ginsburg in his preamble to her oath of office.
“When [Ginsburg] was asked how many women are too many on the Supreme Court, she said nine,” recalls Mitchell. “I love that. It reminded everyone of Justice Ginsburg and how special this moment is.
“I think it’s wonderful that it’s all female, and as I’ve said, I don’t think we’ll do any worse than the fellas during the 125 years that it was all male. It’ll be okay!”
Having served both the State Assembly and State Senate consecutively since 2010 when she was first elected to succeed Congresswoman Karen Bass as Assembly member for the 54th District, Mitchell has made a name for herself as a hard-working, in-the-weeds style lawmaker known for getting things done– which is exactly the kind reputation she wants.
“A community leader pulled me aside at an event the first year I was elected in the assembly and told me, ‘don’t ever let anybody introduce you or refer to you as a politician. That’s not what you are. You’re a policy maker’. And that hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Mitchell. “That’s exactly what I am, and I’ve always referred to myself in that context.”
With over 90 bills authored and passed through the State Legislature, Mitchell’s record speaks for itself. During her seven years in the Senate, Mitchell was also the first African American to serve as the Chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee where she led the passing of state budgets each totaling over $200 billion in a state which boasts the fifth largest economy in the world. It’s this legislative experience that Mitchell is poised to bring to the Board of Supervisors.
“I’m proud of that reputation of being a policy wonk, because that is the nature of the work at the county level and at the County Board of Supervisors,” says Mitchell. “It is a unique body in that it’s both legislative,
administrative, and executive, so having done the policy work and having my experiences is going to make a difference for the kind of work I’m going to be able to accomplish and ultimately in the lives of the people who call the second district home.”
Starting with her upbringing Mitchell has had a first-hand view of how effective government can be in combating poverty and providing much needed services. Her parents, who met when they were both eligibility workers for L.A. County in the sixties, worked on the “war on poverty” after the Watts riots which informed her professional experience and what she believes she can accomplish.
Truth is, the third-generation native Angeleno has been advocating for others and herself since she was in the first grade and was sent to the principal’s office for coming to school with pants on. While her mom — a probation officer—told the principal that she’d dressed her daughter in pants because it was cold out and advised that she would continue to do so, Mitchell decided she would take her own action in protest.
“I’d seen something on the news about women burning their bras, and I convinced four, five of my schoolmates to remove our undershirts in protest,” said Mitchell, who grew up at Holman United Methodist Church under the leadership of Rev. James Lawson.
While there were little consequences in elementary school, these days Mitchell knows all too well the sacrifices of public service and has adopted a “Go-big-or-go-home” stance.
“My mother, in particular, showed me what government can do if you’re clear and determined and have a goal. Poverty alleviation has really focused all of my work and my entire career from being the CEO of Crystal Stairs where we were helping low income working families pay for childcare so they could go to school or work,” recounts Mitchell. “That experience applies to the county. The county is the safety net level of government, where those services are designed to help people who are in crisis and all of us thanks to this public health and economic pandemic we’re living through, are in crisis. The County has the perfect seat of government to talk about equity, acknowledge disparities in our communities, and bring services that people need now probably more than ever in my lifetime.”
Before her first run for office, Mitchell was quite happy providing childcare services for families in need as the Chief Executive of the nonprofit Crystal Stairs, the largest non-profit in the state dedicated to child and family development. Then one day she was sitting in a health and human services subcommittee meeting and watched three male lawmakers cut $1 billion in funds for state subsidized childcare, without much consideration or input.
Mitchell reflects on that moment being her realization that the change she sought would have to come from her.
“Here I am with two bus-loads of working parents and their babies from Crystal Stairs and I don’t have anyone from L.A. County to speak to! So, I go into [then] Assembly Speaker Karen Bass’ office, and I’m just working myself up into a frenzy telling her my story, to the point where I am banging the desk. I’m standing there looking at her and then it hits me, and I told her, ‘And with term limits you’ll leave.’
“It literally hit me like a wave,” she recounts the pivotal moment, “and I said, ‘I’ll be damned, I have to run.’”
Upon her return home, Mitchell pulled together a group of friends, families and colleagues to help her think through whether a run for public office made sense for her life and her family given that a job in government would pay half as much as the job she had with no pension.
Not surprisingly, they advised her against it.
“I was the mother of a then eight-year-old,” Mitchell adds. “What would the quality of his life be? How would I manage going back and forth to Sacramento? How will I afford his college? My salary would be cut in half and capped. So, no matter how many bills I (have) signed, no matter if I’m the most powerful woman in the Senate, my salary is the same as someone who can’t get a single bill though process. There’s no pay for performance no matter my great work. And my pension was all that I had; how would I, as a middle-aged woman, ever get that back?”
All of them were valid points, but Mitchell was determined not only that things had to change but that, even more importantly, she could be that change agent.
Mitchell would spend the next ten years in Sacramento where she contributed to and passed countless laws aimed towards social justice and alleviating poverty. In 2019, she authored SB 188, “the CROWN Act”, a groundbreaking bill that gained international media attention, making California the first state to protect its citizens from racial discrimination based on hairstyle and spotlighting her growing celebrity on the political and media front. Signed into law in 2019 by Governor Gavin Newsom, the CROWN Act legally prohibits the enforcement of grooming policies that disproportionately affect people of color– particularly black people– in the workplace and in K-12 public education, including bans on certain styles such as afros, braids, twists, cornrows and dreadlocks.
Now Mitchell is looking to keep her legislative victories coming in the largest county in the country, and while stepping into office in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic may seem like a deathblow to any hope of accomplishing a normal policy agenda, Mitchell hopes to use the crisis to solve on-going problems which have only worsened.
“Interestingly enough, many of the priorities we’d like to focus on, COVID has exacerbated,” says Mitchell. “The rate of unhoused family, friends, and neighbors, and of those unhoused who come from the second district, health disparities, under-employment, access to healthcare services, access to mental healthcare services, the educational gap, are all issues that COVID has ripped the band-aid off of and exposed to the world. So, it’s not so much that the issues are different, they’ve been intensified 100-fold.”
Nonetheless, fighting to contain the spread of the virus is her utmost priority and Mitchell urges L.A. County residents to do their part and take it seriously.
“We are in a public health crisis. And if people don’t wear their masks, socially distance, wash their hands, and get the vaccine when you
have the opportunity, we are going to see catastrophic hospitalizations and deaths,” says Mitchell. “In L.A. during the last two days, we’ve had the highest loss of life per day than we’ve had throughout the course of this pandemic. People have to pay attention to that. It is real!”
While Mitchell will be faced with specific immediate problems that will require her focus, the role of supervisor is also giving her the opportunity to think long term about what she hopes to accomplish in the years to come. L.A. County Supervisors can serve up to three 4-year terms, which if everything goes right, gives her up to 12 years to make a positive impact on the lives of the 2 million residents of District 2.
“I hope if I’m fortunate enough to serve a full term of 12 years, I can be able to look back in 12 years and see a physical aesthetic difference across the entire district,” says Mitchell. “One of my former opponents in the primary, Jorge Munoz, said something to me so profound, ‘if you get 12 years when you enter, there’ll be a class going into the first-grade class when you start. The question is, how will their lives be different as second district residents by the time they graduated from high school, when you term out in 12 years?’ I thought that was so powerful and very true.
“I will be thinking about that first-grade class as we make plans around expansion of parks, expanding access to health and mental health services, how we attract and bring in new enterprises so that 12th grader can graduate from high school and go perhaps to a college in their neighborhood in the second district, and then have a career opportunity
in some new developing enterprise. Those are the visions that I have at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning about what my time on the board can really be.”
And with so much to look forward to, and even more to accomplish, the answer Mitchell gives when asked to point out her greatest legislative achievement really sums her work up best.
“People always say, ‘What’s the bill you’re most proud of?’ and I always say, ‘Well, the next one.’”