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In LA supervisor race, a newcomer campaigns for change over experience

In the general election contest to represent northeast Los Angeles County on the Board of Supervisors, the battle echoes the presidential campaign in pitting experience against a call for change.

Two candidates, a longtime board insider and a newcomer to county politics, are seeking to represent the massive District 5 stretching from Santa Clarita to Covina. Spanning 2,800 square miles where 2 million people live, the district is larger in size than the other four supervisors' districts combined.

But the low information race for one of the most powerful elected positions in Southern California isn’t exactly drawing big crowds to campaign events.

At a recent gathering outside the entrance to the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Porter Ranch, about a dozen people showed up to join Democratic candidate Darrell Park in his demands to shut down the wells.

"We cannot do things that would happen in a Third World country, where you have a well blowout this large and you wait this long. I mean, it's absolutely disgusting," he said. 

Darrell Park, a candidate for the 5th district LA County Supervisor seat, outside the entrance to the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
Darrell Park, a candidate for the 5th district LA County Supervisor seat, outside the entrance to the Aliso Canyon storage facility in Porter Ranch.

Park has made Porter Ranch one of his key campaign issues. The community captured national headlines when the storage facility leaked a massive amount of natural gas starting last October. The emergency caused thousands to relocate and led to months of upheaval for residents.

The supervisors’ seats are nonpartisan. But Park, a newcomer to county politics and a Democrat, used partisan politics to his advantage. He beat out a crowded field of Republicans in the primary after reminding voters that he was the only Democrat running for the seat. 

He has criticized his opponent, Republican Kathryn Barger, for supporting what he describes as the far right policies of her boss, Mike Antonovich, the current district supervisor.

Park claims they have disenfranchised minorities, and points to the abuses of prisoners in the county jail system and growing homeless populations as examples. Barger steadfastly denies his charges.

Park also tried unsuccessfully to tie Barger to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

"When your boss is far to the right of Trump, you don’t get to walk away from all this really horrible conservative stuff that's out of step with the district and say, 'Oh, that’s not me,'" he said. 

Last month, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Park to remove a Trump reference from his candidate statement, which read: "Los Angeles County cannot afford to elect a Supervisor who will support Donald Trump's extreme Republican agenda."

Barger has recently said she does not support Trump.

There are major fundraising challenges for Park's campaign: he’s raised only about a dime for every dollar raised by Barger. He has reported $188,862 in monetary contributions to her $1,649,236, as of the most recent filing deadline. 

A former White House budget staffer, Park said he is running a grassroots operation and relying largely on social media and targeted mailers to get voters’ attention.

"You do not waste money, especially if you’re trying to get a job proving that you can spend people’s tax dollars well. You just make every dollar go really far," he said. "You know, everybody wanted signs. Well, we’re not going to make signs."

In sharp contrast, campaign signs for Kathryn Barger dot the landscape along Highway 14 on the route to Lancaster. That’s where Barger recently attended an event celebrating the expansion of services at the county-run Antelope Valley Senior Center. 

"It’s not about party, it’s about problems. I have solutions, I’ve done it," Barger said. "I’ve worked on it, and today what you’re seeing here is an example of working together to address the needs of the community." 

Kathryn Barger, chief deputy to outgoing Supervisor Mike Antonovich, outside the Antelope Valley Senior Center. Barger is running for the open seat for District 5.
Mary Plummer/KPCC
Kathryn Barger, chief deputy to outgoing Supervisor Mike Antonovich, outside the Antelope Valley Senior Center. Barger is running for the open seat for District 5.

Barger said voters don’t care about which party she belongs to and points out she has bipartisan support. L.A.'s Mayor Eric Garcetti, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Supervisor Hilda Solis, all Democrats, have endorsed her as has GOP Congressman Steve Knight. 

She also has endorsements from several news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times. Park has the backing of the county and state Democratic Party as well as Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Barger is a longtime county worker. Starting as an intern, she has worked in the county for 28 years. She has served as Supervisor Mike Antonovich’s chief deputy for the past 15 years.

Barger dismisses charges from Park that she would be an extension of Antonovich’s conservative legacy.

"When you don’t have grasp of the issues, you go for something that is totally smoke in mirrors," she said, referring to Park. "So I have a feeling that when you don't have anything to really hang the hat on, then you go after someone personally. I don't do that."

Where they differ

The two departed company on several district concerns during this week's District 5 candidate debate moderated by KPCC's Larry Mantle on AirTalk.

Park said the county is not functioning well and he points to the $40,000 he says taxpayers are paying for each homeless person. He said other places have found solutions to house the homeless, citing Utah's housing program that reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent.

Barger cited efforts by the city and county to work with a nonprofit that proposes to retrofit shipping containers for transitional homeless housing.

When asked about whether they support the 710 Freeway tunnel project, Park said he is adamantly opposed to the project, which would extend the freeway north from Alhambra near Cal State Los Angeles to the 210 Freeway in Pasadena.

Barger would not say whether she supports or opposes the project, but said she won't take a firm position until the environmental review is out. She did say she is not comfortable with the idea of tunneling under homes.

Barger said she supports a citizens advisory board to provide oversight for the county sheriff's department, but she said she does not support subpoena power for the panel. She said she believes it violates an officer's rights to have individuals on an advisory panel have access to personnel files.

Park said he backs subpoena powers for a citizens oversight board, but says it should include undocumented workers, "sex workers" and homeless people who he said have been abused by sheriff's deputies.

One sign of the challenge for both candidates is their lack of name recognition. Inside the senior center, Tony Welton, 69, and Excell Peoples, 78, are sitting across from each other at a table playing chess. 

Both have lived in Lancaster for several years and are regular voters. Barger had visited the center minutes earlier, but Peoples didn't recognize her name nor Park's.

"This if the first time I’ve heard of her. Other words, I have no information about neither one and I’d prefer to be an informed voter rather than a party voter," Peoples said. 

Welton agreed: "Never heard of her. Or the other person," he said. 

More information on the candidates' positions and background are available in KPCC's voter guide.

KPCC wants to help you with information on races and ballot measures on this year's ballot. Start on our voter game plan page where we've collected election resources and a handy tool you can use to see your sample ballot for where you live.