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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

The political reporter in me can hardly wait for next spring. And I know that a lot of the journalists in Los Angeles will be with me on this.

For the first time in 16 years, it looks like we will have a contested election for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Don't know who they are? Or don't think you care? Think again.

The five county Supervisors comprise the most powerful locally elected body in the country. They have so much power, no one dares to mess with them.

It's definitely not because they're doing a bang-up job. These are the dumbos, after all, who let the King-Drew Hospital mess happen.

So why do they get a free pass? Well look at it.

Each of the Supes represents about 2 million people. That's more than some governors or US Senators.

If you live anywhere in Los Angeles County, you have a Supervisor. They oversee the jails and the sheriff's department. They run fire stations and juvenile halls, the coroner's morgue -- welfare -- and just about every other unsexy government function you can think of.

Their budget is about $20 billion a year.

And, as I said, they are the people who let the bodies pile up at King-Drew -- for years -- and did nothing.

Yet the last time a Supervisor lost his job was in 1980 -- the year Ronald Reagan was elected president.

No one seriously challenges a sitting Supervisor because it's just too hard to win.

Part of it is the gargantuan geography of Los Angeles. If you wanted to take on Supervisor Mike Antonovich, for example, you would first have to persuade voters in Chatsworth, in the west end of the San Fernando Valley.

And in Claremont, 50 miles to the east. And in Mojave Desert towns like Pearblossom.

These far flung voters don't even have the weather in common or share the same tectonic plate. Let alone have common issues with their county government.

To campaign in such a big area costs a prohibitive amount of money. There's no TV or radio that specifically targets the area you want -- you'd have to pay to reach the whole Southern California media market -- 15 million or so people across five counties.

And the bottom line is, the Supervisor you'd be going up against would probably have the sheriff, the unions and a deep bench of other forces lined up to help save his or her job.

TV news would ignore the race, and even the Times would barely take notice.

So it's only when a seat comes open that we get a real race for the Board of Supervisors. That makes the showdown coming next spring in South Los Angeles so juicy.

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke is retiring after 16 years.

At least two other prominent black politicians will fight it out for the rights to her fiefdom.

Bernard Parks is the former chief of the LAPD who got his revenge at being fired by winning a seat on the Los Angeles City Council -- then using that platform to attack the mayor who fired him, Jimmy Hahn.

Parks has slipped nimbly into the life of a full-time politician and now wants a bigger stage.

His opposition so far is Mark Ridley-Thomas, a state Senator from South LA. He has been a progressive activist in the African American community for a long time.

Ridley-Thomas starts out with a head of steam. He has lined up labor support, has a long list of activists who he introduced to politics, and will try in these early months to make his victory seem inevitable.

He may end up winning, and that would be OK. But I hope first that the race gets interesting for awhile. For once, maybe we will get some real dialogue about what it is that county supervisors do.

For KCRW, I'm Kevin Roderick and this has been LA Observed.

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