Politicians of Old

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

A couple of items that came across the LA Observed website this week reminded me that, in at least one respect, they don't make politicians like they used to.

I'm not suggesting the old-timers were necessarily better at their jobs. Or more honest. As generalizations go, history tells us that one would be hard to defend.

But some old pols just seem to –- I don't know -– take up more space in our awareness.

The first news item was an obituary for Augustus F. Hawkins. When he died, back in Maryland, he was a hundred years old and long retired from politics.

But he was not forgotten -– Gus Hawkins was around too long for that to happen.

He represented South Los Angeles for more than five decades, starting in the Great Depression. He was the first African American Democrat ever elected to the California legislature, and would go on to record a long list of firsts.

Hawkins had moved to Los Angeles from Shreveport, Louisiana after World War I. Not an easy time for black families here, but it had to be better than the Deep South.

He graduated from Jefferson High School and UCLA, then three years out of school won a seat in the state Assembly.

That was so long ago that he campaigned –- imagine this -- by promising to cut the L.A. streetcar fare in half. To a nickel.

In 2007, Hawkins' three decades in Sacramento so long ago are barely a footnote. But he later became the first African American elected to Congress from California.

He got to Washington two years before passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that he helped to write. He was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, a dependable champion of equal rights for minorities -- and got his name on some major legislation that helped workers and labor.

His larger legacy, arguably, took root back home in L.A. Hawkins mentored many in the city's first generation of black elected officials.

Former congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke met Hawkins in the 1950's when he spoke at her UCLA political science class. She credits him with passing on a new tradition of African Americans daring to be elected, rise to high positions and become leaders.

Hawkins was a leader, she says.

Representative Maxine Waters now represents the district where Hawkins served, and she called him "the author of some of the most significant legislation ever passed in the House."

He lived out his long life in such obscurity that the appearance of an obit last weekend shocked people who didn't realize he was still around.

Well now he's not, but the name Gus Hawkins still has iconic status for many Democrats in L.A. Especially for African Americans.



Another name from the local Democrats hall of fame also is getting a lot of mention lately, thanks to a new book from University of California Press by LA Observed contributor Bill Boyarsky.

Jesse Unruh was the very powerful Speaker of the Assembly in the 1960's. He carried the label Big Daddy, only partly due to his sizable girth. Unruh was a gatherer of clout and not afraid to use it, a political brawler who loved the game.

The University of Southern California honored him with the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, but perhaps his greatest legacy are two of the best quotes ever about the relationship between politicians and those who want to buy them off.

It was Unruh who quipped that money is the mother's milk of politics, a line repeated so often it's become a cliché of political reporting.

He also said of lobbyists that "If you can't take their money, drink their liquor, screw their women, and then come in here the next day and vote against them, you don't belong here." Only he didn't say screw.

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