Five little queens: That’s the new nickname for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
If it sounds old-fashioned, it is.
For years, the board — historically composed of all or mostly men — was referred to as “five little kings,” a nod to the power it wields as what is seen as the country’s most powerful local government body.
But on Wednesday, state Sen. Holly Mitchell beat L.A. City Council member Herb Wesson for the fifth seat on the board, which is now made up of all women for the first time in its 168-year history.
Along with Mitchell, the incoming board will be made up of incumbents Hilda L. Solis, Sheila Kuehl, Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger.
The L.A. Board of Supervisors is one of those governing bodies that holds an enormous amount of power even though most of their constituents can’t actually name what those powers are. The county is the largest non-state-level jurisdiction in the United States. With 10 million residents, it has a population that is greater than those of 41 states.
The board controls a budget of $35 billion in a jurisdiction where policies have a high public profile and often cause ripple effects through the state and country.
“These are literally some of the most powerful women in the country who are not in a federal office, both in terms of the number of people that they are charged with overseeing in terms of the population, but also in terms of the money at their disposal,” said Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a political science professor and chair of gender studies at the University of Southern California.
The moment is significant because the board was traditionally a boys’ club for most of the 20th century, she added. The first woman to join the board did so in 1979.
The supervisors oversee public health, public safety and social services. They are in charge of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the largest jail system in the country, along with the hospitals and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
This week, the county also passed an “alternatives to incarceration” ballot measure requiring that 10 percent of county money be spent on community-based services, including housing and mental health initiatives in communities disproportionally harmed by racism. That means the board now has increased authority and funds at its disposal, according to Hancock Alfaro, who plans to conduct academic research on the Board of Supervisors as a case study in women’s leadership.
“If, in fact, we’re going to talk about police reform, we have to think about how to handle these issues, and so that’s where the alternatives to incarceration work. It is really important,” Hancock Alfaro said.
In addition, Hancock Alfaro said the supervisors will “be challenged to move the needle on homelessness.”
Los Angeles’s explosive growth in the number of unhoused people has confounded city and county leaders, and the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic is expected to exacerbate the issues as more Angelenos become unable to make rent payments going forward.
Because of the size and scale of Los Angeles, the decisions of this under-the-radar group of women could have far-reaching effects, particularly in the recent political climate.
“The last few years have offered a lesson in the significance of federalism generally, and local government specifically, in steering and shaping the course of national politics. Those who forget that lesson do so at the peril of their politics and policies,” said historian and Yale professor Joanne B. Freeman.
The diversity of the board — which includes Solis, who served as labor secretary under President Barack Obama and is Latinx, and Mitchell, who is Black — will also serve to make better policy, said Jessica A. Levinson, a law professor and the director of the Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute in Los Angeles.
“We know that we get better policy outcomes when we have a diversity of viewpoints and experiences. So we know that when we are making decisions that affect all residents, it's good for those at the table to have actually had as many experiences as possible that mirror those of their constituents,” she said.
She added that it’s important not to discount the messaging of having five female supervisors — after having only men for the first 127 years of its existence.
“I underestimated this for a while, but I really do think being able to point to a governing body and seeing all women just in and of itself is a powerful message,” Levinson said.
“It’s a big deal.