Karen Bass could be L.A.'s first female mayor. How important is milestone to Angelenos?

Los Angeles, California-Sept. 26, 2022-Democratic Congresswoman Karen Bass, a candidate for Los Angeles mayor, speaks at a pro-choice event at the Women's March Action Headquarters in Los Angeles on Oct. 3, 2022. Bass encouraged Angelenos to watch their mailboxes for ballots to be delivered this week. She told voters that ``Choice is on the ballot, and Roevember comes early in Los Angeles.'' (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Rep. Karen Bass, a candidate for Los Angeles mayor, speaks at an abortion rights event at the Women's March Action headquarters in L.A. last month. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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For the last 241 years, the city of Los Angeles has been run by men.

A sea captain. A journalist. A Confederate officer. Among the scores of doctors, businessmen, bankers and ranchers who have headed L.A., just one was Black, and a small handful have been Latino.

Come Tuesday, a woman has a fighting chance to lead the City of Angels.

The question is, do voters care?

"No," said Beverly Silverstein, 72, as she handed out Halloween candy in front of her Carthay Square duplex Monday night. Silverstein supports Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), and what matters to her is Bass' character.

"I know Karen — I know her heart, her values," the grandmother went on. "She’s always been civic-minded, ever since we were in high school at Hamilton High."

Support for the congresswoman runs deep in this historic Mid-City neighborhood, a trick-or-treat destination where campaign placards and "In this house, we believe" yard signs jostled for pride of place among plastic skeletons and polyester spiderwebs.

Silverstein, her son Joshua, and her daughter-in-law Cynthia all planned to cast their ballots for Bass.

Yet even the candidate's staunchest supporters disagreed over how much gender weighed on their vote.

"I think it matters," Joshua Silverstein, 41, piped up from under his floor-length black shroud. "It's important."

"But it's not what comes to mind," his mother said. "She’s a fantastic person, and we would be so blessed to have her as our mayor.

"But the fact she’s the first woman of color is important."

And on it went. Laila Silverstein, 10, agreed with her father. Cynthia Silverstein, 38, hedged toward her mother-in-law. Shel Silverstein, 3, had never considered the question before.

Angelenos appear likewise conflicted — and in some cases, indifferent — even as many agree Bass' election would be an overdue first.

"It's beyond time," said Bobby Blatt, 87, who was handing out candy on her front stoop a few blocks away. "For a city as liberal and open as L.A., [electing a woman] is important. But it's also symbolic."

That's because the Los Angeles mayor shares significant power with the City Council, as well as the all-female L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

Whether the vote goes to Bass or her opponent, billionaire developer Rick Caruso, the city's future figurehead will have far less power than Eric Adams of New York or Lori Lightfoot of Chicago.

Still, Los Angeles City Hall remains largely the realm of men. Just one-fifth of the current City Council is female, compared with more than half of New York City Council members and a third of Chicago aldermen.

"When I first organized the Women’s March in 2017 in Los Angeles, there was only one female City Council member," the now-disgraced former Council President Nury Martinez, said Emiliana Guereca, president of the Women's March Foundation. "That was sad for me — I live in the most progressive city, and we’re failing to elect more women to local office."

For a small minority of voters, that failure alone is reason enough to cast a vote for Bass.

“Her being a Black woman and also being the first woman to do it, it just means a lot to me,” said Nadia Groomes, 20, of South L.A., who was preparing to go to work Tuesday morning at the Grove, the popular Mid-City mall owned by Caruso. “I feel like a lot of things can be different just by her standing up for us.”

Others said identity was irrelevant in the face of a mounting homelessness crisis, skyrocketing rents, growing unease over public safety and spotty public transportation.

“I’m a feminist, but I’m not voting for her just because she’s a woman,” said Hanaa Zizi, 23, of Koreatown, who planned to vote for the first time in Tuesday's election.

Though she conceded that it was “good for little girls to see women in leadership roles,” Zizi said she was more concerned about how the candidates would tackle the problems she faced every day.

“Voters don't tend to prioritize candidates just because they're going to break a barrier,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies women in politics. “Voters are prioritizing experience and issue expertise.”

That experience and expertise doesn't always align neatly with identity, recent political history has shown.

Former City Controller Wendy Greuel narrowly lost her bid to become the first female mayor of L.A. in 2013, in a campaign backed by Emily’s List and some of California’s most prominent female politicians.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, just the fifth woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court since 1789, helped usher in the end of federal abortion rights. And Martinez, whose racist comments on a leaked recording upended City Hall, never missed an opportunity to tout her bona fides as a woman and a mother.

On the other hand, the sudden reversal of Roe vs. Wade this summer has proved singularly animating for female voters. Bass has decades of abortion-rights receipts in her state Assembly and U.S. congressional record. Her supporters have repeatedly hammered Caruso, a former Republican, for his blurry position on the issue.

Proposition 1, which would enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution, could also help turn out voters for the congresswoman, experts said.

"It's energizing voters because all of this is on the ballot," Guereca said. "When we look at the bigger picture, we look at who is mobilizing voters, who is knocking on voters' doors, and that’s women. Women all across L.A. County and the country have been mobilizing voters based on the fall of Roe v. Wade."

Indeed, even opponents of the ballot measure say it's likely to boost liberal candidates amid a groundswell of support for access to abortion.

But in a city that has long served as a haven for those performing and seeking the procedure, abortion is unlikely to be decisive. And while Caruso's shifting allegiances helped nudge staunch Democratic voters such as Theresa Anderson, 62, toward Bass, they have proved less damning to newer voters in the San Fernando Valley, where polls show the race neck and neck.

"Gender hasn’t been prominent because at the end of the day you want the most qualified candidate to lead L.A.," Guereca said. "The fact that she's a woman is very important to me, but for voters, we should be voting for the most qualified candidate."

Still, for the Silversteins, Bass' identity was inextricable from her qualifications.

"Representation matters," Joshua Silverstein said. "The political voices in this country have long been men — particularly white men — and I think it’s time we have [a different] perspective."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.