In a telephone interview ahead of Christmas weekend, Kathryn Barger admitted she did not expect a series of meetings to fill her schedule on either side of the holiday.
That was fine, she conceded. She was, after all, sworn in earlier this month as the supervisor of Los Angeles County’s largest of five districts. She still had transition work to do, even after spending the better part of the last 28 years working for her now-predecessor, Mike Antonovich.
One thing was clear, though. The suits were staying on their hangars. Barger deemed her work this past week as her own “casual day,” as it were.
“I do need some ‘me’ time,” she playfully asserted.
Barger’s election in November — with a comfortable 59% of the vote — helped to make what would become the first female-majority L.A. County Board of Supervisors. The San Marino resident, with Indiana and Ohio roots, said she plans on sticking around for all three of her allotted terms “if the voters will have me.”
She certainly sees her career in Antonovich’s cabinet — 15 years of which were as his chief deputy — as advantageous for getting started and moving forward.
“Mike built such a strong foundation and now I’m taking it to the next step,” she said. “Working for Mike all these years gave me insight and the ability to really achieve success for the job at hand. I don’t need to begin from scratch.”
Among Barger’s earliest actions as the 5th District supervisor was voting on Dec. 6 in favor of placing a quarter-cent sales tax on the March 17 ballot for county voters that would be dedicated to combating homelessness. Assuming it is approved by voters, this tax is seen as a complement to a $1.2 billion general obligation bond to fund housing for homeless people, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in the same election that put Barger in her seat.
This issue has been in Barger’s crosshairs for much of her career in county government.
“The numbers are going up,” she said. “It’s clear to me there are a lot of factors making it happen.”
Barger said she hopes to work with all 88 incorporated cities in the county to grow the amount of affordable housing and also implement a series of urgent care facilities regionally that deal specifically with mental health to help decongest current urgent care facilities and emergency rooms.
The latter move, Barger argued, would also help law enforcement personnel as they interact with the homeless population and would hopefully coincide with the development of mental health teams (or METs, which group mental health professionals with law enforcement for response in appropriate situations).
To drive through downtown Los Angeles, it isn’t uncommon to observe professionals walking to or from work surrounded by tent cities and an array of homeless people, Barger pointed out.
“It’s a third-world country in some places,” she said. “We can do better and we have to do better.”
That said, Barger felt it fair to raise the standards for her goal. In lieu of simply calling for a general tax, which is undedicated and needs a simple majority of voters to pass, she worked to make it a dedicated tax, which requires 66% of voters’ approval. The bond approved in November fell under those same parameters.
“I don’t want to mislead the voters,” she explained. “I believe that 50% plus one is too low a margin. If this is going to be put before the voters, it has to be dedicated. It’s going to in fact address the homeless issue.”
Barger said it was also key to put a 10-year lifespan on the tax to allow voters to opt out of it should they choose.
Measure M, a transit tax that also passed overwhelmingly in November, also has Barger’s attention and not just because it aims to substantially revamp public transit and highways throughout the forthcoming decades.
She sees it as a chance to use current job training programs to prepare those who are homeless or out of work for the projects that will go along with Measure M.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity there,” she said. “To me, that’s a win-win. I would rather invest in job training to that when we get these people off the street, we can put them on the path to self-sufficiency.”
On election night, Barger said she got home after midnight and realized she’d been so involved in her own party that she was unaware that, at that point, Donald Trump had surpassed the electoral votes required for a win. She said she stayed up late to catch up on everything that had happened.
Although her office is formally nonpartisan, the longtime Republican was forced to deflect association with Trump, the GOP’s controversial candidate, after her opponent tried linking her to the then-leading candidate in the primaries (she in fact supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich).
Since the election, both Gov. Jerry Brown and the state legislature have issued strong statements that they will oppose Trump policies they find unsuitable for the state. Although Barger was careful to avoid any direct opinion on the president-elect, she nevertheless vowed to fight for her district’s and county’s causes.
“No matter who it is, we have to work with the federal government as it relates to immigration and as it relates to health care,” she said. “We’ve got too much to do and the reality is that we’ve got a president who’s going to be in office for the next four years.”
Barger recalled the L.A. riots of 1992, following the acquittal of officers in the Rodney King beating. She said there was a question as to whether she and her colleagues, who worked for Antonovich, should come downtown to work amid the chaos.
Barger said the question should never have been posed and agreed the best course of action moving forward was to participate as much as possible to best represent her constituents.
“If we are not willing to come in and be a part of taking calls and answering questions, we’re going to instill a sense of fear in our voters,” she said.
Those constituents are numerous. She, along with her four colleagues, represent just shy of 2 million residents, which totals more than 13 entire states. Barger said she especially enjoyed campaigning because of the extra time she got to spend with the wide socioeconomic group spanning the Antelope, San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
“And I love all three,” she said, with finality.