The Ruling Party: Scenes From George McKenna's Winning Night

Seen and heard last week at the George McKenna campaign headquarters in the Crenshaw district:

8:00 p.m.
Too early for any returns, but the Mardi Gras party atmosphere is already heating up with purple and gold balloons, marshals preparing to lead a "second line" parade with beads and festooned umbrellas, and a food station busy cooking up a full Southern menu. Several people are dressed in variations of purple, gold, and green. McKenna is a New Orleans native and one of the more prominent representatives of a whole contingent of L.A. transplants from New Orleans who arrived here starting in the '40s; many of them are Creole, historically black people mixed with white and/or Native American and often with a French surname. They were part of the last wave of major black immigration out of the South to other, presumably more racially hospitable places in the country during the long era of Jim Crow. L.A. pretty quickly got a reputation for being the city with the largest Creole population outside of New Orleans itself. That generation is aging, but the traditions have stuck, especially the celebratory ones. Whatever the outcome of the election tonight, this party will go on.

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8:30 - 9:00 p.m.
The first returns of the night come in, the absentee ballots. The 18,000 total are split almost exactly down the middle, with McKenna holding a bare lead of some 300 votes. Despite this, there is no cheering or even perfunctory clapping; instead, there's an almost palpable gloom. I'm surprised. Generally black people welcome any bit of good news for their cause, or at least keep up a positive face. The fact that doesn't happen speaks to how high the stakes are tonight. No one at all is anyone talking about Plan B, i.e., working with the opponent, should he win. And not only do McKenna supporters want him to win, they want him to win decisively; that's always been part of the victory scenario, sending the message to Alex Johnson and his patron, Mark Ridley-Thomas, that the people can have clout to match the better-moneyed clout of politicians.

In the growing crowd is David Tokofsky, a former LAUSD board member who supported McKenna early. Tokofsky has a history of being a maverick himself, and he seems to be the only person in the room who sees a reason to be optimistic at this point, though "reason" might be too strong a word. He says the absentee tally of 18,000 reminds him that the number 18 is a good number in Jewish tradition, though he can't remember why. "Do you know why?" he cheerfully asks somebody next to him. I don't think he's going to get much of an answer in this racially mixed but notably black crowd. Another attendee is Betty Pleasant, the well-known columnist lately at the Los Angeles Wave who resigned after editors canned a column that sharply criticized Johnson, and Ridley-Thomas. Rather than agree to back off that criticism, Pleasant left the paper. Like pretty much everybody else at this point, she looks a bit grim, but also resolute. She's made her stand; now she's hoping McKenna can make his. She waves away questions about her own future. "You don't need a paper to write a column anymore," she says firmly, almost contemptuously. She says everything firmly, to say the least.

9:00 - 10:00 p.m.
Out on the thronged patio with the purple and gold balloons -- it's a warm night --somebody cries, "It's here!" I think that means we're getting more returns, but what we're getting is McKenna himself. Flanked by with a couple of escorts twirling those spangled, second-line umbrellas, his appearance elicits a big cheer, the first real celebratory moment of the night. It's a bit comical to see smallish, bespectacled, 73-year-old McKenna jump-starting a party; people start to dance impromptu, and somebody else yells, "Eh, la bas!" the Mardi Gras rallying cry. Somebody else starts singing a verse of "When the Saints Go Marching In," and the patio immediately joins in, clapping out a rhythm. We're not sure yet if this is a party song or a post-funeral march that the second line is primarily meant for. But at the moment it doesn't matter.

10:00 p.m. and on
After what feels like hours of waiting, the rest of the vote numbers land suddenly, making it all but official in a matter of minutes that McKenna has won. The crowd's reaction is happy, but also a bit stunned -- is it really all over? A burly man turns and grabs arch-McKenna supporter Maxine Waters in a bear hug, lifting the diminutive Congresswoman off her feet. McKenna is giving his lengthy remarks at the mic in the fast, charged New Orleans accent that make him perfectly suited to be chief partygoer, age notwithstanding. The tension in the room has given way not to triumph, but contentment: our man has won. The people have spoken. Ten months from now, when this extraordinarily hard-fought seat is up for its regularly scheduled reelection, we'll all be at it again.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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