LA FOCUS - Holly Mitchell: An Inside Look At Sacramento's Most Powerful Black Woman
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As chair of the California Senate Committee on Budget and Fiscal Review—which directs how California’s $190 billion budget will be spent, Senator Holly J. Mitchell sits at the height of power in Sacramento’s Capitol chambers, wielding the kind of clout that comes with the role in a state that is widely recognized as having the sixth-largest economy in the world.
But it is the story of how she got there that is decidedly more telling of who she really is. Ironically, it was anger and not the intention that led her to one of the most powerful seats in the California Senate. And Mitchell—who represents the nearly one million Angelenos of California’s Senate District 30, which spans Century City to Skid Row (and includes Culver City, Ladera Heights, Inglewood, View Park-Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills, Westmont and the Crenshaw, downtown and Florence neighborhoods of Los Angeles), can remember the exact moment that forever altered the course of her life.
“I got mad,” says Mitchell, who at the time was serving as the CEO of Crystal Stairs, a child and family advocacy group whose programs and services—including childcare subsidies, healthcare outreach and parent support—work to enhance the quality of life for thousands of children and families in Los Angeles.
“It was 2007-2008 and California was poised to cut out $1 billion out of the subsidized child care program,” Mitchell recalls.
“Crystal Stairs provides childcare payments to low-income working mothers, so we know directly how that’s going to impact people right here. Cuts to the program were going to exacerbate situations of parents who were already struggling to find a place for their children while they work, because childcare is unaffordable. So we decided that we had to show them who would be impacted by the budget cuts they were proposing, and give parents a chance to tell their stories in the budget hearings so lawmakers could understand. I needed them to see the faces of those families they would be impacting.
“So,” Mitchell continues, “we rented buses and car seats and took working parents and their babies from Crystal Stairs for a full day and night trip to Sacramento so they could speak at the Budget Subcommittee.”
However, upon her arrival at the state Capitol, Mitchell was faced with yet another dilemma—the lack of representation from anyone from L.A. County on the committee, and now she’s even angrier.
States Mitchell, “L.A. County has one-third of the state’s kids, and here I am with two bus-loads and I don’t have anyone from L.A. County to speak to! So I go into [then] Assembly Speaker Karen Bass’ office, and I’m just working myself up into a frenzy telling her my story, to the point where I am banging the desk. I’m standing there looking at her and then it hits me and I told her, ‘And with term limits, you’ll leave.’
“It literally hit me like a wave,” she recounts the pivotal moment, “and I said, ‘I’ll be damned, I have to run.’”
Upon returning from her trip to Sacramento, Mitchell pulled together a group of friends, families and colleagues to help her think through whether a run for public office made sense for her life and her family given that a job in government would pay half as much as the job she had with no pension.
Not surprisingly, they advised her against it.
“I was the mother of a then eight-year-old,” Mitchell adds. “What would the quality of his life be? How would I manage going back and forth to Sacramento? How will I afford his college? My salary would be cut in half and be capped. So no matter how many bills I (have) signed, no matter if I'm the most powerful woman in the Senate, my salary is the same as someone who can't get a single bill though process. There's no pay for performance no matter my great work. And my pension was all that I had; how would I, as a middle-aged woman, ever get that back?
All of them were valid points, but Mitchell was determined not only that things had to change but that, even more importantly, she could be that change agent.
“I looked at them and said, ‘You know, this system is designed to keep people like me out for all these reasons. How dare they?’”
It was that very indignation that fueled a successful bid to the State Assembly in 2010 representing the then 47th (now54th) District. Then in 2013, she garnered 80% of the vote for a landslide victory in a special election to the Senate replacing Curren Price upon his election to the L.A. City Council.
Truth is, the third-generation native Angeleno has been advocating for others and herself since she was in the first grade and was sent to the principal’s office for coming to school with pants on. While her mom — a probation officer (ironically enough appointed by Governor Brown in 1980 as superintendent of the women’s state prison in Chino)—told the principal that she’d dressed her daughter in pants because it was cold out and advised that she would continue to do so, Mitchell decided she would take her own action in protest.
“I’d seen something on the news about women burning their bras, and I convinced four, five of my schoolmates to remove our undershirts in protest,” said Mitchell, who grew up at Holman United Methodist Church under the leadership of Rev. James Lawson.
While there were little consequences in elementary school, these days Mitchell knows all too well the sacrifices of public service and has adopted a “Go-big-or-go-home” stance.
“She’s well-respected. She’s tenacious and hard working and the bottom line is she get things done,” said Kerman Maddox, owner of Dakota Communications, one of L.A.’s top marketing and public affairs consulting firms.
“I didn't run to think, ‘Okay, What will my next office be?’ I legislate every day like I have nothing to lose,” Mitchell states.
With that has come a willingness to tell the stories of the people she represents in spaces where others—including her fellow legislators— may be uncomfortable by them.
As budget chair, she convenes hearings to examine the external issues that will impact the state's fiscal health and well-being in every area of spending as competing interests lobby for a piece of the action and advocates come—as she had once done—to state their cases. Because she was once on the other side, she devotes as much time as she can to sitting and listening to them.
“As Chair, I tend to opine less because my job, as I perceive it, is to manage the whole process.”
Part advocate and part steward, she not only has the governor’s ear, but the governor’s respect and says the feeling is mutual, though, of course, there are differences. They disagree most on what is a primal goal for Mitchell—the state’s ability to have an impact on reducing poverty.
“While,” says Mitchell, “he believes emotionally that it's an issue to address and he will revert back to his Jesuit experience about poverty. What he has said is, "Holly, you know it's a big problem. We can't end poverty.’
“My response back to him was, ‘Well, you have been a forward-thinking leader on climate change. You are clear about California drawing a line in the sand and what that means to the world…And I'm not talking about us making the impact on world poverty. I'm talking about California poverty - the 500,000 children who live in deep poverty in this state, Sir.’
“He's willing to invest in trains and water tunnels and conversations around climate change, but with people, he doesn't go far enough from my perspective.”
Where they do see eye-to-eye is the role California must take in criminal justice reforms.
“I appreciate him, as a leader and as a man, to have acknowledged that he was wrong when he was Governor Brown 1.0, and began the expansion of sentence enhancement,” she points out. “No one knew that would leave California having the highest incarcerated population and he is so committed [to changing that]. We'll be having conversations and he'll turn to me and say, ‘How are we doing?’ That means, how many criminal justice bills are you going to get to my desk?”
Mitchell, in fact, has two more—one of them on the hot-button issue of bail reform.
“I'm co-author of the last remaining bail-reform bill in Sacramento,” she proudly states. “The principal author is Senator Bob Hertzberg and I'm a co-author along with other members, and the bail industry has come out red-hot mad.”
The goal, according to Mitchell, is to eliminate cash bail and to instead instill a risk assessment tool that determines whether someone is a flight risk and would then be jailed until their court date.
“I believe the Governor wants to get it done,” she said. “It's just what will ultimately be in the bill. It's an interesting kind of debate— a debate that comes up often around some members pitting working-class folks against people living in poverty. There are some legislators in the Assembly who have this interesting concept about how eliminating cash bail could harm middle working-class folk.”
Bail reform is one of many “predatory” mandates she has tried to do away with.
“Since our second year, Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and I —in partnership with the Governor —have had a package of bills we call #EquityandJustice, all juvenile and criminal justice reforms.
“It was Ricardo's idea. He said, ‘Let's you and I come together, brown man and black woman, to represent faces we see locked up every day.’”
It was that collaboration that led to Senate Bill 190, which eliminated juvenile detention fees.
“Juveniles can't bail out,” Mitchell explains. “The arresting authority would decide whether to take [your kid] to juvenile hall or instead hand you a court date, and county probation departments were given the authority to charge parents for the time your children are locked up. So parents had to pay for their juvenile detention time and in some instances were racking up thousands and thousands of dollars in debt.”
She pauses for a moment before adding, “We've criminalized poverty.”
Effective January 1, 2018, the passage of SB190 changed all that.
Similarly, as budget Chair, Mitchell can and does leverage her power to bring to light programs she feels are worthy of the state’s attention.
“This is my second budget and this year I’ve talked to the brand new L.A County Public Health Department director about black infant mortality. California still has a disproportionally higher black infant mortality rate and she’s running some model programs here in L.A County that I’m interested in perhaps taking statewide.”
Mitchell also takes pride in her work with California’s Legislative Black Caucus. A former president of the group (now chaired by Assemblyman Chris Holden), she feels very strongly that when they stand together they are unstoppable.
“We try to pick a budget priority issue that we can come together on and tell the governor, “This is our priority as a caucus.” For the 10 of us to agree on one is difficult, but we’ve been successful with that this year on our one budget ask— a bill and budget strategy around the Local Control Funding Formula. Why? Because black children are the lowest performing across the state and we want to tweak the Local Control Funding Formula, granting additional resources for the lowest performing population.”
On Fridays, one can find Mitchell in her district office in Los Angeles where the tough conversations center around homelessness, affordable housing and gentrification.
“There are so many structural barriers that we have to address to empower people,” Mitchell reports of the increasingly uphill battles that make for long hours and heated debate. But in the end, she takes great pride in the fact that under her legislative watch are more than 60 bills that have positively impacted the lives of countless people she will never know.
“A natural leader who gives it to you straight—no chaser, Holly will be known for being on the right side of history on many issues and is definitely someone to watch,” observed Regina Wilson, who chairs the California Black Media.
While she will term out of the state senate in 2022, her name has come up as a possible contender to replace L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas when he terms out in 2020. She is not saying what she will do. Neither is she ruling anything out, at least for now. Instead, she is concentrating her efforts on her Senate re-election bid, the primary for which is scheduled for June 5.