Thursday, March 2, 2000
Inglewood Municipal Court
Campaign Carries Religious Overtones
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
The state Legislature added a judicial seat on the Inglewood Municipal Court in 1968, and Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed a young, British-born ex-prosecutor named Kenneth Edward Vassie to fill it.
He is still there, having outlasted the court itself.
But last fall, prosecutor Patricia Titus made it clear that she was planning to run for Vassie's seat, whether or not Vassie was still there. Commissioner Deborah Christian let it be known that she considered the job hers, if it were to open up.
So when Vassie announced his retirement, it set up the first Los Angeles County judicial election in which two African American women have vied for an open seat. It represented, in a sense, a coming of age for black women and for the Inglewood Judicial District, rich in black voters.
But the timing is ironic. With court unification in January, the Los Angeles Superior Court absorbed the 24 separate municipal court districts. Never again will a candidate be able to rely on ties to a single community to propel herself to the bench. Judicial candidates will run countywide and will have to campaign in Lancaster as well as Lennox, Burbank as well as Hawthorne.
This one last time, though, voters in the Inglewood Judicial District—encompassing Inglewood, Hawthorne, El Segundo, Athens, Lennox and Ladera Heights—will be able to choose between two local candidates.
They are remarkable in what they have in common, both boasting strong ties to the African American community and political establishment, both sporting endorsements from local elected officials. They were classmates in law school. If not close friends, they have referred to each other as friendly acquaintances.
The campaigns have remained civil, without mudslinging or invective.
Still, there is an undercurrent of a crusade, with Titus playing the outsider taking on Christian, who has the backing of most of the court's sitting judges. It is somewhat reminiscent of the race two years ago in which in which Judge Lawrence Mason was challenged and soundly beaten by a vigorous and personable prosecutor named Kevin Ross.
Ross, the only Inglewood judge in Titus' corner, acknowledges the similarity.
"I challenged an incumbent," Ross says. "I rocked the boat. People here got over it. It's going to be the same situation with Deborah and Patty. Deborah's part of the home team. Patty is, in my opinion, the stronger candidate."
But there is more to the campaign's crusade aura than just the fresh newcomer versus the experienced insider. There is something more overtly biblical.
Start with the candidates' names. Titus—right out of the Bible. Paul's epistle to Titus, the teacher. And, of course, Christian. Christian versus Titus. It could be an MGM epic.
But Patricia Titus is not content to keep the biblical references obscure. Running against an opponent named Christian, Titus has taken steps to inform voters of her own religious convictions. Her campaign materials cite a passage in Exodus, and she lists an impressive array of pastors, bishops, and reverends among her endorsers. She tells voters she is "an active and tithing member of Power Christian Center Church."
Titus makes no apologies for injecting religious references into the election.
"I want the Christian community to know that I am very active in my church," Titus says. "It is important for the Christian community to know that there is a Christian running."
Her campaign would be exactly the same, she says, were she running in a district like Beverly Hills where Jewish voters have a greater presence.
As for the biblical passage noted on Titus' signs and brochures, Exodus 18:21 refers to God's charge to the Israelites to select wise judges.
"Select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders," the passage reads.
The approach could play well in the African American parts of the district, given the clout that endorsing clergymen such as the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray have in the community, even though his First African American Episcopal Church is well outside the former Inglewood Judicial District. It's unlikely to do much harm, either, in the conservative white parts of the district such as El Segundo.
Christian questions the propriety of the tactic.
"I have never seen that type of statement in a public document in the past," Christian says of Titus' ballot statement reference to Exodus. "It is definitely geared toward one segment of the population. It may be lawful...but I think the voters are going to have to decide if it is appropriate. She has to be a fair jurist for everyone."
There are less religious-crusade aspects of both campaigns as well. Titus tells voters she would be the first woman elected to the Inglewood bench in more than 20 years, not mentioning that her opponent could say the same. Christian's web site says she is the first African American woman to run for Inglewood Municipal Court judge, but leaves out that her opponent is also a black woman.
If the religious references and the battling endorsements don't tip the scales in the election, it could come down to Titus' experience as a prosecutor versus Christian's background as a deputy public defender. Or it could turn on which candidate has tied up the most slate mail slots.
Fred Huebscher, the political consultant who aided Judge Larry Mason is his unsuccessful attempt to turn back Kevin Ross' challenge, says that it makes little difference who carries El Segundo and the non-black portions of Hawthorne—the bulk of the votes are in Inglewood.
"If Titus is on all the black slates, it's over, she's won," Huebscher says, noting that Titus also carries the "prosecutor" designation that plays well in all parts of the district.
Basil Kimbrew, Christian's campaign manager, claims his client has secured 15 of the 20 slates that will go out in the district. But he acknowledges that one of the slates he doesn't have belongs to his mentor, Willard Murray, who is carrying Titus. Murray's slate has traditionally been a crucial one in the black community.
Los Angeles Native
Christian grew up in Los Angeles and Inglewood, attended El Camino College in Torrance and graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills in 1978. She earned a master's degree in public administration from USC, then went to law school at UCLA.
She earned her J.D. in 1983, and soon after joined the Public Defender's Office, where she became the deputy in charge at the David V. Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in Central Los Angeles. She also worked at the Eastlake Juvenile Court and in the Superior Court's Northeast District in Pasadena, and was the deputy in charge at Bauchet, the downtown jail.
The judges of the Inglewood Municipal Court made her a commissioner in 1994. She heard misdemeanors, then was moved to civil law and motion and unlawful detainers. After returning to a misdemeanor calendar, she took charge of the Inglewood Drug Court.
"I've been doing this job for six years, and I know every single facet of it," Christian says. "I'm running on my record."
Titus grew up in Central Los Angeles but attended Palisades High School. She went to college at Stanford, then law school at UCLA.
She has spent her entire career as a deputy district attorney. Her highest profile case was her successful prosecution of Ladera Heights businessman Donald Bohana for murdering, by drowning, Dee Dee Jackson, the ex-wife of former Jackson 5 member Tito Jackson.
"I had to clear my life to prepare for that case," Titus says. "Winning was very, very satisfying."
Titus was appointed to head the district attorney's Inglewood office in 1998.
Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 2000