2002 "Person of the Year"

Member, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors

Metropolitan News-Enterprise
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2002


County Supervisor Puts a Priority
On Justice

By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer

Few people south of the parched, booming and increasingly smog-shrouded Antelope Valley seemed too concerned that court proceedings there were conducted in a library or that judges’ chambers were fashioned out of closets.

It was, after all, Lancaster. Palmdale. The far northern reaches of Los Angeles County. If the next available courtroom was an hour’s drive away in Van Nuys, was that so bad? If children had to be driven for two hours in rush hour traffic to get to dependency court in Monterey Park, was it such a big deal?

Mike Antonovich thought it was a big deal.

Thirty-three years in public office have seen his once-blond hair go gray, but Antonovich, 63, still displays the peculiar and effective combination of traits that made him stand out when he first ran for office.

Social but reserved, deeply conservative but flexible, Antonovich also is simultaneously patient and impatient. He pulled no punches, for example, when lambasting county bureaucrats and state legislators for their delay in building and opening a new, spacious Antelope Valley courthouse.

Pressed Colleagues

In one Board of Supervisors meeting after another, he charged that politics and not need had put the proposed courthouse on the back burner when other, less-needed courthouses got the go-ahead. He criticized his colleagues for pursuing their pet projects, and he criticized county planners for taking too much time and spending too much money for a building that seemed like it would never make it past the blueprints.

When the county’s chief administrator scuttled the Antelope Valley project for budget reasons, Antonovich insisted that she trek north with him so she could see for herself just how inadequate the existing building was for court business.

She was aghast. Still, county bureaucrats said maybe in 2015. State legislators said maybe never. Antonovich said “right now.”

He was an impatient man.

But he also knew that nothing moves quickly in county government. He had seen that with Olive View Hospital, which was closed by the Sylmar earthquake in 1971 and, officials said, would never be rebuilt. Antonovich said it would. It took some creative financing and more than 15 years, but under the steady pressure of Antonovich and his staff, Olive View finally reopened.

So he knew what it would take to get a new courthouse in the Antelope Valley. He was patient. Even when judges started calling to request modifications, like larger chambers here, more air conditioning there. Even when costs mounted, and the architect sued. Even when the city of Palmdale ran out of patience and built its own little courthouse, Antonovich remained patient in his persistence.

The supervisor wasn’t able to block construction of the Chatsworth courthouse, a building in his district that he and other critics said was neither needed not wanted. But a planned North Hollywood court fell by the wayside, and with Antonovich keeping the pressure on, the problems that plagued the Antelope Valley facility were slowly cleaned up.

“The Antelope Valley courthouse wasn’t going to be done, and we got it done,” Antonovich explains simply.

Lawyers and judges who have put up with the shabby and overcrowded conditions there may have thought the supervisor was being a little too modest.

“If it wasn’t for him, I doubt we would have any more than an illusion,” Lancaster attorney R. Rex Parris says.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Frank Jackson took it further. He went to the city councils in Palmdale and Lancaster and asked them if it wouldn’t be a good idea to name the new building for the person who made sure it was built.

They liked the idea. So did Antonovich’s colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. The building, which for years seemed doomed to be nothing more than a $10 million set of blueprints, will open next year as the Michael D. Antonovich Antelope Valley Courthouse.

“I thought it was a good idea, since he has been the one that has been most involved in getting this courthouse for us from the inception,” Jackson explains.

Antonovich is the 2002 Metropolitan News-Enterprise Person of the Year.

Teaching Career

Michael D. Antonovich’s approach to the legal community may be shaped by his early career as a teacher. Never interested in law school or a career in the bench, he expresses a civics teacher’s fierce commitment to the independence of the courts and the operation of law.

“The courts are a crucial part of the system and they have to be supported,” Antonovich says, as though speaking to the classroom. “It is our job as elected officials to make sure there is adequate funding and resources to make them work. Otherwise our whole system falls apart.”

Long responsible for court facilities in the Los Angeles Superior Court and in 24 separate municipal courts, Los Angeles County has seen its stable of court facilities grow to 59. Legislation has eliminated municipal courts and transferred much of the purview over court operations from the counties to the state. Ownership of courthouses will begin the transition from county to state control next year.

But given the huge number of courthouses dotting the Los Angeles County landscape, Antonovich says, it could be a long time before the county has extricated itself from responsibility for maintaining courthouses.

Besides, he points out, the county is so intertwined with the justice system that a simple matter of turning over courthouse ownership changes little.

“We are responsible for law enforcement in a county that’s larger than most states,” the supervisor notes. “The same is true of our responsibility for children, and for healthcare, and for the mentally ill.”

Largest County

Antonovich is one of five elected supervisors who govern Los Angeles County, a region that accounts for a third of the state’s load of lawsuits and prosecutions and, by some estimates, half of its jail inmates, foster children, adoptions, welfare recipients and public health clients. With an annual budget of more than $16 billion, it has an economy larger than that of 42 states.

More than a quarter of the county’s payroll of 93,000 is devoted to law and justice, including sheriff’s deputies, probation workers, paralegals. There are roughly 2,000 attorneys—prosecutors, defense lawyers, civil practitioners. The rest of the county workforce includes hundreds of doctors, nurses, engineers, clerical workers, lifeguards, sanitation workers and others.

The county has 88 cities but provides fire and police protection, sanitation, recreation, road building and other services to many of those cities by contract and to the 65 percent of the county that is unincorporated.

Antonovich’s Fifth District is by far the largest of the five, and in fact covers more area than the other four put together. It extends from Canoga Park and Chatsworth in the northwest corner of Los Angeles, through Sylmar and Santa Clarita, up the mountains to Gorman and down to the desert communities of the Antelope Valley, and back around the mountains again to take in a good chunk of the San Gabriel Valley, including Glendale and Pasadena.

The demographic shift that has moved Los Angeles County increasingly into the Democratic Party column in statewide and national elections over the last two decades has had some impact on the district. For example, several years ago Democrat Adam Schiff unseated Republican former judge James Rogan in the congressional seat representing the Glendale-Pasadena area. Earlier, Schiff had been elected to the state Senate to serve in roughly the same area that Antonovich, a conservative Republican, represented in the Assembly through much of the 1970s.

But most of the district still shares Antonovich’s conservative politics and returns him to office regularly. Even those who generally lean the other way politically often support him.

Republican political consultant Allen Hoffenblum, who has run many of Antonovich’s campaigns and was the supervisor’s appointee to the county redistricting board, says constituents are usually more concerned with county services than ideology. He cites the 1991 redistricting, when a new Latino majority had emerged in the San Gabriel Valley and, armed with a court order, was preparing to end the conservative domination of the board with the election of Gloria Molina.

“In the northeast San Fernando Valley,” Hoffenblum recalls, “the Latino community leaders didn’t want to get redistricted. They wanted to stay with Mike. As far as district services, you don’t get better than him.”

Croatian Descent

Antonovich was born in Los Angeles in 1939. His father, an immigrant from Croatia, worked in underground contracting, constructing storm drains and sewers. His mother stayed at home with Mike, his brother and his sister.

He grew up in South Los Angeles in an ethnically mixed, working class area where many of the residents had jobs in nearby factories.

A junior high school classmate recalls that educational opportunities were good.

“I thought we got a very good education,” Henry Waxman, now a Democratic congressman, says. “The kids that were academically included they put together. They gave us good attention and a good education.”

Waxman notes that he and Antonovich didn’t hang out together in school. It had nothing to do with political differences. They were just in different crowds at Thomas Alva Edison Junior High.

“When I met him many years later he reminded me that we were in the same class together,” Waxman says. “I didn’t remember at first, but I ran and got my yearbook, and sure enough.”

Antonovich was a Cub Scout and a Woodcraft Ranger. His father’s work schedule didn’t allow him to participate much in those programs, but a neighbor shepherded young Mike through his activities.

Even before junior high, Antonovich says, he was inspired and shaped by a remarkable woman who encouraged him to make something of his life. He still speaks with obvious respect and affection for his fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Sara Schaffer.

It was she who Antonovich sought to emulate when he decided to become a teacher.

“Mrs. Schaffer had a great impact on me,” Antonovich says. “She had an interest in my future. And she has monitored me throughout my whole career.”

It was she, the supervisor says, who first encouraged him to get involved in politics, even though she was a Democrat and it would become clear before too much longer which way Mike Antonovich was leaning.

He became fascinated with politics watching the national conventions of 1952, when Republican delegates debated between Sen. Robert Taft and General Dwight Eisenhower and Democrats picked Adlai Stevenson over Estes Kefauver.

“Here you had a group of grown-up men throwing those coonskin caps up in the air, and everybody shouting,” Antonovich recalls. “And you had a general and a senator competing. You had the dynamics of a convention where all of these extra-long flowery speeches were being given by a lot of blow-hards, and this mixture of people was kind of interesting. I was fascinated and I wondered, what is the process?”

Watching the conventions on TV, he also learned history and government. He was intrigued.

For that first convention he rooted for Kefauver, the Tennessean, because he was a Davy Crockett fan and in 1956 Kefauver was wily enough to capitalize on the popularity of the Davy Crockett TV show to sport a coonskin cap. “And of course,” he adds, “I was rooting for General Eisenhower.”

Disappointed in Politicians

As Antonovich continued to observe politics after the elections, he became somewhat disillusioned.

“What I couldn’t understand as the process evolved,” he recalls, “is you had people elected to office on issues, and then they when a crisis comes up instead of providing leadership they just go south. I could never understand why people would do that or believe in something very strongly that was going to help people and then end up voting against that position because of some pressure. So I thought that if I ever had the opportunity to serve I would try and to use my leadership to do what was right regardless of the consequences.”

The goal was to become a teacher, like Mrs. Schaffer, and then maybe serve in Congress.

The Antonovich family moved to the Los Feliz area, and Mike went to John Marshall High School. From there, in the pre-Vietnam era, he joined the Army.

“Some of my friends at my church were on a recruiting drive,” he explains. “They got me to sign up. And as a result I was able to fill my obligation and then go on to school. And I would say that military experience was the best experience for me because it focused me for my future. Basic training teaches you responsibility. It’s the best experience a young person can have. And I benefited from that. You understand life and death.”

After basic training, he enrolled in Cal State Los Angeles. In the summers, he worked with his father. On graduation, he became a teacher as he had planned, working at several schools around Los Angeles.

But politics beckoned. Already a confirmed conservative, Antonovich worked for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. He looks back with fondness on Goldwater, whom he describes as a principled man with a love of equal opportunity.

As a senator from Arizona, Goldwater opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. But to Antonovich, he was a “classical liberal” sticking up for his principles. Goldwater integrated the Army Air Force National Guard in Arizona, Antonich notes, and was a lifelong member of the NAACP. The Goldwater Department store was an integrated store.

“I think the media does a disservice characterizing philosophical positions and then demonizing them, instead of exploring what they really are,” Antonovich says. “Today, you don’t hear how the Republican Party was the one fighting the segregationists and one-party rule in the South, opening up the process. The media doesn’t always go out to publicize these points of view.”

In 1969, a change in state law removed community colleges from the Los Angeles Unified School District and elections were set for the first governing board. Sara Schaffer encouraged him to run.

Antonovich was elected to the Community College District Board of Trustees, along with Jerry Brown, with whom he would later spar in Sacramento.

At a time of campus unrest, it was very clear from the start where Antonovich stood. A stickler for high academic standards, he also made headlines by leading the charge to fire a teacher for reading what he and others called an obscene poem to the class.

Assembly Election

In 1974, he was elected to the state Assembly and attracted the notice of Republican leaders who saw a future for him in state politics. But many of his bills had little to do with party orthodoxy. He is most proud of a measure that for the first time outlawed “child-stealing.” In fact, many of his bills focused on the health and well-being of children.

Believing he had paid his dues, Antonovich gave up his Assembly seat and his post as state GOP whip to make a run for lieutenant governor in 1978. He was an early favorite, but he ran up against a political novice, recording industry tycoon Mike Curb. In a state that was preparing to re-elect Brown, a quirky Democrat, as governor, Curb portrayed Antonovich as too far-right for Californians.

As Antonovich trumpeted his position on national issues—withdrawing from the United Nations, opposing détente with the Soviet Union—Curb was able to depict himself as a Republican with a more appealing, centrist position. It worked. The newcomer stopped Antonovich in the primary and went on to oust Mervin Dymally in the general election.

Bad blood lingered between the two men for quite some time after the election. Antonovich avoided endorsing Curb by name in the general election, insisting instead that he simply supported the Republican ticket.

But the ex-assemblyman expressed no regrets and bided his time, working at a family-owned land development company.

Strongly supported by development interests during his political career, Antonovich has been sharply criticized by environmentalists for his pro-development stances. He was once named by Buzz Magazine, now-defunct, as one of the area’s 10 worst politicians, mostly because of his support of developers.

Supporters point out that the Fifth District includes the most underdeveloped areas of the county. Besides, Antonovich has told reporters, developers support him because they support his political philosophy, not because they expect anything in return.

But while he said he enjoyed his experience in his family firm, there was little doubt Antonovich was looking for a chance to jump back into politics. He set his sights on the Board of Supervisors seat occupied by former TV newsman Baxter Ward.

Ward had promised to serve only two terms, and the second of those was due to expire in 1980. Antonovich may have expected that Ward wouldn’t keep his word, but either way, he saw his chance and entered the race.

Conservative Revolution

He campaigned against the incumbent for spending much of his time working on a rapid transit system that never materialized. The spending boondoggle was a good target in the election year that would see voters send Ronald Reagan to the White House. In the conservative revolution that swept the country, Antonovich defeated Ward and created a new conservative majority on the Board of Supervisors.

He wore his politics on his sleeve, missing no opportunity to decry the costs to the county of illegal immigration and asking his board colleagues to support a host of resolutions outside the county ambit, like support for the Reagan Administration’s stance on the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

But the conservative majority was never quite a lock on the Board of Supervisors, a nonpartisan body charged with delivering services. Antonovich refused to accept fellow Republican supervisor Pete Schabarum as his faction leader, and though he often battled with the late liberal supervisor Kenneth Hahn, he sometimes voted with him instead of the conservatives.

In one vote, for example, Antonovich backed an increase in taxes on tobacco and alcohol—an unusual move for an anti-tax conservative. But Hahn and his fellow liberal, Ed Edelman, then backed him over Schabarum’s objection and agreed to rebuild Olive View Hospital.

“Kenny Hahn was my city councilman and county supervisor before I was out of school,” Antonovich says. “So his name was very sacred. Because everybody knew him. He was extremely constructive. There was a real commitment of doing what was best. You know, in public sessions you can still have differences of opinion on issues and still get along.”

He also took stances that, while not particularly political, might be less expected from a hard-line conservative. For example, he led a campaign to rid county buildings and public schools of junk food and soda pop. And always, there was a focus on improving the county’s child welfare system and mental health systems.

Antonovich broke from Schabarum for good when Schabarum sponsored a term limits measure for state legislators. To Schabarum, and to the voters who revolutionized government and politics with Proposition 13 and other anti-tax initiatives, term limits was another step in the direction of taking government back from politicians.

But Antonovich has never supported term limits.

“It was denying the voters the right to choice,” he explains.

More recently, term limits were approved for Los Angeles County supervisors, but the measure is so lax—the product of a lawsuit settlement—that it will be another 15 years before they force Antonovich from office, assuming he continues to run and be re-elected.

Antonovich’s spats with Schabarum had little effect on his strong standing in the state Republican Party. Under the tutelage of then-governor George Deukmejian, with whom he had served in the Legislature, Antonovich became state party chairman.

Senate Campaign

He set his sights even higher in 1986, making a run for U.S. Senate. But Antonovich was again trumped by a political newcomer, Bruce Herschenson, who drew some of the most conservative votes from him, allowed the more centrist Rep. Ed Zschau to capture the Republican nomination. Incumbent Democrat Alan Cranston went on to win.

The conservative majority evaporated when Schabarum retired and the county was redistricted by court order to create the Latino district that elected Molina.

Although the 1990s are now remembered as a time of economic abundance, the first half of the decade saw the county nearly go bankrupt. Supervisors had to parcel out scarce tax dollars to among competing interests in public safety, welfare, and healthcare. General relief was cut for the first time in history. The county faced the closure of County-USC Medical Center.

Zev Yaroslavsky, who succeeded Edelman on the board, remembers being told by county officials that hospitals had to close and patients had to be turned away if the county was to avoid bankruptcy. He wanted to consider options that included a federal bailout.

“The first thing I did is to walk down the hall to see Mike Antonovich,” he remembers. “I figured if he agreed to this, everyone would. I thought he would be the hardest sell.”

Yaroslavksy recalls being surprised at how willing Antonovich was to entertain the idea.

“He had this reputation as an extreme, flaming right-winger,” Yaroslavsky says. “But you set that aside. The greatest thing about this nonpartisan form of government is that you can agree to disagree. Mike is a problem solver. For all of his conservative reputation, if it hadn’t been for his problem-solving we might never have gotten through that crisis.”

It wasn’t just healthcare and welfare that were threatened with cuts. The Los Angeles Superior Court got much of its funding from the county. There were times in 1995 and 1996 that the court came close to having to shut courtrooms for lack of funds.

Budget Crisis

Court of Appeal Justice Robert Mallano of this district’s Div. One was the Superior Court’s presiding judge when the crisis began and remembers Antonovich as being a friend of the court.

“The one thing that consumed me was the budget crisis,” Mallano says. “The governor cut something like $80 million or $90 million of what the courts got and it really put the brunt on counties. But you knew when you were talking with Antonovich that he understood the need.”

Mallano adds:

“Our greatest need, even back then, was in Antelope Valley. He understood it and was trying to put a courthouse out there. It didn’t happen, at least not right away.”

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California was the Superior Court’s presiding judge when the court threatened to sue to get its fair share of resources. He sat through a dressing-down by the board on an especially tension-filled afternoon, but he recalls Antonovich as being supportive.

“He was always a friend of the courts,” Klausner said. “He was during that time and he is today.”

Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kenneth Chotiner cites Antonovich as the reason a nationally recognized project he spearheaded came to fruition.

The Consolidated Criminal History Reporting System is a computer network that instantly allows a judge to determine if a criminal defendant appearing in his or her courtroom is wanted in another jurisdiction, has been identified as carrying a communicable disease, has a mental health problem and a host of other crucial information.

“Without Mike Antonovich we wouldn’t have CCHRS,” Chotiner says, crediting the supervisor for the “vision to realize it was a revolutionary system that would be a major weapon in the county’s arsenal of crime-fighting tools.” Chotiner calls Antonovich the program’s “number one supporter” ensuring it had the necessary funding throughout its development.

Antonovich unveiled another computer program this month that flags arrested suspects who entered the country illegally after having been deported. The idea is to assure that the federal government prosecutes immigration violators and keeps them, and the costs attached to them, out of the state and county system.

The focus on illegal immigrants will surprise no one familiar with Antonovich’s career. But the so-called HI-CAPP program, for High Intensity Criminal Alien Apprehension and Prosecution, focuses on felons, and even immigrant rights activists and defense lawyers have expressed support. A representative of the Public Defender’s Office was on hand, at Antonovich’s invitation, at the news conference announcing the program.

Public Defender Michael Judge says Antonovich often goes out of his way to include him in his initiatives.

“He is known as a law-and-order guy, and a big supporter of the district attorney, and that’s all true,” Judge says. “But in fact, he has been a staunch supporter of resources for the Public Defender’s Office. As much as he has put a priority on supporting law enforcement, he has also understood it’s a system that we have. That there is a need for balance in the resources.”

Antonovich has not let his support for the justice system keep him from speaking his mind. He co-chaired a “welcome home” from prison party for one of the LAPD officers convicted in federal court of violating the civil rights of motorist Rodney King. The party was later cancelled.

More troublesome to critics was a 1988 telephone call to then-Superior Court Judge Eric Younger to offer a character reference for a litigant—a campaign contributor— appearing in a case in Younger’s court.

The judge later recused himself but the litigant on the other side sued and won a $2 million verdict  against the county for Antonovich’s action.

The award was later overturned and the county paid nothing, other than legal fees.

Antonovich defends the call today, as he did then, saying he first asked Younger whether it would be inappropriate to speak for one of the parties. Only when Younger said it would be okay did he make his pitch, the supervisor recalls.

Younger was reported at the time of the suit as saying he was surprised when Antonovich started talking about the litigant. The judge declines to speak about the issue today.

Bachelorhood Ends

A lifelong bachelor, Antonovich surprised many with his announcement in 1998 that he would marry Christine Hu, an actress from China.

Long outspoken on politics and government, Antonovich was always reserved when it came to his personal life. But he made his wedding a public affair, and he has made no secret of his pleasure in showing off his children, Michael Jr. and Mary Christine. He frequently shows them off at board meetings, and visitors to his county website can click on pictures of the kids and of the whole family.

Encino attorney Lee Kanon Alpert, whom Antonovich appointed to the county’s Judicial Procedures Commission, says he has noticed a change in his friend.

“He was a very private, self-contained type of person,” Alpert says. “You didn’t see much of his personal life in public. He has really opened up, I think.”

Some things about Antonovich remain unchanged. He insists he will not give up on an idea if it is a good one.

One example is a measure to assure the mentally ill receive treatment, even if they attempt to reject it. It is legislation Antonovich has sought for 10 years; it was finally passed in Sacramento and signed into law this year.

Another example is the new courthouse, which was given up for dead many years ago.

Rex Parris, the Antelope Valley lawyer, says member of the legal community there never gave up on the facility as long as they knew Antonovich was still behind it.

“I don’t think anyone does much of anything for the legal community in the Antelope Valley,” Parris says. “It is very much the stepchild of the superior court system. The only one who doesn’t seem to have that attitude is Mike Antonovich.”

Antonovich says it should not be at all surprising that he has stuck to his principles and has still gotten things done.

“There are a lot of weak people,” he says. “There are people who can’t take pressure. There are a lot of insecure people who feel their security is wrapped up in doing what is popular instead of what is right on issues. But that makes it possible for the rest of us to accomplish what we need to accomplish.”

Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 2002