Tuesday, Dec. 31,
County Supervisor Puts a
By ROBERT GREENE,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
court fell by the wayside, and with Antonovich keeping the pressure on, the
problems that plagued the Antelope Valley facility were slowly
“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
“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.
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
“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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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
“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
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.”
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
“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
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
“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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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.”
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.
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
“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
“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
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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.”