*The other day, I had a chance to hear and support a young man I’ve known all his life, in his first venture into statewide elected politics. I’ve been hearing about it for a minute.
I’m glad to do it—but not for the obvious reasons.
I’ve been watching and listening. There’s a lot to hear and there’s a lot to see. And the buzz is LOUD. Is Sebastian Ridley-Thomas ready for elected office? Is he just capitalizing off his dad’s name? They’re not even whispering it anymore. They’re saying it loud.
People see an open Assembly seat and are clamoring for it. Make no doubt about it, Sebastian Ridley-Thomas doesn’t just have a gun in his back pocket. He’s got a blankity-blank Bazooka…his dad being one of the most politically and socially entrenched elected officials in the Southland. But “a name” in politics hasn’t played well in Southern California. Several have tried it, very few have succeeded. None in the black community has been able to pass off their seats to a second generation. It’s a dilemma. They have to swim on their own.
Can a second generation candidate be viewed as riding on their own without the training wheels? Well, it’s time for the black community to find out. It’s a grooming bench is short. VERY short. There are few candidates that if we had to put them on the field, right now, could function in the federal, state or local legislatures. And not be bumbling fools.
The question is, when are we going to give them a chance to show us what they got? It hasn’t happened in a minute. Vacant political seats don’t come open very often.
You can count the number of political seats—federal, state and local—that have come open (without an incumbent) in our community over the last thirty years on two hands. That’s for real. If it wasn’t for the advent of term limits, you probably would’ve been able to count the open seats on one hand. Black elected officials held their seats for life in Los Angeles (and other cities, for that matter). If they didn’t die in the seat, they were damn near dead when they left. In the early to mid 1990s, the average age of the black elected official was 68, with five of them near (or over) the age of eighty.
At the same time, there were only two black elected officials under 40 in Los Angeles. One has proven his weigh in gold (Mark Ridley-Thomas), the other wasn’t worth the paper his name was written on (Carl Washington). One was groomed to lead. The other was groomed to fail. Both were handpicked, but one earned his stripes while the other was handed his stripes. The difference was noticeable.
There’s something to be said for “being ready” when it’s “your time.”
The problem is, we don’t always know when it’s “our time” and when it’s not.
As a 27 year old civil right leader in the 1980s, I sat around the tables of power and watched the Tom Bradleys, Gil Lindseys, Gus Hawkins and H.H. Brookins lose touch with their communities but told the young guns with their pulse on the community to “wait their turn.”
Their turns came after these guys died and for most of my generation—when they were in their 40s and early 50s. In the meantime, other communities were putting 20 somethings and 30 somethings on the political field and in elected office. Antonio Villaraigosa went from a labor negotiator to Mayor in less than 10 years. Fabian Nunez went from labor negotiator to Speak of the Assembly in less than five years. Both of them learned politics on the job.
Conversely, the President of the City Council, Herb Wesson, did nearly 20 years as Chief of Staff for Nate Holden and Yvonne Burke, before his venture into elected office. The brightest name in L.A. politics, Congresswoman Karen Bass, was damn near 50 when she ran for the Assembly. Several other black elected officials, elected over the past decade, have been in their mid-40s to mid 50s, in their first elected office. The black community is a generation behind Latinos in L.A. politics. It is because they weren’t forced to “wait” like black successors were.
We recently had an open seat in the 9th District City Council. The black community didn’t have one young player to put up to carry the seat. The Latino community was daring us to put up an inferior candidate so they could take the seat. We had to fall back on “experience” to save the seat, but where does that put us next time around?
I see this generation of political leaders (and wanna-be leaders) doing the same thing to this generation that the past generation did to us. It’s time for the black community to put their next generation up on the bike. Time to drop them in the water to see what they got. We will never know until we do—or we may never know if we continue to tell them “it’s not their time.”
When you step outside to watch your child ride a bike for the first time, there’s the time you watch when your child is just glad to be up on the bike—even though you know—and they know—the training wheels are keeping them up. Then, there the time you watch your child ride without the training wheels, and they know—and you know—they’re really riding on their own. You can see their sense of accomplishment beaming through when they know they’re riding on their own.
The same when they swim on their own. Watching your child splashing on the swallow end of the pool is not the same as watching them drive into the deep end, with the inherent dangers that can occur underwater. If they can swim (all of my children swim like fish), you know they gonna come back up and they know how to stay float and avoid the risks.
Politics is a shark’s tank, like swimming in the ocean, the risks are many and tides are unpredictable. And ocean swimming is different from pool swimming. You have to be stronger and more aware of the disguised hazards—the bottomfeeders that you pull up—or can pull you down. Like crabs, who bury themselves in the sand—disguised—but grab you when you step on it. A crab can’t change its own reality. It needs something to pull it up—or it will pull you down. Crabs walk sideways—they never walk straight—side-whining up to its victims seeking to clamp on for life. Politics are full of crab-like bottom feeders that next generation has to learn to recognize on their own. But they won’t know, unless they get in the ocean. The sharks come straight at them—but you wouldn’t know their bite if you’ve never been around them.
Preparation is the best way to shark dive. Reading the environment is key to survival.
I said all that to say that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas’ campaign is not a “training wheel” candidacy. It is a serious effort in the next generation politics so badly needed in L.A. sorely aging black political leadership. And listening to him, now several times out of the presence of his father, he understands the 21st Century political landscape. He’s ready to jump in and I’m confident he will not just survive, but he will thrive.
It’s a confliction for many in my generation, who are now closer to 60 than they are to 50, to “give the kid shot.” Many still want “their shot,” and under the right circumstances—can still pursue it. There is no substitute for experience, but we can longer afford eat our young to satisfy personal ambition. The beef ain’t Sebastian. More of it has to do with their politics with the father than their politics with the son. Everybody has detractors. But the time is “the time.”
Joey Hill is a good man—a good friend—and a very competent civil servant. He’s not done by any stretch of the imagination. Sebastian may not have Joey’s experience…
But the kid can ride a political bike, he can make up the curve…and he can swim to.
We need to give him his shot with our support.
It’s their time.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist and author of, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Popular Culture. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com and on Twitter at @DrAnthonySamad.