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After Ignoring Him For Decades, LA’s Black Political Establishment Is Uniting To Stop Larry Elder

A crowd watches Larry Elder standing on a stage with a giant American flag backdrop.
California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks to supporters at an August 21, 2021 rally and fundraiser in Newport Beach.
(Libby Denkmann
LAist )
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For 27 years, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder has been a provocateur on Los Angeles radio dials: a Black host who leans libertarian and delights in skewering Democratic politicians and liberal orthodoxy. Gavin Newsom is just his latest target.

If the effort to recall Newsom is successful, Elder, a Republican, is the frontrunner to lead this deep blue state. (That scenario is a big “if”, as recent polls have shown Newsom widening his lead among likely voters to defeat the recall by an average of 12 points.)

California’s recall rules let a replacement candidate win with just a plurality of votes. The same polls show Elder has the support of a quarter of likely voters. That's far more than his closest rival, Democrat and financial advice YouTuber Kevin Paffrath, a political newcomer who wants to pipe water to California from the Mississippi River.

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Elder would be the first Black governor in state history, and he’s making a play for voters of color — while Black leaders line up to oppose him.

At a recent rally in Thousand Oaks, Elder appealed to Black and Latino voters, arguing that Democrats take them for granted.

A close-up of gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder's face. He has a serious expression.
Larry Elder speaks to the media after casting his ballot on September 8, 2021 in Los Angeles.
(Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images)

“You are being betrayed,” Elder said. “And what they’re afraid of is that Larry Elder, from the ‘hood, who went to a public school, will be able to make the case to Black and Brown people: You are being used. You are being manipulated.”

In this case, Elder was talking about charter schools and the power of the California Teachers Association in the state, a major Newsom supporter that backed the Governor’s decision to require masking in public schools and vaccines for school staff. Elder has pledged to repeal such restrictions on his first morning in office.

He says Newsom’s decision last year to halt in-person education for public schools in counties with high coronavirus infections and hospitalizations was hypocritical, “ignoring science,” and damaging to Black and Brown kids the most.

Black Leaders Push Back

But many of California’s African American leaders say, not so fast. “In the Black community, we are very familiar with Larry Elder,” said Democratic Representative Karen Bass. Like Elder, Bass got her start in South L.A. — as an emergency room nurse-turned-community organizer. She now represents much of the area in Congress.

In an interview, Bass said Elder’s promise to rescind public health restrictions would put lives at risk.

A woman stands behind a podium and raises her hand gesturing while giving a speech.
U.S. Representative Karen Bass at a rally for Governor Gavin Newsom in Culver City on September 4th, 2021.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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“The policies that he projects are an absolute threat to the Black community,” she said. “When you talk about the COVID-19 rate, the death rate and the infection rate in the Black community, it’s a pretty obvious choice.”

“The community isn’t stupid,” Bass said. “People understand where their interests are.”

Bass and more than a dozen prominent Black leaders in California partnered with the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project (AAVREP) to mobilize Black voters to turn in their recall ballots.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in the Baldwin Village neighborhood, volunteer Keyva Clark cranked through a phone bank list. Groups such as AAVREP have helped California’s electorate become more diverse in recent years, but it’s still whiter and more affluent than the state as a whole.

Clark said Newsom has been supportive of stricter use-of-force standards for police and environmental policies that she cares about. When asked about Elder, she cites an adage popularized by the author Zora Neale Hurston.

“All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” she said. “He doesn’t embody what African American voters really need and want in a governor.”

A woman sits at a desk using her laptop. She has a high ponytail and acrylic nails. Her t-shirt talks about protecting civil rights and voting "no" in the California recall election.
Keyva Clark, a volunteer for the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, scrolls through a list of registered voters to call to encourage them to vote in the Sept. 14 California recall election. (August 28, 2021.)
(Libby Denkmann

In his decades as a political contrarian, Elder has heard those criticisms before — especially from L.A.’s Black community. His radio show was the subject of a Black-led advertiser boycott in the 1990s. He would face a larger battle as governor, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature.

But for a few Black voters, the Democratic party’s dominant grip on power is a reason to open the door to a Republican-led recall.

At the Leimert Park Jazz Festival, atop a parking structure at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall, Immanuel Lewis said he was still making a final decision on who to support on the recall ballot, but he did plan to vote to remove Newsom.

“I think we need new leadership. And Larry Elder isn’t perfect — he doesn’t have elected experience,” Lewis said. “But our politics in California have been so far left for so long, I think we need a push to the center. Maybe he can provide that.”

Also at the jazz festival, comedian Danna Kiel said it would be a mistake to cut Newsom’s first term short.

“Democratically-elected leaders should have their day to continue doing what they're doing,” she said. “The governor should have a full term, and once it’s time for another election, then of course we hold him accountable.”

A Long History In Los Angeles

Over the decades, Black leaders on the left have largely ignored Elder, not wanting to give his brand of right wing talk radio more oxygen. Since the 1990s, he’s had a tough time convincing potential guests, such as Rep. Maxine Waters — a frequent target for his mockery — to appear on his program.

Political consultant Kerman Maddox recalls in the 1990s people often telling him that he and Elder should debate. That was when they were among the few regular African American voices on local PBS programs. Maddox wasn’t interested.

“His thinking is so far out of the mainstream, I would tell people, ‘Don’t pay attention to the guy.’ People like that crave attention.”

A woman stands in front of music festival tents and smiles for the camera. She has long braids and yellow earrings.
Los Angeles-based comedian Danna Kiel at the Leimert Park Jazz Festival on August 28, 2021.
(Libby Denkmann

“When affirmative action was on the ballot, he was crying ‘reverse discrimination,’” Maddox said. “Whatever the issues are where the Black community rallies together, he goes out of his way to be on the other side. That’s just who Larry Elder is.”

Elder’s L.A.-based show has been nationally syndicated for years, initially by ABC Radio and later Salem Radio Network, though Elder is not hosting while he’s a candidate for Governor.

Elected officials, labor leaders and political organizers are no longer looking past “The Sage from South Central” — one of Elder’s nicknames that blares during the opening of each program, along with “The Prince of Pico-Union,” “The Tsar of Common Sense,” and “The Great Elderski.” Elder attended Crenshaw High School before heading off in the early 1970s to Brown University and the University of Michigan Law School.

Where the Black community rallies together, he goes out of his way to be on the other side. That's just who Larry Elder is.
— Kerman Maddox, political consultant

Maddox says the stakes of the recall are too high to simply sit back and watch.

“It’s OK to be Republican, that doesn’t bother me,” he said. “What bothers me is Larry gives comfort to the people who are white supremacists, or who don’t believe racism exists.”

“If a guy like this wins in a blue state like California, can you imagine what role he plays nationally in 2022?”

Elder On Systemic Racism: 'It's A Lie'

Elder’s conservative positions put him at odds with mainstream Black policymakers and civil rights activists.

Systemic racism in policing? According to Elder, “It’s a lie.” (It’s not a lie. There’s a pile of research showing Black people in the U.S. are disproportionately subject to police use of force, including deadly shootings — even when you consider rates of violent crime committed by Black people.)

Elder blames criminal justice reforms Democrats have championed, and progressive talk of defunding the police, for a rise in violent crime — something cities across the country have seen, in red and blue states.

On the radio and on the campaign trail, Elder is fond of saying Black leaders who call out the ongoing legacy of racist systems are taking on a “victim” mindset, and should instead follow his Marine Corps veteran father’s advice: “Hard work wins.”

Black Lives Matter-L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah called Elder “The Black face of white supremacy” in a column by the L.A. Times’ Erika Smith, who dubbed Elder, “the O.G. troll that no one was supposed to feed.”

“The reason for [their criticism],” Elder said at a campaign event, “is because I dare to say racism is no longer a major problem in America .... It’s what the left does to divide us because they want to scare Black people and guilt-trip white liberals into pulling the lever for them.”

A man wearing glasses holds a Larry Elder sign with the caption "We have a state to save." The L in Elder is a picture of the state of California.
Chris McGee, the Westminster city chair for the Orange County Republican Party attends an August 21, 2021 rally and fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder.
(Libby Denkmann/LAist)

At a rally and fundraiser in Orange County, Navy veteran Chris McGee said Elder’s “personal responsibility” message resonates with him.

“They call him ‘the Black face of white supremacy’ — is that not an oxymoron?” McGee said. “Why are we trying to divide each other? We should be embracing the things that make us different and coming together. I think Larry wants to change that narrative.”

It’s what the left does ... they want to scare Black people and guilt-trip white liberals into pulling the lever for them.
— Larry Elder

McGee is African American and is the Westminster city chair for the Orange County GOP. He argued that Newsom shutting down businesses and churches over COVID-19 was arbitrary and not based on science.

“I know Larry can make a difference,” McGee said. “I really don’t understand why other African Americans and people of color aren’t here today supporting him.”

Newsom's Focus On Elder

With the rise of Elder as an alternative to Newsom on the ballot, the sitting Governor looks happy to have the recall settling into a two-person race.

In speeches and messaging in the final days of the campaign, Newsom is zeroing-in on Elder as the strongest recall challenger, warning he would roll back climate change mitigation efforts and appoint conservative judges — possibly even a Republican U.S. Senator, if 88-year old Dianne Feinstein decides to retire before her term ends.

Democrats are also tying the recall effort to national issues, such as voting rights and abortion. In the Bay Area on Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris contrasted the strict new law in Texas and comments by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott about rape survivors to Newsom’s support of reproductive rights.

Supporters of Governor Gavin Newsom hold up signs that say "Stop the Republican Recall."
Gov. Gavin Newsom at a rally in Culver City on September 4th, 2021.
(Alborz Kamalizad

Elder has given mixed signals on what he would do about access to abortion as governor, but he said he is “pro-life, 100%.”

The strategy — along with tens of millions in anti-recall spending — appears to be riling up liberal voters.

Democrats aren’t taking the numbers for granted. They’re bringing in more heavy-hitting names to carry Newsom over the finish line. Former President Barack Obama taped a plea for voters to keep the governor in office, which debuted online and on television this week. And President Biden has committed to appearing with Newsom on election eve in Long Beach.

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