Passion & Service

An interview with LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger

The following was an interview conversation between LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Jewish Federation’s Executive Director Jason Moss
Can you share a little bit about yourself? Why did you decide to contact then Supervisor Antonovich for an internship and did you have any inkling that you would eventually be in “his” seat?
    I never aspired to have a political career or become a County Supervisor. As a matter of fact, my first job was a very humble one. We had a rule in our house that you had to work, so when I turned 16, I went to work at Burger King across the street from Pasadena City College. I then went away to college in Ohio. For my father, college was not just about the academics. It was about growing up, time management, and being on your own. During academic breaks, I worked as an intern with then Supervisor Michael Antonovich in his Pasadena field office, which at the time was in the Pasadena courthouse. I answered phone calls of really angry constituents who had a wide range of issues. What I learned early on was that it was not always about solving the problem. It was about making sure the constituents felt valued and heard. Researching and fully vetting concerns were also equally important. And you know what? Typically, eight times out of 10, the constituent was right.

Supervisor Barger with foster youth

  My internship exposed me to what it meant to be a public service worker. I also grew up in a household where my father served as Insurance Commissioner, appointed under the Ronald Reagan administration. So, I witnessed public service life firsthand. I also saw that though public service jobs are perhaps not well-paying jobs, they are certainly about passion and serving the community.
    After I graduated from college, I initially lived in Washington DC and worked in the private sector for two years. In fact, I worked caddy corner from the White House. However, I missed California and my family, so I moved back to LA County. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Mike (Antonovich) heard I was back in town, and someone suggested that I call him, so I did. He offered me a position and my public service career officially started then. I first became his Health and Welfare Deputy, which meant that my policy portfolio included Mental Health, the Department of Public Social Services, and Children Family Services. I jumped at the opportunity to serve in this capacity. I worked on a lot of exciting initiatives and since then, mental health has been an important issue to me. I was subsequently promoted to Assistant Chief Deputy, then to Chief Deputy. Due to term limits, Mike said to me, ‘You should run because you’re the right person to do it.’ It took convincing by a lot of people for me to run. I eventually concluded that, if not now, then when? So, I threw my hat in the ring and I was elected as Fifth District Supervisor in 2016. And as they say—the rest is history.

Supervisor Barger speaking at event where she was honored

During your time as Supervisor, what do you feel has been your greatest victory? What accomplishment(s) or situation(s) are you most proud of?
    I’d have to say that I am most proud of my work on highlighting and expanding the importance of mental health and mental health systems. For example, I’ve been advocating for the correlation between mental health and homelessness for many years. I firmly believe we can’t simply build our way out of what’s going on our streets by exclusively focusing on just creating more housing. A victory for me is that, finally, a broader base of stakeholders is recognizing that mental health, along with rehabilitative addiction support, must also be provided. I sit on the board of the National Association of Counties—they’re also supporting this concept and we’ve put together a Mental Health and Wellness Commission. I’m co-chair with a counterpart from King County (Seattle). The fact that I’ve been able to promote this subject and garner support nationwide feels amazing.
    L.A. County is one of the largest counties in the nation, so our approach is being closely watched throughout the entire United States. A lot of times, our County is viewed as a pilot environment and we’re boldly field testing a variety of approaches to address both homelessness and the mental health trauma that afflict our homeless. I’ve been fighting long and hard to tackle both issues equally and meaningfully, seeking federal waivers and other strategies that will enable us to offer mental health support at the scale that’s needed. We’re starting to see the needle move, in that regard. As I like to say, good things start to happen when you persevere.

LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger attends the Sheriff’s Academy Graduation, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, at East Los Angeles College. (Photo by Michael Owen Baker)

What do you wish your constituents knew about the role of a County Supervisor—where the County’s help begins and where you come in conflict with either city, state, or even federal restrictions?
    I want my constituents to know that Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisor positions are non-partisan seats. Rather than focus on party politics, I see my role as being focused on constituent services. I also strongly believe in cultivating community collaborations and bringing people together to problem solve. I tell folks that I’m willing to collaborate with anyone that’s ready to roll up their sleeves and work. I also want my constituents to know I’m committed to solving real-world problems by developing common sense solutions. I like looking at problems through multiple perspectives so that I can help craft well-rounded and comprehensive solutions.
    Also, because I started my public service career focused on solving constituent problems, I’ve kept cultivating that culture among my team members. So, I want my constituents to know that if you have a problem with something, don’t hesitate and contact my office. Even if my team and I can’t directly solve it, we’ll figure out a path forward. In the public sector, developing solutions is sometimes complex, especially when a lot of players and stakeholders are relevant. I’ll share an example. When Caltrans shut down the I-5 freeway last year around the holidays because of a fire up by the Grapevine, my office was inundated with calls. Although Caltrans was at the helm of this road shut down, and not the County, the public still came to my office so that they could get answers quickly. My team and I acted right away. I crafted an advocacy strategy, sent a letter to Governor Newsom, and ensured state leaders were aware of the urgency. Because of this, Governor Newsom set aside funding and declared it an emergency. To Caltrans’ credit, they took the emergency directive and ran with it—and, ultimately, the situation was fixed in record speed. This was an issue where the County was not directly responsible for solving the problem, but—due to the regional impact—I saw that it was certainly within my advocacy lane as County Supervisor and stepped up. 

Supervisor Barger commenting on LA County Budget

Personally, I wish more people were focused on the local politics (i.e. city, county, and state) because the decisions made by these bodies impact our lives locally in a far greater way than they do at the Federal level. I want to bring it back a little bit to the work our Jewish Federation is currently working on, which is combating hate. Are there things you feel the Board of Supervisors could do to help develop a more robust culture of acceptance?
    That is a very good question. I’d have to first start by saying that the current, polarized political climate at the federal level is trickling down into our local communities, and that’s a shame. I do believe that polarizing political rhetoric is contributing to the rise in hate that we see around us, almost daily nowadays. That’s not OK. 
    I believe we need to get back to the time when we could have civil differences in opinion—when it was acceptable to tolerate different perspectives without offending or conveying disrespect. I also believe that, to combat hate, we need to lead by example. As a County Supervisor, I take that task and role very seriously. My job isn’t just focused on writing and passing public policy motions. It’s about being an effective broker, bringing people from different walks of life and perspectives together, and coming up with common sense solutions that work.
    I’m also proud of our Board’s support of our signature initiative, called LA vs. Hate, that supports residents and communities targeted for hate acts in Los Angeles County. It’s led by the LA County Commission on Human Relations and partners with community partners from all five Board of Supervisors’ districts. This is an example of mobilizing a diverse coalition of voices committed to preventing and responding to hate and helping those targeted by hate heal from that trauma. More information about that initiative can be found at  
It does and I think it goes back to this idea that we started our conversation with… the idea of being as proactive as possible so we’re not reacting in a negative way and it starts with conversations recognizing that we are ultimately much more alike than we are different.
    Exactly. You know, I often think about how far we’ve come as a community, as a society, and as a region. While we still have a lot of work to do, I have a lot of faith in this County. Our hallmark is diversity. LA County is known as being a mecca of sorts where people from all walks of life come to settle down, work, and contribute to the greater good. I consider myself very fortunate because I see a lot of that good being implemented through the County’s public service work, each and every day.
Thank you for your time and candor. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here