By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Ron Dunn
Fortune is a fickle mistress. A year and a half ago, 60-year-old Bernard Parks was a man with the wind at his back. He had just coasted to victory in the 8th City Council District with some 80 percent of the vote, capping a remarkable political comeback for someone who had rather ignobly lost his job as police chief of Los Angeles just a year prior. That end was the beginning of something else: During the fight to save his job, every black elected official and public figure of note circled the wagons tightly around Parks, elevating him to a potent symbol of how the few black people of stature left in L.A. were being wronged once again by a power structure bent on squeezing them out. Together, they created an aura of empathy solid enough to carry Parks in a landslide all the way back to City Hall as councilman, where he actually made some good initial impressions, proving himself a quick study and securing positions on key council committees.
That was then. Today, Parks is a mayoral candidate whose official black support has gone from almost universal to almost nil. Observers say Parks has sunk himself in record time by simply being himself: a quick-minded but autocratic, go-it-alone guy with a disdain for shared decision-making and a stubborn streak a mile wide — admirable traits for an activist or even a concerned citizen, perhaps, but so far disastrous for Parks’ effort to become mayor and make his comeback truly complete.
Of course, many people had predicted that it would come to this. The qualities that alienated Chief Parks from the police rank and file — and from a good chunk of the public — are the same ones that appear to be alienating Councilman Parks from the black support that once looked so ironclad. In both cases, Parks seems to be clueless as to what might have gone wrong. At this point, he resembles a hero in a Greek tragedy, a well-intentioned man at best who remains unaware of a fatal character flaw that is plain to everybody else.
The flaw in this case is Parks’ steadfast refusal to play politics on any level, something that his good friend and former campaign manager, Joseph T. Rouzan Jr., says the famously straight-arrow Parks almost regards as an illegal act. “That’s just not in his nature,” says Rouzan. “He calls his own shots and keeps his own counsel. He’s not a finesse kind of guy.”
Again, these are impulses that look admirable from a distance, but ones that former campaign staffer Dermot Givens says have already cost Parks dearly, and may prevent him from even getting into the mayoral runoff that will surely come to pass, given the crowded field and Hahn’s current vulnerability.
“Parks has had no major black financial support, no major black endorsements,” says Givens. “For such a prominent black candidate, this is actually historic. I’ve never seen anything so bad, and other people say the some thing.”
By all accounts, things started going south for Parks last year during his campaign for the 8th City Council District. The council race itself was a cakewalk, the redeeming coda to Parks’ failed but highly visible efforts to keep his job as police chief in 2002 after Mayor Jim Hahn gave him a thumbs down to kick off Black History Month in February, and the police commission was left with the decision to renew Parks’ contract or not. Parks’ plight galvanized black political interest like nothing had in a long time — everybody from Congresswoman Maxine Waters to developer-publisher Danny Bakewell to the normally reticent Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church loudly joined the cause — generating a lot of antipathy toward Hahn and lots of forward motion for Parks, enough to guarantee him the council seat being vacated by state Assembly–bound Mark Ridley-Thomas. But even on the path to assured triumph, sources say, there was trouble. Parks wouldn’t listen to campaign advisers, deferring instead to the wishes of his family, particularly his wife, Bobbi. It was Bobbi who claimed the biggest space in the field office on Crenshaw Boulevard, Bobbi who often had the last word on approving agendas, schedules and strategy. Parks listened to the complaints but failed to make things right. Many involved in that Parks campaign, says a well-placed source, vowed not to be involved in another.
Things got worse. After Parks took office, he more or less reverted to being police chief — a guy used to giving orders who scoffed at the notion of cultivating relationships and cutting deals to advance his own agenda, or even for the sake of his own political survival. Most crucially, he didn’t feel it necessary any longer to consult with the black political set that had surrounded him in his fight with Hahn and the police commission like so many soldiers protecting a general in battle. His chief counsel remained Bobbi and his son, Bernard Jr., his press secretary who recently became his chief of staff. Parks didn’t follow any of the pecking-order protocol that lies at the heart of all politics but is especially consequential in black politics — things like keeping in touch with local clergy, regularly paying respects to kingmakers like Waters. Once again, it was a stance that was admirable on one level but entirely foolhardy in another. When Parks announced his decision to run for mayor back in May — a decision made on his own, of course — just 30 people showed up at the press conference, versus 400 who came to the conference when he announced he was running for City Council the year before.