By Hillel Aron
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THE SECOND BAPTIST CHURCH of Los Angeles was the first of its kind in Southern California. It was founded in 1885 by African-Americans and for the last 83 years has operated on the 2200 block of Griffith Avenue. In part because of its age and its influence, it’s called the “mother of black Baptists in Southern California.”
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So it’s not surprising that Mark Ridley-Thomas, a state senator, has attended the church several times ahead of June 3 — when he’ll face Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks for the Los Angeles County supervisor’s post representing the 2nd Supervisorial District. He’s already gotten the endorsement of the church’s pastor, Dr. William Epps.
But here’s the wrinkle that could sway the outcome of the widely watched battle: “The neighborhood is about 80 or 90 percent Latino now,” says Second Baptist’s clerk Eugene Kenourgios. Of black churchgoers, “about 80 percent commute” — and not from around the corner. Black congregants who once lived nearby now drive in from more-affordable, safer homes in Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties. Epps lives downtown. Another pastor, Kenourgios says, commutes from much more distant Fontana.
Parks and Ridley-Thomas have made visits to black churches something of a ritual in their campaigns to woo blacks — the historic base for electoral success for the seat occupied by the retiring Yvonne Burke. By last count, they’ve racked up 42 endorsements from preachers — the overwhelming number for Ridley-Thomas.
But this election is radically unlike those of the past. The black vote in Los Angeles, which traditionally lines up heavily behind a single anointed candidate, is split. And for the first time, Latinos could play the more crucial role.
The 2nd District is one of five in L.A. County and includes vast unincorporated areas where more than 40 percent of its 2 million people live. It heavily overlaps with the city of L.A., and Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 5 to 1.
But until recently, Latino voters were no more than a blip in South Los Angeles. Now, there are two Latino voters for every three black voters. “It’s unprecedented, certainly in the last decade or decade-plus,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political commentator. “We haven’t had an open seat since about 1994. Beyond that, I think there’s the two personalities involved.”
Whichever man replaces Burke as supervisor will inherit a district with widespread poverty, where home ownership is rare and crime is rampant. Martin Luther King Jr.–Harbor Hospital was closed last year following years of inept management and scandalous patient deaths.
L.A.’s five county supervisors control a $22 billion budget — bigger than that of some nations — and sit on other powerful bodies — think the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Each supervisor wields executivelike power, especially in unincorporated areas that lack a mayor. Whoever replaces Burke will likely serve 12 years with zero competition. (The last time a supervisor was unseated was 1980.)
OPEN SEATS ON THE BOARD of Supervisors are rare. Ideological battles are rarer. And splits within the black community are rarest. This fight has all three.
Ridley-Thomas, 53, is of medium stature and slightly overweight. His voice is deep and his speaking style dull and sonorous to the point of self-importance (he spent years insisting upon being called “doctor” because he has a Ph.D. in social ethics). During a talk on funding the arts in Culver City this month, Ridley-Thomas informed the audience that he had just made a joke — laughter followed.
Parks is a tall, athletic yet graying, mustachioed 64-year-old who looks as if, given the right sweater, he could fit comfortably in Cliff Huxtable’s house.
Ridley-Thomas spent a decade as the executive director of L.A.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference — the civil rights group associated with Martin Luther King Jr. — before becoming an L.A. city councilman. He went to the state Assembly in 2002, before jumping to the Senate in 2006. Today, he chairs the Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee — a post he argues gives him the experience to promote economic growth.
Parks spent 38 years in the LAPD. In 1997, he became its chief and presided over a large drop in crime. But Rampart, one of the worst scandals in LAPD history, also unfolded on his watch. In 2002, then-Mayor James Hahn fired him, and Parks rode a wave of popularity among blacks — in part driven by being fired — to the City Council seat Ridley-Thomas had vacated.
Asked independently by the L.A. Weekly how they concretely differ in policy, both preferred to discuss their biographies and styles, while quickly trashing the other.
“I’m not a general manager,” Ridley-Thomas said, in a clear dig at Parks, followed less than 20 seconds later by another dig at the former chief, who ran a department of 10,000 and a billion-dollar budget. Said Ridley-Thomas: “My perspective is broad, as it relates to public policy. It’s not narrow in terms of a particular department” — think LAPD.
Parks also gets in quick digs at Ridley-Thomas, saying, “Our experiences are totally different. I come from an experience of not being elected to an office my whole life.”
Parks is a fiscal moderate with a pro-business bent, voting, for example, against attempts to discourage apartment owners from converting to condos. He was against expanding a “living wage” to LAX hotels. And if he becomes supervisor, he says, he wants to promote market-rate housing rather than rubber-stamp more affordable-housing projects in South L.A.
Ridley-Thomas is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. He touts a record of expanding health services for school kids. There are few times that he’s voted against his key labor allies.
POLICY DIFFERENCES PROBABLY DON’T EXPLAIN the polls. Ridley-Thomas’ lack of name recognition is hurting him against Parks — a widely known civic leader due to his job as chief. Even according to Ridley-Thomas’ own polls, he lags behind Parks.
By last count, Parks led Ridley-Thomas by about $200,000 in fund-raising. He owes that advantage to businesses that appreciate his views — and also his political connections. For instance, Parks has received contributions from developers who have business with the MTA, and Parks sits on its powerful board. (The councilman says his campaign does not intend to accept money from any developer that would create a conflict of interest.)
But Parks will face an onslaught of large independent expenditures from big labor. The powerful L.A. County Federation of Labor paints Parks as a dangerous fiscal hawk who will send its members back to poverty. “They allege that I’m anti-union because I don’t vote for their wages,” Parks says. “I went back and did research. I’ve had 104 opportunities to vote for raises in my five years on the [city] council. I’ve voted against four.”
For much the same reason, the county’s Democratic Party bureaucracy is jumping in to fight Parks, with Eric Bauman, county chairman, saying, “I’m not going to tell you how much we’re going to spend” — but it will be “very significant.”
Do voters give a rip about the narrow issues pursued by local party functionaries, or by a union federation interested largely in government-worker salaries and government contracts? Union members in California have a habit of ignoring vote directives from their leaders, but the district does house 100,000 union members.
None of that may matter, since Latino voters will make up 25 percent of the action on June 3.
Predicting the Latino vote — far more diverse than the often monolithic black vote — won’t be easy. According to Fernando Guerra of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of L.A., Latinos are more consistently pro-union than union members themselves. Advantage Ridley-Thomas. But Latinos regularly rank public safety as the most important priority — after education. Advantage Parks.
“[A] chief of police is always going to be seen as good on public safety,” Guerra says. “But I don’t expect that [Latinos] will vote as a bloc ... I think we’re going to see a really close vote.”
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