Blurring the Color Lines

A lot can happen in three years. In February of ’02, just about every black notable in town, from mighty Maxine Waters down to a contingent of Crenshaw small-business owners, was up in arms about the proposed scuttling of Police Chief Bernard Parks by Mayor Jim Hahn. Never mind that over the years Parks had been the black community’s main obstacle to enacting key police reforms, or that he routinely sided with cops whenever they were involved with questionable shootings of civilians; the instantly bigger issue was that Parks was a black power broker who was being pushed out of City Hall at a time when African-Americans were losing real political power at an alarming rate. Misgivings about Parks — and there were many — were shunted aside in favor of racial solidarity and an urgent need to draw a line in the sand; the line didn’t hold, but widespread indignation among black people lingered long enough to return Parks easily to City Hall as 8th District councilman a year later. If blacks were never exactly enamored of Parks, they were sufficiently un-enamored of Hahn to agree that Parks was the best man to carry the cause of disenfranchisement, at least for a while.

The while is up. Exactly three years later, on the eve of the mayoral election, blacks are anything but united behind mayoral candidate Parks — or any of his rivals, really, though there has been a distinct rebound in support for the once universally reviled Hahn. Certainly, the cut-and-dried picture of ’02 has lost its edges, thanks to the steady popularity of Parks’ replacement, Bill Bratton, and a certain disillusionment with Parks himself, among other factors. For a moment it looked as if there might be some of the old ethnic solidarity at work when a group of 40 black clergy, community figures and elected officials — a rare coalition under any circumstances — gathered last week to announce an endorsement at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, one of the city’s main megachurches. It turned out to be a dual endorsement of Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa, a neat move that enabled Bishop Charles Blake and company to preserve a unified anti-Hahn front without having to express any preference for Parks or Villaraigosa at all. Remarks at the press conference were vague and aimed mostly at the absent mayor, with Blake saying that it was time for leadership with “a sense of destiny and purpose,” and Urban League head John Mack declaring that “we’re a little beyond the point where a few visits are going to swing us” — a swipe at Hahn’s nonstop stumping at churches and other South L.A. institutions in the last month, especially in the turbulent wake of the Devin Brown shooting.

On Monday, another black group spearheaded by a minister, the Rev. William Epps of Second Baptist Church, countered that endorsement with its own endorsement of Hahn, with Hahn himself doing most of the talking at a press conference that included Epps, former councilman and current Police Commissioner David Cunningham, and Watts activist “Sweet” Alice Harris. The crowd looked none too comfortable — this is still not a popular position to take, at least not publicly — but Epps stressed that one thing he wants to make clear is that the black community is not a political monolith, not this time. He praised Hahn’s quick condemnation of the Devin Brown shooting and his consistent agitation for police reforms, which he notes began during Hahn’s long tenure as city attorney and hasn’t abated since.

To be fair, many in the Bishop Blake group are genuinely enthusiastic about their candidates too — and insiders say there is much more enthusiasm for Villaraigosa, who has lobbied hard to win black progressive support for years, than there is for Parks, who many feel has reverted to his authoritarian police-chief style since becoming councilman and is taking his institutional black support for granted. Insiders say the dual endorsement was mostly a face-saving measure, both for Parks and for his former supporters who didn’t want to look too treasonous switching sides, and switching to a Latino side at that; with black political power still on the wane and Latino representation still rising, blacks’ casting their lot across this particular color line is still considered radical, a bridge that has yet to be traversed. But the crossing likely will happen, at least enough to put Villaraigosa into a runoff. “This dual endorsement is great news for Antonio, good news for Parks and really bad news for Hahn,” says one observer, who asked not to be named. “Hahn was trying to get back some of what he lost four years ago, especially when the Devin Brown thing happened, but it hasn’t worked.”

That remains to be seen. The truth is that while Hahn’s black support has plummeted from about 70 percent four years ago to about 20 percent now, if his support holds in other parts of the city he may need only a little more than that to put himself over the top. Of course the other candidates want as much of that black swing vote as they can get too; Parks will get the lion’s share of the vote, but not all, and his share will almost certainly not be enough to put himself on the ballot in May.

In all the jostling for position, it’s easy to lose sight of the question black voters should really be asking themselves from now until next Tuesday: Am I better off than I was four years ago? At least one veteran political consultant and City Hall observer says, emphatically, no. “Black people have lost real power in this administration, no question,” he says. “We’re not running police, or the airport, or anything big. If you do a close analysis of black personnel in charge, the truth is that we have the least power under this mayor than any other mayor besides Sam Yorty.” While that may be overstating things a bit, the downward trend in black power is real, and whether it will change direction under Villaraigosa or anyone else is, at this point, anybody’s guess. Or anybody’s vote.

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