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He Could Have Been a Contender

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.

 

Sources say Parks initially had trouble finding campaign consultants for his mayoral bid because, true to their vow, many of those involved in the council campaign were loath to do another, especially one as high-stakes as the mayor’s race. Parks hired as campaign manager his good friend Rouzan, a fellow black LAPD veteran whose history with Parks goes back some 40 years. Rouzan was Parks’ council district chief of staff, and though he had never managed a political campaign, he had experience running governments: He had been city manager both in Long Beach and Inglewood. But Rouzan says Parks the mayoral candidate became difficult to talk to, literally. Bobbi Parks was often a go-between — not for Rouzan, but for other staffers — and the councilman, absorbed with the duties of his day job, wasn’t inclined to return calls. Though Rouzan says things were perfectly amicable with Parks and the rest of the staff, he couldn’t get enough face time with the councilman to accomplish what he wanted to do on his end. “Getting Bernard on the phone was difficult,” he says. “I couldn’t get his attention away from council business. There was communication, but not enough to get the job done.” Rouzan quit the campaign in August, just two months after he’d signed on, and left his chief of staff position for good. Parks has yet to comment on the departure of the man that many people regard as his best friend.

Theoretically, much of Rouzan’s work fell to Dermot Givens, a criminal-and-entertainment attorney and veteran local campaigner who is also African-American. After August, Givens was acting campaign manager who officially resigned from the Parks campaign three weeks ago for pretty much the same reasons as Rouzan did, though he says he felt even more intensely thwarted. He says none of his ideas — securing financial support early because of L.A.’s stringent campaign-contribution laws, building a ground campaign, shoring up the black voter base in Parks’ South L.A. council district first — got any traction. Like many others, Givens had high hopes for Parks as recently as two months ago. Over the summer he traveled with Parks to the Democratic convention with the express purpose of introducing the councilman to black elected officials and cultivating national support for Parks’ mayoral campaign among such notables as Illinois Senator Barack Obama and NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume. “But then we got back to L.A. from Boston, and it went nowhere,” says Givens. “People were very receptive to Bernard at the convention — he was a delegate — and they urged us to call. But he didn’t.”

Givens is particularly irked by the fact that Parks last month hired Carol Butler, a Democratic political strategist most recently involved in Senate and mayoral races in Texas, to take over from Rouzan as campaign manager. Butler, who is white, has no track record in California, let alone Los Angeles. “There’s nobody from L.A. even on his team at this point,” says Givens, noting that his attempts to meet with Butler before he left the campaign were unsuccessful. “The problem is that Bernard is surrounded by a cheerleading squad, and he believes them. He doesn’t realize that the council campaign has nothing to do with this one.”

Butler did not comment on Givens’ resignation but says he was a valuable presence who would be welcomed back, especially as the campaign “really starts building its political infrastructure” by first securing the district base and moving out from there. She also maintains that it’s much too early in the game to count out any endorsements for her candidate, black or otherwise. “To say he has no black support is wildly premature,” she says. “And he isn’t a traditional candidate who does things traditionally. He’s consistent in that respect. And he’s got lots of demands on this time right now, with his council seat and this campaign. The mayor’s race is still a long way down the road.”

 

Still, it seems reasonable that some of those high-fives Parks got last year would have carried over either in endorsements or visible support. Yet with the exception of Supervisor Yvonne Burke — who was the only local black elected official not to take a stance about Parks’ reappointment as police chief — so far they haven’t. Maxine Waters says brusquely that she’s focused on her re-election campaign and won’t think about the mayor’s race until after the dust settles from November 2. None of the city’s prominent pastors, including Blake and Cecil Murray, has spoken for Parks. Congresswoman Diane Watson says she’s sitting it out altogether. None of Parks’ 14 fellow council members has thrown his or her weight his way. Magic Johnson, the Crenshaw District’s celebrity developer who stumped for Parks and whose pro-business stances align him very closely with the ex-police chief, has not endorsed Parks. Neither has Danny Bakewell. (Not insignificantly, both Johnson and Bakewell have ongoing development projects in the city that could require cooperation from the Mayor’s Office.)

Campaign observers say that other mayoral candidates — probably with the exception of the reviled Hahn — are sensing an opening and meeting with black figures to inquire about endorsements for themselves: Villaraigosa, for one, is said to be pushing hard for the black support he missed when he and Hahn went toe-to-toe in the mayoral showdown in 2001. The biggest demographic endorsing Parks thus far is Hollywood celebrities, not exactly a crowd you’d expect to be associated with the hard-nosed former chief. Bill Cosby endorsed first, followed recently by a slew of B- and C-listers including Marla Gibbs, Don Cornelius (of Soul Train fame), Cicely Tyson, Vivica Fox, Anne-Marie Johnson and, for good measure, Brooke Shields. The glitter may not turn out to be gold; Cosby’s now-famous rant about irresponsible black folks that he delivered last summer made for lots of headlines and some lively discussions, but it might backfire among actual voters. Political observers say that such endorsements simply make more evident the fact that Parks has no real credible support at this stage of the game. “Those celebrity endorsements are the ones you get last, not up front,” says one veteran strategist. “You look at those names and it makes you think about what’s missing.”

 

Some observers say that Parks is probably already creating some backfire himself. As councilman, he’s become known for a host of conservative views that, as the honeymoon has faded, feel notably out of touch with the traditional black emphasis on infrastructure, education and social justice. For instance, he supported WalMart’s right to its supercenters — a hotly contested issue in working-class communities and one that Inglewood recently turned back through a ballot initiative — and on more bread-and-butter issues like police reform, there’s a flat-out disconnect. One well-placed political observer notes with clear dismay that Parks still likes to argue that the police officer who shot and killed Margaret Mitchell, the petite, homeless black woman who wielded a screwdriver, was justified in his response. Other missteps include Parks’ support of an effort to rename Crenshaw Boulevard Tom Bradley Boulevard, one of the first public positions he took as councilman. “That showed that he had no idea what Crenshaw meant to people who lived there,” says the observer. “Residents were pissed off, some of the same residents who had supported him during the council race. That really felt like the beginning of the end.” And though Parks positioned himself as pro-development in his underdeveloped 8th District, observers say for the last year he has funneled too much of that energy into trying to bring NFL football back to the Coliseum — a quixotic undertaking that failed conspicuously during Mark Ridley-Thomas’ tenure.

But what trumps even important questions of racial and/or community solidarity is politics. The biggest reason that Parks will likely get no black endorsements is simply that Waters, Watson and everyone else who was willing to wave a flag last year now sense that Parks is not a winning horse. “People say, ‘We’d like to help, but we don’t want to be embarrassed if this sours,’” says one observer close to the campaign. Parks’ campaign strategy for months has consisted of shrilly denouncing Hahn or his replacement as police chief, Bill Bratton, and little else — a sign that he has no coherent vision or winning strategy and that he is predictably obsessed with exacting revenge on the man most responsible for putting him out of the job he coveted his whole career. Then there’s money. In the most recent campaign-finance reports, Parks ranked fourth among the five mayoral candidates in fund-raising at $426,000 — $50,000 of which he loaned to himself, and $267,000 of which is actually available as cash on hand. The campaign was quick to characterize the news as proof that Parks is an anti–special interests politician running a largely grassroots effort — a spin that observers say is mostly a cover. At least one observer, a City Hall insider, predicts that Parks will probably walk off with the black vote no matter how badly he fumbles. “Sure, he’s not listening to anybody who has a clue,” says the insider. “But all of my family is voting for him because he’s black, and he’s [policeman] blue. What choice do we have, really? It’s kind of like voting for Kerry because you didn’t like Bush.” The insider says that the best Parks can do is play the spoiler, siphon away black votes from Hahn in a close election and thereby rob him of a second term.

 

“That’s his role, or that’s what it seems to be,” he says. “That’s the best he can do. Nobody is going to support Bernard because nobody owes him anything. Everybody agreed to support him during his fight to get reappointment as police chief, but that’s it. He has no more chips to play.”

That may be true, though others say that Parks is actually in it to win it and not merely to ruin things for Hahn. “That’s how he is,” says Rouzan. “He truly wants to be mayor of Los Angeles because he thinks he has some answers and the leadership qualities to make L.A. a better place. He’s not thinking about anything less.”

In the end, the biggest disappointment will likely be shouldered not by Parks but by his initial followers who genuinely rallied around what they considered to be the best black hope for citywide leadership in the years to come. “He really had a shot,” says Givens. “It was going to be a tough, close fight, but I thought it could’ve happened. I believed in him. I wouldn’t have worked for him otherwise. He was our best chance for a high-ranking black elected official.” Another well-placed observer says that the vacuum left by Parks in a black community that was hoping for greater things will be hard to fill. “There was so much potential in the beginning, last year,” he says. “This seemed big and special. There was lots of energy around Bernard, and now there’s no real excitement. It’s an incredible turnaround.”


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