This Time, It’s Not Personal . . . or Is It?

Photo by Ted Soqui

Bernard Parks is in a place that most campaign and political strategists would describe as an existential hell: Everybody knows who he is, but how many know what he stands for? Sure, everybody knew what he stood for when he was police chief — spit and polish, high ambition, his way or no way, steady resistance to pesky interference like those citizen commissions on police abuse or court orders to reform LAPD. But now Bernard Parks is a vote-seeking politician, and on this unseasonably warm Thursday morning in midwinter, the mayoral candidate, sporting a natty slate-colored suit that matches the touches of gray in his hair and trademark mustache, isn’t breaking a sweat. It’s all the more impressive considering Parks is holding forth pretty heatedly on one of his favorite topics of this mayoral campaign: business development and how best to make it happen. Parks has studied the topic and has concluded that small towns with governments that are willing to give developers better deals are killing Los Angeles. “Culver City has two Targets — why?” he says, leaning forward. “Because it’s cheaper cost, and they have to carry less insurance. Businesses are looking at smaller cities to set up shop. The boundaries matter in that way, but they don’t matter because people are willing to shop there from all over. Nobody’s looking at that.” This is one of several pronouncements Parks makes in the course of an hour that sound reasonable enough. The less-guarded Parks delivers his many opinions in a calm, unbroken monologue that’s almost soothing, that dares interruption. Fact is, whether in police blues or candidate grays, Bernard Parks is a tough guy to argue with. When you do cut in or don’t agree, he doesn’t show a hint of annoyance; in fact, he smiles almost reflexively, clasps his hands and affects the patient air of a parent who figures you’ll see the light sooner or later. This is Parks’ charm, of course, and his devilment. In person, sitting across a table from him, the paradox is easy to indulge because he cuts such a compelling figure: tall, handsome and authoritative, with a stage presence left over from his days occupying the top suite at Parker Center and his stints as a runway model. But his self-consciousness feels less like vanity and more like a characteristic of a certain generation of black men who had to be twice as much on the ball as their white peers — or twice as paranoid — in order to get over. Parks has gotten over, and then some. He rose through the police ranks and eventually to chief, a long-coveted spot he reveled in. But Parks’ rigid style didn’t win him a lot of allies in the end — a highly publicized and polarizing end in which he lost his job after just one term. There was an upside. As police chief, he was the kind of clear-cut, unambiguous figure who would seem to translate naturally into electoral politics, where image and name recognition are gold. Parks had that in the bank, plus something else: As the city’s ex top cop who was also African-American, he seemed to be a logical heir to the potent coalition (and strange bedfellows) of white Valley voters concerned with public safety and black inner-city voters concerned with that, but also with maintaining a strong political presence downtown. Mayor Jim Hahn, who tapped that coalition four years ago, let down blacks notably on that point when he opted not to re-hire Parks as police chief back in 2002. Undaunted, Parks ran for councilman in the 8th District the following year and was elected by a landslide, reinforcing an iron-will image that was beginning to play favorably among blacks who often had mixed feelings about Parks during his controversial reign at the Police Department. Parks’ new position downtown gave everybody just what they wanted — a high profile that was less politically charged and more community-friendly than police chief, to say nothing of a perfect springboard to the Mayor’s Office. After Parks announced his intention to run for mayor last spring — surprising no one — the momentum appeared to be his to lose. Lose it he did, if in fact he ever had it to begin with. Though Parks is still the best-known candidate besides the incumbent Hahn himself, ongoing problems with his campaign, fund-raising (he has yet to crack $1 million) and message have hampered him, leaving him with lots of political capital that he can’t seem to spend. Then there’s the problem with Parks himself: Though some admire the freshman councilman’s single-mindedness and success at navigating the steep learning curve in City Hall, many — beginning with his 8th District constituents — complain about his arrogance and unwillingness to listen to anyone once he makes up his mind. That recalcitrance is actually at the root of his campaign troubles, which began almost immediately last summer when Parks, ignoring the counsel of close friends and professional staffers, allowed his wife, Bobbie, to steer the campaign on what many say has been a disastrous course. With her at the helm, the campaign has seen much turnover, including three managers in the last seven months. Then there are all of the relationships Parks has either been unwilling or unable to form beyond the council office. He is fond of calling himself an anti special interests candidate in this race, which sounds good on paper but politically has meant he has secured no big endorsements, not only from traditional behemoths like organized labor but from those most likely to be his allies: other black elected officials (besides Assemblyman Ed Vincent), big churches and activist organizations like the Urban League and NAACP (after all, they were all his allies in ’02 when Parks fought vigorously, and visibly, to retain his job as police chief). It is the absence of this group that is most glaring, though Parks brushes it aside as simply the cost of doing things differently, both in his long-suffering South L.A. district and in a mayor’s race that usually runs — like most sizable races — on big money and backroom deals. Parks’ line on this is that his campaign is running the way he wants it; that turnovers among his team were really scheduled departures and that his high name recognition and high positives with voters means he doesn’t have to grub for money. “I’m pleased with what we’re doing even though people on the outside may not understand it,” he says. His impolitic take on labor and its relationship to the city illustrates how little concern he has for currying favor. “City services are down because we’re giving money away to employee pay raises. It’s a violation of my conscience and what we’re there for,” says Parks. “I’m not anti-union — I’ve been a union man my whole life — but where I separate from them is when we start doing things against the interests of the community. [Jim Hahn] can’t say no to unions.” Ah, Hahn. The man who thwarted Parks’ dream of staying police chief, at least for one more term. The man who many people believe is indirectly driving this mayoral bid by fueling Parks’ determination to do unto Hahn what Hahn did unto him: take away the job of a lifetime. The perception that Parks is running chiefly to take revenge on his former boss is widespread, and understandable; one of the many mistakes Parks’ campaign made early in the race was to criticize Hahn loudly almost every week, leaving the impression that Parks was anti-Hahn and not much else. But the reality may actually be somewhat different. Parks has no love for Hahn, certainly, but in conversation he seems genuinely interested in the bureaucratic workings of his district and how he might improve things. He is a moderate Democrat — moderate enough to actually distinguish himself in a field of staunch liberals who can often sound alike. He talks in detail about the planning department and correcting its inequities, the Crenshaw-specific plan that’s nearing completion, an ordinance he is hoping to effect that will limit auto-related businesses on major thoroughfares in his part of town. One of the many ironies of this race is that Parks’ positions on lots of issues are much more nuanced than his enforcer reputation and image would dictate. At points he sounds almost wonky. He speaks in measured tones, eager to show what he’s learned about the problems and what solutions he’s imagined. And he believes that what’s good for curing the nearly intractable ills of South L.A. — crime, chaotic development, underachievement, lack of quality retail — can be good for the entire city. Sitting in the conference room across a table from Parks, I almost have to pinch myself to remember that until a couple days ago the councilman was dead set against this interview. After the Weekly ran an unfavorable story about his campaign last year, Parks at first would only agree to an interview if he got to pick the reporter and the circumstance, a demand that is typical of the councilman, who was never good with criticism. Today, the only evidence of his past wrath is a tape recorder his press person places between us and makes sure is on for the duration of our time together. Parks is polite, even courtly, though he surrenders virtually nothing about himself. His words are all devoted to his mayoral platform and plan of action (more cops on full-time schedule, improved public transportation, a new culture of accountability at City Hall). The conference room is situated on the upper level of his campaign headquarters, an elegant, high-ceilinged bank building on King Boulevard that is probably the most palatial of any of the candidates’ offices. It is probably also the most symbolic: Founders National Bank, which once occupied the site, was for many years the only commercial black-owned bank operating west of the Mississippi. It closed its doors in 2001 after merging with an East Coast bank in an effort to nationalize the reach of black financial institutions — a good thing, but it left a considerable hole in the ground that has proved especially hard to fill. Parks doesn’t mention Founders, though he does ground the conversation in the peculiar challenges facing the 8th, a district that encompasses both the poorest and most well-off black neighborhoods in the city. He begins the interview listing the many issues that have long crowded the consciousness of inner-city politicians: crime, education, “retail racism” (the phenomenon of chain stores like Robinsons-May carrying poorer-quality goods in neighborhoods of color), and zoning laws that don’t work or don’t exist. But with enough will and enough people doing their homework, he thinks the problems can be fixed. He is visibly proud of a county building in the works at 83rd and Vermont, another hard-to-build corner that was at the eye of the ’92 storm euphemistically known as the civil unrest. “A developer sat on the rights to that corner for 10 years, and nothing happened,” he says. “What do you do? You go to the county and do a building that will be filled with employees, and then the retailers will come. This is a 200,000-square-foot, $100 million project.” He also thinks the scope of the worst problems makes it too easy for people to forget that the middle-income folk need help, too. Describing his vision for market-rate housing in the Crenshaw District and other places in the 8th where homes have more than held their value, Parks stresses that “the middle class can’t be forgotten. We have to cater to them.” Sounds like a mayor for all, or at least a mayor who could resonate in several other districts and demographics besides the 8th. One veteran developer who attended a recent Parks fund-raiser says the councilman has actually been a welcome change from area pols — mostly black — who always pledge change and community empowerment but almost never deliver. According to the developer, Parks has the potential to be a new model of leadership. “He’s very intelligent about projects and how they translate into good things for community,” he says. “He does his homework and he’s knowledgeable. He’s in control, in a good way — he knows what he wants and how to get it.” The developer also points out that a Crenshaw business-façade program that had languished under the previous councilman, Mark Ridley-Thomas, was swiftly enacted under Parks. “The business community likes him,” he adds. “Parks doesn’t talk about Band-Aids so much as he does about real solutions that can solve bigger problems.” When it comes to Parks’ bid for mayor, however, the developer is not nearly as enthusiastic. “The mayor’s game is a different game,” he says. “He could be a great councilman, and he should stay [in the 8th] for two terms. He wants to move up in his career, be the top guy. I understand that, but I don’t think it best serves him now.” Parks is indeed hands-on when it comes to business and economic growth, perhaps too much so. It is here where his ambition can bleed into that famous arrogance, where his populist rhetoric can start sounding aimed at a population of one. In his two years on the council he’s been willing to override community concerns about the prevalence of liquor outlets, motels and low-wage jobs in order to increase business and tax revenue — an iteration of an increasingly common approach to inner-city development that can be summed up in a sentence: Anything is better than a hole in the ground. To be fair, the 8th District had many holes in the ground after smoke from the 1992 riots cleared, and it's taking years to fill them. Parks says he is not a fan of liquor stores but is a pragmatist who must balance ideals with reality and against a timeline: Needy neighborhoods, he says, simply cannot wait forever on a savior. So it is that he justifies supporting Wal-Mart’s incursions into Crenshaw and Inglewood. Parks credits Wal-Mart with turning around the fortunes of the once-foundering Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, which he says is now at 97 percent retail occupancy. “I don’t believe that Wal-Mart should be able to monopolize,” he says, “but I don’t believe we should have a vacant store and 500 people unemployed.” When Macy’s abruptly pulled out of the plaza in 1998, he says, “Nobody called. We’ll be waiting 100 years for a Nordstrom. If we wait for a ‘philosophically appropriate’ retailer to come in . . . come on!” Likewise, Parks had few qualms about granting a liquor license to a market located in an area already saturated with liquor stores that just happens to be the same market where black teenager Latasha Harlins was killed in a fateful shooting by Korean grocer Soon Ja Du in 1991. At a recent zoning hearing, Parks was not swayed by testimony from police and from the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment that the license be denied. Instead, he argued that barring beer and wine put the small reputable market at a competitive disadvantage with bigger markets (some 10 percent of Parks’ campaign contributions thus far have come from liquor stores). He emphasizes that his support hardly means he gives liquor vendors carte blanche. “It’s a case-by-case basis,” he says. The license was finally denied by the city, but by then, Parks had struck many as unattuned to the important human and historical issues surrounding the license that had nothing to do with business. “It’s not that [Parks] is trying to be antagonistic,” says Sheilagh Polk of the Community Coalition, which formed in the wake of the riots to stymie the proliferation of liquor stores in South L.A. “He really thinks his own rhetoric is true — that beer and wine must be sold to make profit for a small business. But that’s not true.”

Most recently, and perhaps more to the point, Parks seemed slow to react to the shooting death of Devin Brown, the 13-year-old motorist who was gunned down by police at around 4 a.m. last Monday after a brief pursuit. The incident sparked a groundswell of anger in his district that is still building, but the councilman — either because he’s reluctant to alienate law-and-order voters or because he has doubts himself about the shooting — waited nearly two days to address concerned citizens. Parks has also had run-ins with merchants along Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park, the arts-and-commerce enclave that is widely considered to be the cultural heart of the African-American community in Los Angeles. Gallery owner Laura Hendrix says many fellow merchants were incensed when Parks’ office supported a Christmas toy giveaway that would have closed down Degnan during the merchants’ busiest sales month. The street stayed open, Hendrix says, only after she and others made repeated last-minute appeals to Parks’ office. Then, last month, the annual King Day parade reversed its usual route and culminated with a festival in Leimert Park and along Degnan — a boon for parade-goers but a headache for merchants who showed up for work to find the streets barricaded. One owner got to her store only because a police officer who happened to know her let her through. Hendrix, who has long been involved with the Leimert Park Merchants Association, says the problem is not the events but a lack of communication about them. Parks’ standoffishness has not helped. “When we first told his office we should meet beforehand, we got no response,” she says. “We need to be on the same page.” When a group of merchants met with the councilman last month, she offered him a copy of the merchants’ guidelines for festivals and asked him to get back to her when he read them. “He looked at me and said, ‘If I read them,’ ” says Hendrix. “He never answered our questions about the guidelines. He’s arrogant and stubborn. He’s never said one encouraging word.” Yet Parks points to his work in Leimert Park — and the parade route reversal in particular — with a sense of pride and accomplishment. The idea was for the parade to end in Leimert Park’s retail district where people could partake in the street festival, but also explore the shops and restaurants. As for Hendrix’s complaints, he says that his office has always followed festival guidelines and has communicated with the Leimert Park merchants — he has an aide who lives in Leimert assigned exclusively to the west side of the district. He claims the real problem lies with a few vocal merchants who routinely oppose street festivals and events in the park because they believe it drives away regular business. Parks has never ordered Degnan Boulevard closed, he says, and contrary to rumor, the toy giveaway never called for it. He adds that after the King event, which his office spent two years facilitating, he personally visited every business on Degnan and was told by many merchants that they’d made money that day. But a handful of businesspeople are still dissatisfied because, he says, they want more say-so than they’re entitled to. “We had a meeting, but they went away mad because they didn’t get the answer from me that they wanted to hear,” says Parks. “My mission is to bring as many people into Leimert as possible, so that everybody thrives. I’m frank about that. We’re very sensitive to the businesses and to street closures, but the fact is there hasn’t been any closures. It’s folklore.” As with the merchants, Parks tends to rile his constituents less because of actual deeds than because of demeanor. Anna Ellison, a longtime 8th District resident who is active in her neighborhood council, says Parks shows up to block-club meetings only when he wants to push a pet issue, like his airport modernization plan, “and then he apologizes and leaves.” When Ellison wrote Parks’ office a letter criticizing the councilman’s lack of people skills, he did write back to say that he took the job not to be popular but to get things done. “But what I said in the letter was that you have to listen to people and what they want, not just what you want,” says Ellison. “He has his own ideas and ways, and he’s not open to anything else. I wouldn’t vote for him for mayor. I told him he only got into the council office on a sympathy vote.” Ellison adds that she feels that Parks plays class favorites — cozying up to the more affluent northwest end while ignoring the less-moneyed neighborhoods east of Crenshaw Boulevard. It might be sheer coincidence that Jerry Johnson, a resident of a Culver City adjacent neighborhood called Baldwin Vista, has nothing but praise for Parks. “He’s been very responsive, very accessible, about everything from repairing potholes to coming to homeowner-association meetings,” says Johnson, who works in hospital administration. “He’s done more in his two years than [former Councilman] Mark Ridley-Thomas ever did.” While it might be a bit too early to judge Parks’ performance as councilman, certain things are clear: He takes his job seriously. He devotes a lot of time to it. He makes decisions based largely on what he thinks is best, and follows through accordingly. He is not universally, or even generally, well-liked. He is not a coalition builder or compromiser by nature and isn’t looking to be. These are exactly the qualities that defined Parks as police chief, and exactly the qualities people tend not to want in a mayor, at least not since the days of the Great Uniter, Tom Bradley. Bradley was an ex-cop too, but the forces of history and social change proved to be greater than his own limitations as a politician and leader; for all the accolades Bradley got in his time and long afterward, he had the same tendencies toward inflexibility and blind spots as Parks. But that was 1973, when a black mayor was a cause unto itself and such character flaws were less relevant. This is a different world, though Parks seems not to care; politically speaking, he has always been wary of any worldview but his own. And in Parks’ world, he can be mayor. He should be mayor. Nothing dims that view, not a lack of money, endorsements, relationships, not suspicions of vendetta or anything else. This has long been his story, and he’s sticking to it; from a man who has a personal rule of never going off the record, you would expect nothing less. “Honestly, why is Bernard in this race? Not because of Hahn or anybody else,” says Kerman Maddox, a veteran political consultant who managed Parks’ council campaign. “He really thinks L.A. needs new leadership, and he can provide it.”


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