For the first time in 16 years, the 2-million-person fiefdom known as Los Angeles County’s 2nd District is up for grabs with the retirement of Supervisor Yvonne Burke. The winner of the seat on the powerful five-member county Board of Supervisors will have a say over a $22.3 billion budget that is larger than that of several states, and more than 100,000 government employees.

The candidates, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks and state Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, are embroiled in a nasty race. But more than personal enmity, the fight between Parks and Ridley-Thomas, both black Democrats, is remarkable for the third major entity playing a role: unions long desirous of controlling the Board of Supervisors, which has the power to grant government-employee raises and decides on huge construction and other contracts that benefit labor.

“The labor movement has come to the conclusion that they can no longer be item number two for Democrats” who hold office, says UC Santa Barbara labor expert Nelson Lichtenstein. “Democrats who say ‘I am a friend of labor’ are not good enough. They [the unions] need warriors.”

Flooded with more than $4.5 million in record-breaking donations from national and local unions, Ridley-Thomas is taking on the better-known former Los Angeles police chief, Parks. Ridley-Thomas beat Parks by five percentage points in the June primary, and his millions in union money has made Parks look like a pauper.

But Ridley-Thomas has been weakened by the antics of a labor chieftain friend of his, Tyrone Freeman, who stepped down from the SEIU Local 6434 in August after being accused of lavishly spending union dues and giving cushy contracts to his wife’s firm.

Until the widening scandal that has now engulfed Freeman’s understudy, Rickman Jackson, Ridley-Thomas’ main problem in beating Parks might have been his habit of public pomposity, which makes Parks, who can be stiff, seem almost laid-back by comparison. But Parks failed to use Ridley-Thomas’ SEIU links to his advantage, instead scrambling for voter attention by trying to make headlines on minor issues that seemed to backfire on him.

Meanwhile, the campaigns have only modestly addressed the 2nd District’s profound issues: the closure of King/Drew hospital; massive foreclosure rates among low-income families who put zero down on homes they couldn’t afford; a 34 percent homeless rate; one of the biggest populations of foster youth in America; and black and Latino gangs that terrorize neighborhoods from Carson to Culver City.

Parks’ campaign manager, his son Bernard Parks Jr., says Ridley-Thomas’ own campaign has been dwarfed — in effect superseded — by the big labor campaign that operates separately, to the point that Ridley-Thomas needn’t run one at all. “Mark could take a vacation,” says Parks Jr. “This campaign is about Parks running against labor. I’ve never seen such an insignificant candidate [as Ridley-Thomas]. Ever.”

Outgoing Supervisor Yvonne Burke dropped a bombshell, telling L.A. Weekly that the accused SEIU union honcho has bragged of hand-picking Ridley-Thomas for the post. She says Freeman told her he had “recruited” Ridley-Thomas to run for the seat she is vacating.

But Ridley-Thomas has sought to sidestep questions about his friendship with Freeman. After a brief opening ceremony for his suburban Carson headquarters, on the same day that Sarah Palin appeared at the nearby Home Depot center, Ridley-Thomas told L.A.Weekly, “In this country, you are innocent till proven guilty,” adding, “I’m not going to do what Parks did and throw him [Freeman] under the bus.”

The 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the scandal-laden Service Employees International Union are among Ridley-Thomas’ biggest supporters, with other unions joining them to pour a stunning $4.5 million into his campaign and into lavishly funded independent expenditure committees.

Ridley-Thomas’ allies say he isn’t owned by unions and just wants to do right by union families. “Mark Ridley-Thomas will be sympathetic to protecting the middle-class jobs, but it is wrong to say that he will be in anyone’s pocket,” says Madeline Janis, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a union-oriented group that promotes green ideas and helps working families. (She stresses she is not speaking for the group in backing Ridley-Thomas.)

Still, with only about10 to 15 percent of South L.A. and Los Angeles County adults actually belonging to a union, and county supervisors expected to represent all residents, not just union households, the eyebrow-raising level of labor money behind Ridley-Thomas has set off recrimination and debate, particularly in the black community.

Black commentator and 2nd District resident Earl Ofari Hutchinson flatly states that unions are “buying the election” by pouring in overwhelming amounts. Even before corruption allegations surfaced against Freeman, he says, “The money was already tainted, in that sense.”

Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the county labor federation, twice sidestepped the SEIU corruption allegations when pressed by the Weekly, and SEIU did not call back. But as reported first by Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Pringle, Freeman allegedly misspent more than $400,000 between 2006 and 2007, including nearly $10,000 on dubious “lodging” at the swanky Grand Havana Room cigar club in Beverly Hills and $219,000 that went to a video production firm run by Freeman’s wife. In mid-August, the U.S. Department of Labor began scrutinizing how Freeman was elected to head the local in the first place, and soon after that, Freeman stepped down.

Nonpartisan observer Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs, says Ridley-Thomas’ closeness to Tyrone Freeman “doesn’t help” him, but it “doesn’t have that Velcro stick,” because other unions backing Ridley-Thomas have not been tainted. Many of those other unions, under the umbrella of the county Federation of Labor, will crank up their vast get-out-the-vote machinery using phone banks and door-to-door canvassing to promote Ridley-Thomas over Parks.

In the June primary, Ridley-Thomas edged Parks 45 percent to 40, but only 20 percent of eligible voters weighed in. Turnout is expected to be high in November, which could help either man.

Regalado argues that in a high-turnout election, the Labor Federation could be very effective at organizing the young voters and Latinos to vote for Ridley-Thomas. But Parks might also find an advantage in a high turnout: In the wake of the Wall Street credit meltdown, Parks is one of only two or three elected politicians in City Hall who actively promotes fiscal austerity, which he learned as chief of the budget-strung LAPD.

On the 15-member City Council, budget expert Parks is in a small minority that votes 13-2 or 12-3 against big-ticket items. In fact, his fiscal watchdogging is what got Parks in trouble with raise-seeking city employee unions, the SEIU and other big labor groups.

Parks now has to hope that voters are in a fiscally sensitive mood on November 4. He might benefit — but only if he can somehow communicate his belt-tightening ways to county voters, and do it without the millions that Ridley-Thomas’ labor backers will spend.

But so far, Parks seems mired in small issues that have failed to get him the “free media” coverage his underfunded campaign needed. In August, for example, Parks introduced a sweeping smoking ban at a time when the City Council had just approved other smoking restrictions. “We got rid of smoke in public buildings, parks and the farmers market,” Parks tells the Weekly. “I thought rather than going incrementally, we should look at the whole issue.”

The Ridley-Thomas campaign called it a publicity stunt. “I think it’s not coincidental that Mr. Parks has become Mr. Resolution after he came on the City Council,” says Fred MacFarlane, media adviser to Ridley-Thomas.

Then, in late September, Parks ordered the nonprofit group Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) to vacate within 60 days a rental they get for $1 per year from the city, complaining that the group used its virtually free subsidized space to campaign for Ridley-Thomas.

That could have turned into a decent “free media” headline for Parks, had he followed through with proof that city taxpayers were indeed subsidizing backers of Ridley-Thomas — ensconced in a free city rental. But instead, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a pal of SCOPE president Anthony Thigpenn’s, got the upper hand, stopping the group’s eviction cold.

This kind of tit-for-tat has dominated the race, and Hutchinson is predicting the outcome: “Ridley-Thomas will win it, and he will win it for the wrong reasons. Money, money, money. The unions, the unions, the unions. They tipped the scales unfairly against both Parks and constituents of the 2nd District.”

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