Marqueece Harris-Dawson won a seat on the L.A. City Council outright on Tuesday, winning the election to succeed Bernard Parks with a surprising 61 percent of the vote.
When he is sworn in on July 1, Harris-Dawson will move the council's center of gravity to the left. Parks has represented the 8th District, which covers much of South L.A., for the last dozen years. A former LAPD chief, Parks built a reputation as a budget hawk and the most pro-business representative on the council.
Harris-Dawson, 44, has a much different approach. For the last decade he has run the Community Coalition, a nonprofit group that organizes campaigns around social justice issues. Where Parks is combative, Harris-Dawson seeks to build relationships.
“I'm an organizer, he's a cop,” Harris-Dawson said in an interview before the election. “If you come from an environment where you have to have absolute authority, that's different from inviting people in and struggling to work it out.”
Harris-Dawson grew up in South L.A. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he cut his teeth as an activist protesting police brutality and apartheid in South Africa. When he returned to South L.A., he went to work at his grandfather's real estate business.
“I had my idealism and activism and radical politics, so he put me in charge of the Section 8 units,” Harris-Dawson said. “It was a good education.”
In 1995, he went to work for the Community Coalition, founded by Karen Bass. Bass, who is now in Congress, became a key mentor to him. When she was elected to the Assembly in 2004, Harris-Dawson took over.
That background informs some of the key policy differences between him and Parks. One of the major contrasts is on the minimum wage. Parks voted against increasing the minimum wage for hotel workers, and has been skeptical of Mayor Eric Garcetti's plan to increase the citywide minimum wage to $13.25 an hour.
Harris-Dawson wants to go even further than Garcetti, saying he “stridently” supports a citywide increase to $15.25 an hour.
“You need to fight as hard as you can for your constituency to get a raise,” he says.
Harris-Dawson had the backing of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, which, together with the city firefighters union, spent about $165,000 in support of his campaign. Labor groups had fought bitterly with Parks, spending $1.2 million in an unsuccessful effort to oust him from office four years ago.
Parks, 71, endorsed Bobbie Jean Anderson. She finished last in a four-candidate field, according to preliminary results.
During the campaign, the candidates largely agreed on the problems facing South L.A. While communities on the Eastside struggle to deal with the effects of gentrification, South L.A. is still waiting for economic renewal.
“We're being left out and left behind,” Harris-Dawson said.
At a debate, Anderson said she supported financial incentives for businesses to invest in the community. Harris-Dawson was more skeptical.
“We can't keep offering really rich people government money to come in and make money off of us,” he said. “Our community is a golden opportunity for any business.”
Harris-Dawson also figures to offer a different take on policing issues. At the debate, he said that he had had a loaded gun pointed at him five times — and four times it was by the police.
In general, he said South L.A. residents are concerned about “too much of the wrong kind of policing, and not enough of the right kind.” For instance, he said he heard consistent concerns that too little was being done about prostitution. He also echoed concerns that too few officers truly know the communities they police.
“The LAPD has got to figure out how to hire people that are actually from L.A.,” he said. “If you drop me in Sherman Oaks, I don't know how to distinguish who's who.”
The contrasts even extend to music. Parks is known for hosting annual jazz festivals. In his spare time, Harris-Dawson is a deejay.
Update: Harris-Dawson paid a visit to the City Council this morning. He met with Mayor Eric Garcetti and most of his future council colleagues — though not with Parks.
“[Councilman Mike] Bonin and I have some interesting ideas around economic development and spreading out development across the city,” Harris-Dawson said. “Other folks are really eager to get to work on city services, like the sidewalk problem and a variety of things. In our district, we heard loud and clear it's about basic city services and economic development.”