|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
Councilman Bernard C. Parks looked out at an audience of more than 100 applauding constituents and flashed the most relaxed, bashful but good-natured grin you can imagine. “So how’d I do?” he asked the crowd, which gathered recently at the former 1932 Olympic Swim Stadium at Exposition Park to hear their councilman deliver his first-ever “State of the 8th” address. Things are looking up, he told them. Lights at Crenshaw High, development on the way, a new can-do spirit among district residents. The audience cheered. Parks broadened his smile.
But he spoke too long. No time for questions. His chief of staff, friend and confidant, Joe Rouzan, shooed him off the stage as Parks playfully insisted, “Just one question?”
The scene was typical. The councilman comes off as a cheerful gray-templed grandfather, an avuncular pol, dignified but chatty. Nowhere does he look more at home than on the City Council floor, introducing a constituent to his colleagues.
It’s hard sometimes to realize that this is the same man who seethed at the council-chamber door two years ago as his future colleagues rambled for an hour about whether to give him time at their precious podium. When they finally sat down, up strode a far different Bernard Parks, ramrod straight, in full uniform, sidearm strapped to his belt, tie knotted with military precision, LAPD badge polished, talking points printed, bound and properly distributed, grudge on his sleeve.
“I’m very sorry it took so long to debate this, this morning,” intoned the chief that April day. Translation: Shame on you for making me wait so long. Parks proceeded to take more than an hour of his own, hurling contempt at the people and unseen forces that had just conspired to deny him a second five-year term in his dream job, as Los Angeles’ chief of police. He barely mentioned the Rampart police scandal that brought down his department. The real scandal, he charged, was the backroom maneuvering of the police union and a monumental betrayal by Mayor James Hahn.
He accused the council, calling each politician by name, challenging them to buck a corrupt City Hall and override Hahn’s Police Commission. But the disgust that dripped unmistakably from his words made clear that he knew the council, too, would cut him loose. And they did.
When Parks walked out of the chamber, presumably forever, hundreds of his black supporters followed, taking with them their once-unwavering fealty to Hahn. But those who knew Parks best knew he would be back, even if it meant grabbing a seat in the very heart of the structure he had just branded as corrupt.
He pulled up stakes to move into the city, and into the available 8th Council District. He raised an astonishing $500,000, chasing one rival into another district and frightening off several others from even trying. He walked away with more than 75 percent of the vote, and took his seat in the council chamber a year ago.
He has been all about service to his long-beleaguered district, and about support for business and jobs and a watchful eye on the city budget.
Outside his 8th District, though, he is followed by a certain presumption: This is still a man with a bone to pick, a chip on his shoulder the size of his lost office on the sixth floor of Parker Center. Grabbing a place on the council and being a thorn in the mayor’s side can’t possibly be enough. He will run for mayor, he will try to send Hahn into retirement, the same as Hahn did to him, and Parks — and those who support him and once supported Hahn — will be vindicated. The same way he was vindicated when Willie Williams passed him up for chief, then demoted him. Williams was denied his second term and Parks got his job. Sweet, sweet revenge.
Public demand for such compelling political theater clouds a clear picture of who Bernard Parks really is. His roots in City Hall are deep. They go back beyond his 38-year career as a police officer and into the past with his father, who learned the ways of the bureaucracy and hobnobbed with the powerful. He has been an enormously quick study on the council, tireless in his quest to understand (and protect) the city budget, relentless in his zeal to fill the shockingly large and numerous empty lots that line large commercial streets running through South Los Angeles.
He’s not just one of the last high-ranking black L.A. officials, or just another ex-cop. He embodies a potent political force barely noticed in these times of the Latino-labor-left coalition, and amid the drive for subsidized housing mandates and resolutions supporting striking grocery workers. Parks likes business. He wants market-rate housing. He preaches more personal responsibility, less regulation. In the new L.A., Parks is old school. And old school is big.
He has mastered City Hall by working long hours and paying scrupulous attention to his colleagues. Open and witty, he seems to love the politics that once appeared to have so completely disgusted him.
But every now and then, in council debate or off the cuff, the easygoing demeanor can drop away and reveal a hint of the defensive and defeated chief who dressed down the council in April 2002. Something about him leaves the impression that he is always on the verge of walking back to that podium, grievance on his sleeve, distributing a list of crises looming over the city and folding his arms in satisfaction. It comes out when he criticizes Hahn’s fund-raising commission appointees, or when he cautions prudence in budget matters.
Bernard Parks seems like a man always on the verge of saying, “I told you so.”
Parks began appearing at the council’s Budget and Finance Committee meetings a year ago, just days after he captured nearly eight of every 10 votes cast in his South L.A. district. Under normal circumstances he would have had 16 long weeks to go fishing or hang out with the grandkids before taking his council seat. But Mark Ridley-Thomas left the seat vacant when he moved to the state Assembly, and Parks so thoroughly trounced his four competitors that he avoided a May runoff. He was appointed to fill the Ridley-Thomas council seat immediately, grabbing a valuable four-month jump on the rest of his incoming class.
A budget battle, a rebellion, was brewing. Hahn, on a public-safety reform roll after his ouster of Parks, wanted to keep things moving with the appointment of the high-profile William Bratton as the new chief and the vow to do what neither Parks nor former Mayor Richard Riordan could — expand the LAPD to almost 10,000 cops. His budget called for borrowed money and crossed fingers to get those officers, but Hahn ran headlong into a coalition that one exasperated mayoral staffer branded the “three P’s in a pod”: Budget Chairman Nick Pacheco, council President Alex Padilla and Parks.
Budget and Finance rejected Hahn’s spending plan, calling it imprudent at a time of fiscal uncertainty, and some council staffers said it was Parks’ way of saying “screw you” to both the mayor who fired him and the LAPD that failed to back him up as chief. Hahn himself lashed out at Parks in a radio interview.
“None of [the council members] have the kind of experience that Bill Bratton has,” a frustrated Hahn told talk-show host Larry Mantle, “including the newest council member from the 8th District, who presided over the department shrinking by over 900 officers.” Parks just smiled when asked about the on-air outburst. Hahn’s budget plan went down to defeat.
When the new councilman’s four-month apprenticeship ended and he was sworn in to his first full term, council President Alex Padilla named Parks to one of the most powerful positions in City Hall — chairman of Budget and Finance.
Vindication? Vengeance? No, arguably, just prudence. Since that budget fight, the governor was recalled, the state fiscal crisis has worsened, and movie-action-hero-turned-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a budget that leaves cities and counties bereft of funds. Los Angeles faces a $300 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year. Layoffs are looming. Whole departments are slated for elimination.
Before it all happened, everyone else on the council signed off on a pact with the police union for steady raises over the next three years. But not the pragmatic Parks. Imprudent, he said.
Now the city is reopening all contracts. There was a glint in Parks’ eye that, looked at from just the right angle, said, “I told you so.” Fiscal conservatives, San Fernando Valley voters, take notice.
“We have put ourselves somewhat in a bind,” Parks said simply, by meeting employee-union demands for wages.
Anything Parks didn’t already know about Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, West Adams, Jefferson Park and Chesterfield Square he learned in weeks of tireless campaign walking. At nearly every door, he was treated as a hero. He asked about concerns and issues and policies, and took careful notes. Now he can rattle off stats about the number of former prisoners soon to be released into the district, and the amount of vacant prime square footage that developers would kill for — if the lots were in other parts of town.
Parks has a fascinating record for reading his district. Sometimes he seems so finely tuned to his constituents’ needs and aspirations that he could speak in their voices, and vice versa. And other times he seems so clueless he could pass for a foreign visitor just off the plane at the Tom Bradley International Terminal a few miles to the southwest.
His most public misfire as a councilman centered on his quest to rename Crenshaw Boulevard for Bradley, the black police officer prevented by LAPD racism from rising in the ranks, who then meted out comeuppance by being elected to the City Council. And then became the city’s most famous mayor.
Nate Holden spearheaded the change, but Parks fought hard for it. So did the city’s old-line black leadership. But neighborhood activists and residents viewed the move as just one more City Hall insiders’ game, devised behind closed doors and foisted upon them without discussion. You don’t do that in a district where then-councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas set up the Empowerment Congress, a network of four carefully crafted community councils where even the most mundane civic matters become the subject of discussion, debate and a vote.
Parks’ experience with neighborhood participation was altogether different. As chief, he sent the beloved community liaison cops known as senior lead officers back out on patrol, and fought furiously against the growing neighborhood-based movement demanding to get their SLOs back. He struggled against democratizing community-police advisory boards — groups of citizens appointed by the LAPD who serve as links between the police and the people they serve.
Now as a councilman, Parks sometimes acts alone when community participation is warranted, as in the Bradley Boulevard matter. But his miscues also can lean the other way. Speaking one late-summer day to the Park Mesa Heights Community Council, he brushed aside a request to block construction of a motel and said it should be taken up instead by a community advisory committee, a group of residents that offers advice on local projects to the Community Redevelopment Agency. Another day, standing before the activist Community Coalition for Substance Abuse, Prevention and Treatment, he said problems should be brought not to his office but to the neighborhood council. He gave numbers to call for pickup of bulky items, numbers to report graffiti. His office can’t deal with everything at once, he said. Go through channels. That’s what they’re there for. There are “not a whole lot of solutions” to the problem of untrimmed parkway trees. “What the city says about that is . . .,” Parks began, but wait — isn’t he “the city”?
Aretha Ensley of Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives told the councilman, “We are quite aware that we can call a number and get items picked up. We need leadership. We need someone who’s going to fight for us and make it happen.” Ensley then left an open space that almost any politician would know how to fill. “I will fight for you,” the activists expected to hear. But Parks said nothing. The residents, expecting a red-tape-cutting champion, scratched their heads and wondered whether they had ended up with just another bureaucrat.
Marqueece Johnson of the coalition said Ridley-Thomas changed the standard by which a councilman in South L.A. is to be measured. “If you stood up with a problem at a community meeting, Mark Ridley-Thomas would have one of his staff members on the phone to you the next day,” Johnson said. “We are coming to the realization that Parks is a person who doesn’t have activism as his background. He was seen here as one of the better chiefs, and when he was running we had in mind the way he was ousted and the reasons that were given. That was deeply offensive to us. And there certainly was a revenge factor there when people voted. But people vote for who they know, and we know Bernard Parks. But we are coming to the realization that his background is in bureaucracy.”
Parks as police chief did have a penchant for bureaucracy and a disconcerting eye for detail. The police union hated him because, its directors said, he was so punctilious that he would send an officer through the discipline system for not having his boots polished (not quite true, but under Parks, discipline actions went way up). At commission meetings he could spew so many statistics it was impossible to remember what the numbers meant. And for a while he looked to be going through that all over again as a councilman. At one committee meeting, when someone brought forward a motion to put bumper stickers on city cars touting the new 3-1-1 information phone number, Parks moved for a study of available bumper space.
He is a tireless promoter of NFL football at the Coliseum, insisting at every opportunity that a sports team will pull in big investment dollars. The pitch rarely sells, no matter where he is. “I knew he was going to get onto the NFL,” one woman complained when Parks broached the subject at a meeting in his own district, and dozens of residents shook their heads in formation. “Oh, God!” a man gasped more recently when Parks brought up the Coliseum at a Valley homeowners meeting. The councilman didn’t miss a beat. “Now, don’t call me by my first name,” he shot back. Good recovery. He got a few laughs and a smattering of applause. But he then re-commenced his speech on the Coliseum, eliciting more groans.
But he learns. Quickly. By the time of a Housing Committee meeting early this year, where hundreds of activists gathered to complain about program cuts, Parks had become the champion of community activism. He turned an angry crowd into cheering supporters with some carefully chosen words.
“As you talk to your friends in the neighborhood,” he said, “make sure that they understand the importance of your activism. Because when issues come up that affect them, the best way to resolve them is your physical presence. It’s not enough just for a petition, not a letter, but your physical presence.”
For all his faith in bureaucracy, Parks displays a quiet genius for transcending it, or at least for working it. He is politically deft. He walked into a council presided over by Alex Padilla, a Hahn ally, and wrung out of the council president the best possible committee assignments. While Padilla was still facing a presidential challenge from Wendy Greuel and was still counting votes, Parks held his cards close to his vest until exactly the right moment. Inside City Hall, it’s an open secret: Parks was not the unnecessary ninth vote for Padilla, or the nice-but-not-enough seventh vote, but the crucial eighth vote. The one that sealed Padilla’s re-election as president. Padilla rewarded him by making him chairman of Budget and Finance. Gave him a spot on the Referred Powers board, the panel that acts for the mayor or anyone else who is conflicted out. Gave him a front seat in Public Safety, to keep an eye on his old department. And yanked Tom LaBonge from the Coliseum Commission and turned the spot over to Parks.
He is secure enough now in his place on the council that he can poke fun at himself over his lost chief’s job at the same time he’s tweaking Padilla — and hinting that the story is not over. In a letter, published as part of the American Diabetes Association’s political “roast” of Padilla, Parks wrote that the council president’s youth has not stopped him from making great decisions.
“Wait a minute, didn’t you vote against me once?” Parks asked. “That’s okay, almost everybody else did too! Yeah, I guess you guys really showed me.”
Parks also drew praise for political skill when he immediately forged a relationship with Antonio Villaraigosa, whom Hahn defeated for mayor in 2001. “He’s our chief!” Villaraigosa said when introducing Parks last fall at the city’s birthday celebration. The comment probably meant nothing. But Parks beamed.
His political contacts include crucial members of the Richard Riordan machine, which he joined when Riordan named him to succeed Parks’ nemesis, Willie Williams, in 1997. But they go back even further, to the era when his father, an émigré from Beaumont, Texas, circumnavigated the racism and anti-Catholic bias of his era and became an officer on the city’s harbor police force. The elder Parks managed to become fishing buddies with white power players like Valley Councilman Bob Wilkinson.
A scan of Parks’ monumental list of political donors reveals an intriguing number of Valley backers for his South Los Angeles election. The man has contacts, and he knows what he’s doing.
Parks also brought on, as his chief of staff, Joe Rouzan, a former colleague from the LAPD who later became executive director of the Police Commission and the city manager of Compton and then Inglewood. There’s not much Rouzan hasn’t seen. He is godfather to Bernard Parks Jr., who calls him “the Obi-wan Kenobi, the all-knowing all-seeing person.” One City Hall observer calls Rouzan the only person Bernard Parks actually listens to, other than his wife, Bobbie Parks.
Although he appeared stiff in his police uniform, Parks is at ease and at home on the council floor. He sits next to Jan Perry, and tries to hold a straight face while covering her desktop button to keep her from voting. He cracks jokes that sometimes are so subtle his colleagues don’t get them until he sits down.
On July 1, after he was sworn in as a councilman for the second time in four months, it was picture time. Parks stood behind Councilman Dennis Zine, former director of the hated Police Protective League, target of a failed disciplinary procedure brought by Parks and his LAPD brass. As the camera was about to click, Parks stuck two fingers over Zine’s head, like a ninth-grade class clown. The dour ex-chief already was a distant memory.
Much has been made of the new progressive City Council and the expected reforms that are to come from a body now made up for the first time of a majority of ethnic minorities. But the observation misses the mark. In many ways this council is conservative, at least for a group dominated by Democrats, and its progressive accomplishments so far rarely have extended beyond purely symbolic actions like denouncing the Patriot Act or the U.S. attack on Iraq.
This council, for the first time, has three police officers, if you count reserve officer Greig Smith along with Zine and Parks. It is stacked heavily with pragmatic former council staffers. And with Valley Republicans Smith and Zine absent from the Housing Committee, where many of the progressive initiatives are discussed, it is the moderate Democrat Parks pressing pro-business views generally heard only from elected officials north of Mulholland.
Housing chair Eric Garcetti has been working for more than a year to craft a motion that would ban Wal-Mart and other big-box stores from selling groceries. His colleague, Ed Reyes, has devoted his entire career in public service to spreading benefits and burdens of affordable housing to every neighborhood in the city by mandate, an effort now crystallizing in an initiative known as inclusive zoning. The committee endorsed a plan to strengthen the city’s rent-control law.
But in the 8th District, once led by the champion of progressives, Mark Ridley-Thomas, a district in desperate need of high-quality affordable housing and high-paying union work, Parks is leading the charge against these reforms.
And it’s hard to say he is out of step with his district. A year ago, residents cheered when an empty department-store space in the Baldwin Crenshaw mall was filled by the world’s first three-story Wal-Mart and hundreds of people from the 8th District lined up for jobs. In nearby Inglewood, enough residents signed petitions to force the city to put a Wal-Mart project on the ballot instead of simply rejecting it outright.
Assemblyman Ridley-Thomas still gets cheers from his constituents, and their neighbors to the west just elected progressive Karen Bass to the Assembly over Parks’ choice, lawyer Rickey Ivie. But something may be going on in South Los Angeles that Parks represents best.
“One of the reasons that I’ve been opposed to some of these housing initiatives is that we’re saturated with affordable housing,” Parks said recently. “We want people to build market-rate. We want one day to walk out in the 8th District and say those homes represent $500,000 homes. Those apartments rent for four or five thousand dollars. That tells us then that the change in the representation of the community is remarkable, because there are people who can afford those rents. And you cannot keep forcing poor people into one area and then wonder why the area deteriorates.”
At a packed Housing Committee session late last year, Garcetti, Reyes and Padilla spoke passionately for the anti-big-box plan. And then Parks spoke, laying out in a long half-hour his philosophical opposition to initiatives that say no to business, and at the same time displaying his characteristic and often maddening — but strangely communicative — syntax.
“And so, when we look at this in the reality of where we live,” Parks said, “everyone has to deal with different issues. When we talk about how fragile the nature is in economic-assistance zones, yes, it’s fragile because we have crammed poor people into affordable housing and no other opportunities to ever be successful, and the greatest promotion you may think about is that you may become the fry cook instead of the counterperson at a fast-food restaurant. And so, when we look at the 8th District, we have different concerns. We are not driving out business, because business isn’t there. We are not depressing salaries, because salaries are not there . . . And so [if the ordinance is passed], we should make sure we tell every business, don’t come to our location, because we want to put sanctions on you, and limitations that you can’t be successful.”
How could the same district that elected Ridley-Thomas choose a business-oriented pol who preaches up-by-your-bootstraps conservatism? Has the 8th District gone neocon? Not completely. Parks’ pro-business stance is real, but his differences from colleagues who paint themselves as progressives often are more image than substance. Progressive firebrand Martin Ludlow backed the anti-big-box ordinance, believing it would stem the loss of union jobs. But he sounds just like Parks when complaining about the prevalence of fast-food outlets in South L.A. and the dearth of jobs that carry a chance to promote.
Los Angeles is at a crossroads that may have more to do with ethnic diversity and the blurring of racial lines than with a progressive-moderate split, and like it or not, Parks finds himself in a curious spot. He was chief for the whole city, but he remains an involuntary standard-bearer of identity politics. Since Bradley retired and later was debilitated by a stroke and then passed away, Bernard Parks has become the focus of black leadership in L.A.
The celebrity power that Bernard Parks brought to the 2003 8th District election and the massive amounts of cash he raised so completely pushed aside other candidates that it could almost be called Schwarzeneggerian. It is another matter entirely to contemplate a citywide mayoral race against an incumbent. But Hahn is vulnerable.
First, there is the Gray Davis factor. Like the ex-governor, Hahn is a competent but colorless official who has spent his whole adult life in elected office and is in charge at a time of drastic fiscal chaos. Like Davis, Hahn has tried to portray himself as tough on crime in his innermost core, and has been less than successful at carrying it off.
And, of course, Hahn’s chief successes are his biggest political weaknesses. His base was an odd pairing of South L.A., because of the legacy of his father, county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, and the Valley, because out of all the liberal Democrats in the field, he was viewed as the most centrist in the centrist and conservative Valley. But he got rid of Parks, perhaps destroying his South L.A. base. And he led the defeat of Valley secession, perhaps destroying his other base. What’s he got left?
Parks could try to claim South L.A., but what about the rest of the city? Former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg may get in, in which case he will try to claim the Valley, and perhaps a good chunk of the Westside — and the Eastside, too, thanks to his long association with Latino leaders and his Latino wife and children. Then everyone may get in. State Senator Richard Alarcon already has said he is running. But what matters is who the two top finishers are, and which one of them has the political strength to outpoll the other in a runoff.
It just could be Parks’ year. Even if he loses, he wins. His first full council term doesn’t expire until 2007, so he wouldn’t have to give up his seat to run. Just being a candidate, he boosts his name ID, which can only help when he goes to City Hall lobbyists who want to curry favor. He can command the council opposition to Hahn over the next five years.
It’s as close to a free ride as a candidate can get.
If he waits, he runs headlong into Villaraigosa, who promised not to run in 2005 but, if he doesn’t, surely will make a play for 2009. Plus, at 60, he is the council’s oldest member, its senior statesman, a father figure who commands respect. In 2009, he would be collecting Social Security — except that, as a lifelong public employee, he is ineligible.
“The police chief is larger than life,” says Loyola political-science professor Fernando Guerra. “Always has been and always will be. He’s as much a personality as anything. And [Parks] has that presence. He’s tall and imposing, like Tom Bradley was. The cards are there for him to make a viable run this time. I think he’s got a chance to win.”
Others scoff. It’s all about money, one observer says, and Parks will never be able to raise enough to compete against Hahn. But what’s money for? It’s to boost your name recognition. And everyone in town already recognizes the name Bernard Parks.
The question is, Is that name a positive or a negative outside of CD 8? Parks presided over the Rampart corruption scandal, insisted on keeping the probe in-house, resisted the imposition of a consent decree for federal supervision. He got into a nasty and childish battle with former District Attorney Gil Garcetti over access to police data. He was portrayed in the media as an unyielding martinet. And Rampart has not gone away.
In Budget and Finance, and again in the full council, Parks must periodically recuse himself from closed sessions at which settlements are proposed for lawsuits brought by former officers who said then-Chief Parks unfairly targeted them in disciplinary actions. And Parks has refused to speak to attorney Connie Rice’s blue-ribbon panel probing what really happened in Rampart.
“The thing’s been looked at about five times at least,” Bernard Parks Jr., press spokesman, explains of Rampart and his father’s decision not to talk. “Our constituents and people we represent know he was out there talking about Rampart when it was at its ugliest. For all intents and purposes, it’s been resolved.”
The impression that he has something to prove, which is part of what drove him to achieve so much in his police career, continues to follow Parks. There have been plenty of times when he felt cheated out of his just due. A sort of glass ceiling had been put on the LAPD at lieutenant for black officers like Bradley. Parks kept going, even though he was bitterly disappointed when Willie Williams came in from Philadelphia after the 1992 riots to beat out Parks as the LAPD’s first black chief. He hung in there after Williams demoted him, relying on his political savvy and ties to get the council to do something absolutely extraordinary — go over Williams’ head and vote to sustain Parks at his higher level of pay.
It likely wasn’t the money that meant so much to Parks, observers say now, but the fact that the council move was a rebuke to Williams and the beginning of the end of his tenure as chief. Not long after, Williams was rejected in his bid for a second five-year appointment, and there, ready to take over without so much as an “I told you so,” was Bernard C. Parks. The City Council was Parks’ friend, and he thanked every single member that day in 1997 when he pinned on the chief stars he had gotten hopefully for himself five years earlier.
He ran the LAPD the way he thought it should be run, with no quarter for shoddy work or problem officers and no patience with civilian overseers. But then came Rampart, and officers not just troublesome but criminal, and oversight from the U.S. Department of Justice.
In his 2002 speech to the City Council, Parks spoke for 38 minutes before mentioning Rampart, then for another 10 before getting to what he said was the point of his presentation: Voters are fed up with city politics as usual. Valley secession “is another voter revolt that is directed toward the governance of this city,” he told the council. “They are not asking to be separated from their police department. They are asking to be separated from their governance.”
Parks shot a glance toward each council member and told them he had exceeded every standard of performance but one. “There’s only one standard I do not meet,” he said, “and that’s the political standard.” It was an accusation, not a prognostication. Parks, so far, has met the political standard just fine.
He assured the council members their paths would cross again “in a much more positive light,” and, again, he was right, and may already have been planning his move to the 8th Council District.
And he closed with a statement that was pure Bernard Parks, open to possible interpretation as droll wit, caustic irony, or simply a stilted and silly choice of words on a day he was asking the council to keep him on as chief.
“If there’s no questions,” he told the council, “I’ll retire.”
Bernard C. Parks, retire? Don’t bet on it.