AS VOTERS ACROSS A LARGE SWATH of south and central Los Angeles — from Venice and Culver City to Crenshaw, Compton and Gardena — get ready to elect their next county supervisor, this race’s rivals and their rivalry are beginning to look a lot like the last one’s — 16 years ago.

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Magic formula? Johnson, now a wildly successful businessman, endorses Bernard Parks.

Two black political heavyweights are facing off to replace an old, retiring supervisor and splitting the black vote in the process. Both received degrees from the University of Southern California. Both claim that the county’s health care system has woefully failed its residents; both promise to restore it. Both are Democrats but very different kinds. Mark Ridley-Thomas is a state senator heavily backed by labor. Bernard Parks is embraced by business groups. Both coveted Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ endorsement: It went to Parks, whose campaign is run by a little-known political operative named Herb Wesson III.

Now, replace “is” with “was.” Replace “Ridley-Thomas” with “Diane Watson.” Replace “Parks” with “Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.” Replace “USC” with “UCLA.” Replace “Wesson III” with “Wesson II.” Chant an incantation. Repeat it. Voilà! In uncanny political symmetry, 2008 becomes 1992.

“It’s funny how the Democrats — both these guys are Democrats — are fussing about change … change,” says Ted Hayes. “The only change is just a reshuffling of the chairs. It’s the same reshuffled, recycled black politicians.”

Hayes cuts an extreme example. He’s running as the Republican for Congress against Maxine Waters, from his van, where he currently resides. But his take on this déjà vu race is echoed by others. “Time has stood still,” says political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “History is not so much repeating itself as there has been just political stagnation in terms of black leadership.”

The result, say political observers, is malaise and dissatisfied black voters. Sixty-seven percent say Los Angeles is headed in the wrong direction; 84 percent say the same about their own neighborhoods, according to a February poll by Loyola Marymount University’s Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

Schools are deficient. Poverty is high. Crime is rampant, and the area’s big public hospital, the county’s King/Drew, was so mismanaged by the county government for so many years, it had to be shuttered.

“There’s probably the lowest voter turnout in the state here,” says Dermot Givens, who has advised several candidates, including Parks in his 2005 run for L.A. mayor. “The electorate doesn’t care. They’ve heard it all before. Nothing has improved. Their issues — crime, education and community development — have been the same for 50 years. Ain’t shit got done!”

He adds: “Ask them what Maxine did for her district. Can’t name a thing. Ask them what Diane Watson did for her district. Can’t name a thing. Ask them what Yvonne Brathwaite Burke did. She got King/Drew closed!”

Back in 1992, neither the ultimately victorious Burke nor her rival Watson won an outright majority, so the campaigns headed for a November runoff. Just as today, there was no consensus on who would win. That the victory went to Burke — the more moderate, fiscally conservative, pro-business “Bernard Parks” of 1992 — has important implications for June 3: She won over black voters despite opposition from labor and the local Democratic Party apparatus. The same situation is faced by Parks, whom Burke has endorsed.

Councilman Parks is well known as the former chief of LAPD. The tall, athletic fiscal watchdog has a business-friendly streak uncommon among Democratic politicians who dominate Los Angeles. He has voted against extending living-wage laws; he is less likely to insist that developers build “affordable housing” units; and more likely to support contracting out services handled by government workers. As chair of the L.A. City Council’s Budget Committee, he’s something of a hawk intent on balancing city expenses and revenues — even if that means making enemies by voting against union-pushed wage increases.

Brathwaite Burke’s staid doppelgänger, Parks, would have good reason to believe he’d win, if the city hadn’t seen dramatic demographic and political changes that belie easy analogies to 1992. A district seat once considered forever “safe” for black candidates is probably one election away from being dominated by Latinos.

In the 1990s, tens of thousands of black residents left the 2-million-person district for safer and cheaper homes in the Valley, the Inland Empire and the U.S. South. For every black resident who left, Latinos moved in, and are now a majority, although the large numbers of illegal immigrants are hard to calculate.

In the crude calculus of ethnic politics, Latino political power is coming at blacks’ expense. Latinos account for 25 percent of registered voters — a fact not lost on Parks or Ridley-Thomas, who sent out campaign literature in English and Spanish.

Back in 1992, political observers say, the strident Watson lost the race because she came across as radical to voters in south L.A. and nearby areas, where residents were badly rattled by riots that had ravaged their streets following the acquittal of four cops accused of attacking Rodney King.

“Diane was heavily endorsed by a lot of African Americans,” says Jewett Walker, a political consultant who worked on Bernard Parks’ unsuccessful 2005 mayoral run. “But a couple things doomed her. She came across as militant. She scared the bejesus out of Culver City and all the conservative areas. Even blacks in Carson were like, ‘We ain’t buying that.’”

The decisive vote this time around will almost certainly be cast by Latinos, and how they break is a matter of political meteorology. Latinos rank crime among their top concerns, favoring the former chief of police. But Latinos closely vote according to the direction outlined by unions — whose strength has grown in L.A.

“Labor has become the big dog here,” says Joe Hicks, with the nonprofit Community Advocates. “Since [1992], labor has gained far more influence. It has more money and more power.”

Dermot Givens was one of Parks’ campaign managers during his mayoral run, and he has worked with Ridley-Thomas on black-voter registration. He advised the winning candidates — Karen Bass and Mike Davis — in two recent elections for the state Assembly. Both Bass and Davis got big bucks from labor unions.

“I don’t see it being a runoff,” Givens says, predicting a win for Ridley-Thomas. “If the unions can get their vote out, I don’t see it being close. I’m either right or totally wrong.”

But there are exceptions to the union-domination trend. Walker’s client, Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, handily beat labor’s candidate in 2002. Walker says, “The candidates who win here are labor candidates. But you can’t win, even with labor’s backing, if nobody knows who you are.”

In a pricey push to make the lesser-known Ridley-Thomas a familiar name, the L.A. County Federation of Labor and other union groups have raised a staggering sum for a race many voters are finding ho-hum: $2.5 million to put Ridley-Thomas in office, with another $1.5 million supposedly on the way.

The stratospheric cash being transferred from labor-union treasuries into ad campaigns, mailers — even professional paid, bilingual “walkers” to knock on doors for Ridley-Thomas — dwarfs the money either candidate has raised via more traditional means.

Convinced that Parks will think twice about raises for county workers and look to trim county spending, the L.A. County Federation of Labor has two campaign offices staffed around the clock with phone bankers. The riches spent on Ridley-Thomas are causing something of a stir. Commentator Hutchinson asks suspiciously, “Who’s paying the piper? Labor doesn’t shell out $4 million for no reason. They want something, and we know what it is. They’re buying a seat on the Board of Supervisors.”

In 1989, the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit think tank, estimated that if county supervisors were to spend 10 minutes speaking with every one of their constituents, it would take 60 years. “This is an election where people really don’t know the candidates, so they’ll tend to look for other cues,” says Tracy Westen, the center’s CEO and a political scientist. “People will vote on issues or personalities or endorsements — basically shortcuts. Labor unions are really powerful at that.”

If the parallels to Burke vs. Watson continue, though, losing won’t be that bad. After losing to Burke, Diane Watson became the U.S. ambassador to Micronesia — a helluva lot cooler than working at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.

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