Voters in South Los Angeles, Compton, Carson and Inglewood go to the polls tomorrow to vote for a new county supervisor. Two of the region's best-known African Americans want the open seat: former LAPD Chief and current City Councilman Bernard Parks and State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas. Both are Democrats, but it's a non-partisan race. KPCC's Frank Stoltze says that doesn't begin to describe the complexities of this campaign.
Frank Stoltze: Former school teacher and community organizer Mark Ridley-Thomas has held seats on the L.A. City Council, in the state assembly, and now in the state senate. He holds a PhD in social ethics and policy analysis, and he prides himself on bringing people together.
Mark Ridley-Thomas: Started the Days of Dialogue, which created a cross town conversation around the question of race, on the question of women's rights, on the question of health care, on the question of mental health. And so that's been my orientation for a very, very long time.
Stoltze: Ridley-Thomas likes to say he worked on social change while his opponent worked on social control. Bernard Parks was a Los Angeles police officer for 38 years before he became a councilman. He argues that policing offered valuable training for public office.
Bernard Parks: I did not have the ability in police work to decide who I was going to help. You, as a public servant, went to a location, you tried to resolve an issue.
Stoltze: Cal State Fullerton political scientist Raphe Sonenshein says these experiences inform the candidates' different approaches to politics.
Raphe Sonenshein: One of which is a little more traditional and hierarchical, which I think would be Parks, and the other is a little bit more horizontal, kind of building organizations at the grassroots level. And they're both very formidable approaches, but they're very, very different.
Stoltze: They even differ in physical form: Parks is tall and trim; Ridley-Thomas is short and a bit round. In response to questions about the county's budget crunch, the candidates list similar spending priorities. Both call for structural changes in the way Angelenos pay for local government.
But Ridley-Thomas talks broadly about the role of government and the equitable distribution of resources. Parks, who chairs the City Council's Budget Committee, goes into excruciating detail about discretionary funding and cost recovery. L.A. City Councilman Tom LaBonge is among Parks' supporters.
City Councilman Tom LaBonge: He reads everything. He reads everything. He sits next to me in City Council, La Bonge-Parks. So I miss reading it, I ask Bernard. And he's independent a little bit. And some people say he's a little stubborn.
Stoltze: The former police chief prefers to think of himself as committed. One example: he refused to go along with a federal consent decree mandating reforms in the LAPD, arguing that the department could have reformed itself. Ridley-Thomas, who scored an endorsement from current LAPD chief Bill Bratton, accuses Parks of blocking necessary changes in the police department.
[Knocking on door]
Man: Mr. Parks!
Parks: How you doing, man?
Man: How you doing?
Stoltze: Sixty-four-year-old Parks campaigns door-to-door in sneakers and an untucked shirt. He distributes fliers knocking Ridley-Thomas for supporting the closing of the emergency room at King-Harbor Medical Center, in the second district. Ridley-Thomas agreed with county officials who said the ER's poor record of care threatened to bring down the entire hospital.
Parks argues that the county should have found a way to keep it open. Both candidates want it reopened, but have offered few details on exactly how to do it. Parks' conservative bent has attracted the support of the Chamber of Commerce; he opposed extending the city's living wage law to hotels near L.A. International Airport.
Parks: The issue is I think there's got to be a balanced playing field, that you just can't create a motion and decide you're going to impose salary on a private business.
Stoltze: That's one reason organized labor has mounted a major campaign against Parks. County supervisors decide contracts for more than 100,000 unionized public employees. Maria Elena Durazo of the powerful L.A. County Federation of Labor says it will spend as much as four million dollars to try and defeat Parks.
Maria Elena Durazo: We believe that one of five supervisors is a very powerful decision-making position, and so it warrants our digging deep and raising as much money as we can.
Stoltze: Fifty-three-year-old Ridley-Thomas climbs atop a union pickup truck to address public employees across the district.
Ridley-Thomas (from truck): ... and let me just simply say I'm sick of Bernard Parks bashing labor. He's a hater, and we ought to call him by his name. (cheering)
Stoltze: The rhetoric signals how negative the campaign has become. Parks says his opponent is in labor's pocket. Ridley-Thomas denies that. Cal State Fullerton's Raphe Sonenshein notes that another major tension in the contest is the pull between old and new. Parks enjoys the backing of longtime Congresswoman Maxine Waters and of Supervisor Yvonne Burke, who'll retire from the second district seat after 16 years.
Sonenshein: There is a bit of a generational thing happening, but I would never underestimate the older generation.
Stoltze: For some voters in the district, like Lori Lakin Hutcherson, it won't be easy to choose.
Lori Lakin Hutcherson: They've never been at odds with each other in anything, so it's been very easy to support both, and I admire both of them.
Stoltze: Parks and Ridley-Thomas are the two leading candidates among nine. If neither wins a majority of votes tomorrow, they'll face off again in November's general election.