Like popes, Los Angeles County supervisors have to win an election to land the job, but once in, they're sitting pretty. The last time there was a contested supervisor election, George Bush was president -- the Bush who didn't send U.S. forces into Baghdad. The five supervisors represent districts so vast (each with about 2 million people), have campaign kitties so deep (coming in good part from companies having business with the county) and remain so consistently indistinct to voters that incumbents seldom face serious challengers. Unlike popes, they're not actually expected to die in office, but they generally take their leave on their own terms.
In March 2006, Yvonne B. Burke, who has represented the 2nd District in the south-central part of the county since 1992, announced that she will not seek reelection when her term expires this year. Her retirement sets up a contested election that will be as significant as it is unusual.
Culver City to South Los Angeles to Carson -- went from largely white to largely African American, and Hahn became one of the earliest white elected leaders to promote the cause of civil rights. When he stepped down, the job of 2nd District supervisor became the preeminent position to which a black Angeleno politician could aspire if he or she wanted to represent a majority-black district. The contest to replace Hahn featured two pioneer black elected officials, Burke and (now U.S. Rep.) Diane Watson, who had both been active in civil rights causes and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party since the 1960s. Discerning the political differences between the two candidates was no easy task. Each represented a brand of Tom Bradley's multiracial liberalism that dominated the politics of black Los Angeles. Burke particularly embraced Bradley's alliance with the business establishment, while Watson reflected the liberal, socially progressive impulse that had powered his political ascendancy.
This time around, 2nd District voters will have a clearer choice. The two candidates, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, would bring starkly different resumes and genuinely different politics to the job. (The primary is in June. If no candidate wins a majority, the runoff is in November.) Both candidates are African American, but the district they hope to represent has changed dramatically and is now largely Latino, though the electorate is roughly 40% black, with whites and Latinos making up smaller shares.
Parks is still best known for his 1997-2002 tenure as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, where he consistently took a hard line against anyone, or anything, that might encroach on his authority, be it the Police Protective League, his nominal bosses on the Police Commission, the department's inspector general or members of the Christopher Commission who often wondered what had become of their suggested police reforms in the wake of the 1992 riots.
Confronted with calls for Parks' removal from an unusual coalition of police-reform advocates and the department's rank and file, then-Mayor James K. Hahn chose not to renew Parks' contract in 2002, provoking a firestorm of opposition in black L.A. that contributed to Hahn's ouster in the 2005 mayoral race. Parks, a master of the politics of payback, played his role in Hahn's defeat, running an anti-Hahn campaign in the 2005 primary, then endorsing Hahn's chief rival, Antonio Villaraigosa, in the runoff.
Parks' resume has some superficial similarities with that of Bradley, who also served on the police force until he was elected to the City Council in 1963. But the dissimilarities are greater.
Bradley was always a proponent of greater civilian control over the LAPD, an idea that was anathema to Parks, most especially when he headed the department. Bradley also built a citywide liberal following, anchored in South-Central black and Westside Jewish communities, to which he eventually added the support of the labor movement.
Parks, by contrast, has one of the most conservative voting records on the City Council and has consistently sided with business interests over labor, arguing that development in South L.A. is critical to its economic success. His opposition to requiring developers to meet certain social goals is not confined to the city's poorest precincts, however. He opposed extending the city's living wage to workers not employed by government contractors, such as those at a dozen LAX-area hotels or at retail projects under development in his 8th District. (Last week, the living-wage ordinance was upheld by a panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal.) He's been hostile to rent control, to protecting tenants facing eviction because of condo conversions and to requiring developers to set aside some of their units as affordable housing. Over labor's intense opposition, he's championed Wal-Mart's efforts to enter the L.A. market.
Ridley-Thomas' resume and politics fit solidly with the liberal-civil rights tradition. After teaching school for several years, he became head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, Martin Luther King Jr.'s old organization. He developed cross-town and cross-racial ties with L.A.'s liberal activists. While on the City Council from 1991 to 2002, he cosponsored the living wage ordinance and established the Empowerment Congress in his district, an annual advisory gathering of 8th District residents that became the model for the city's neighborhood councils. He served four years in the state Assembly before being elected a state senator. Although Ridley-Thomas has seldom been the point person for labor, tenant or environmental activists (as, say, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl has been the legislative leader for the state's healthcare reformers), he's always been someone they work with in developing protections from the excesses of market economics.
So there's a real choice in the contest to replace Burke. By inclination and ideology, Parks favors minimum restraint on authority -- his own and that of business. By inclination and ideology, Ridley-Thomas favors hedging authority with the countervailing power of popular mobilization and legal restraint.
As a result, Parks' election to the Board of Supervisors might shift its balance of power, replacing an infinitesimally left-of-center majority of Burke, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky with a center-right one of Parks, Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe. Much of the time, county government deals more with individual district projects than with ideological issues -- earmarks are the order of the day, every day. But the county controls a $22-billion budget, mostly for health and welfare programs. On the issues of the safety net for the county's poor, of development in unincorporated land and of the working conditions for employees on those development projects or for the county's workforce, Parks would probably steer the county on a course less generous to labor and more favorable to business than is currently the case.
Ridley-Thomas, by contrast, would be far more likely (than Burke as well as Parks) to require business to heed community concerns and keep up its end of the social contract.
Like Magic Johnson, Parks has clearly linked both himself and the prospects for black Los Angeles with the cause of investment in South-Central, and with the overall care and feeding of business interests. Ridley-Thomas champions neighborhood businesses but sees black political interests aligned more with those of the labor-Latino alliance that has been a potent force in local politics for the last decade.
Parks is certainly the better known of the two candidates and will likely collect more endorsements from L.A.'s aging black political establishment. He already has the fervid support of Rep. Maxine Waters, who has long resented Ridley-Thomas' efforts to build a political base independent of hers in South-Central. But with the help of the politically potent County Federation of Labor, which has already endorsed him, Ridley-Thomas is probably an even-money bet to win the seat. The outcome in the 2nd District race will not only shift the balance of power in county government, but it could also reveal whether business or labor has the allegiance of L.A.'s black community.
Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.