LOS ANGELES -- Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas has scored a landslide victory over L.A. Councilman Bernard Parks, making him the new representative of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' 2nd District.
Ridley-Thomas, who entered the race as a perceived underdog, replaces the retiring Yvonne B. Burke and fills the first open seat on the Board of Supervisors in 12 years.
Burke will step down at the end of the year, leading to a rare changing of the guard in one of the region's most powerful positions.
Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, claimed an early lead over City Councilman Bernard Parks when Tuesday's results began trickling out, and he never relented. His victory makes him the first black man ever elected to the county Board of Supervisors.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Ridley-Thomas had 250,198 votes, or 61.4 percent, compared to 157,294 for Parks, representing only 38.6 percent of votes cast.
Parks and Ridley-Thomas were the top two vote-getters in a field of nine candidates in the June primary, but neither managed to secure the 50 percent of the vote needed to clinch the seat outright. In that election, Ridley-Thomas finished the night with 45.2 percent of the vote, while Parks had 39.8 percent -- roughly the same as he garnered in Tuesday's balloting.
Ridley-Thomas said he was confident he would work well with other board members, even though a majority of them publicly backed Parks -- including Burke -- as did nine members of the Los Angeles City Council.
"I'm not particularly worried about those kinds of issues, because I've been in public life long enough to know that relationships change," he said, noting that he served on the City Council with Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Perhaps more importantly, Ridley-Thomas had the active backing of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which raised overwhelming amounts of money for his campaign.
Though the federation's leadership takes credit for helping to propel Ridley-Thomas ahead of Parks in the June election, its support has drawn criticism -- particularly from Molina, who was recently quoted in the Los Angeles Times accusing the unions of trying to buy a supervisorial seat.
Parks, also attending the Democratic Party event in Century City, said the result of the election does not indicate that Ridley-Thomas was a formidable opponent, but rather, "I think the special interest groups were the issue."
City Councilwoman Jan Perry, a supporter of Parks, said the substantial financial backing for Ridley-Thomas made it nearly impossible for Parks to win the seat.
"With that much money for Bernard Parks to even be in the runoff is amazing," Perry said.
Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, denied the union was trying to buy the supervisor seat.
"I would say that we played a significant role, but we couldn't take all the credit," she said.
Rather, Durazo said, the union funding simply boosted public awareness of Ridley-Thomas' record of public service.
"We saw this as an open seat and we felt that it was important to participate in this as an open seat," she said.
Parks served as Los Angeles police chief from 1997 to 2002 and sought a second five-year term, but then-Mayor James Hahn replaced him with William Bratton. After that, Parks used his popularity with South Los Angeles voters to snag a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
While Parks secured the support of many local elected officials, he failed to garner the backing of the police. Likely owing to a falling out between Parks and the LAPD rank-and-file, whose union expressed its dissatisfaction with him in 2002 by issuing a vote of no confidence, six law enforcement unions threw their support behind Ridley-Thomas.
"Mark Ridley-Thomas has always been a friend to law enforcement... We know he will be willing to listen to all points of view and will be a reasonable and conscientious county supervisor," said Tim Sands, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
Ridley-Thomas also served on the Los Angeles City Council and was later elected to the Assembly and then state Senate.
The last change on the five-member Board of Supervisors occurred in 1996, when Don Knabe took over the 4th District from Deane Dana, for whom Knabe had served as chief of staff. The last race that was this hard-fought was four years before that, when Burke narrowly beat out Diane Watson to replace Kenneth Hahn as the 2nd District supervisor.
Knabe said he was looking forward to working with Ridley-Thomas.
"Mark has a long record of working to bring people in communities together to improve services, and I am confident he will bring these strengths to the Board of Supervisors," Knabe said.
The 2nd District encompasses more than 150 miles of southwest Los Angeles County, including Compton, Inglewood, Culver City and portions of South Los Angeles.
"The seat encompasses the largest collection of African-American votes west of the Mississippi," said political analyst Kerman Maddox. The area is also one of the poorer parts of the county, he said.
Ridley-Thomas will inherit the ongoing health care disaster in South Los Angeles left by the closure of Los Angeles County King-Harbor Hospital.
The closure of the Willowbrook hospital is often viewed as a major failure by Burke, who has been accused of standing by while the facility deteriorated -- an accusation she denies.
Emergency and in-patient services were halted at the facility following a highly publicized decline that culminated with King-Harbor -- formerly known as King-Drew Medical Center -- failing a "make-or-break" inspection by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
County officials have since been under pressure to reopen the hospital, with the burden of its closure straining the county's already fragile health care system and leaving area residents without adequate access to medical services.
Shortly before the June election, Ridley-Thomas formed the Senate Select Committee on the Los Angeles County Healthcare Crisis and was appointed as its chair. He has advocated setting up a public-private partnership to oversee its reopening.
Parks, on the other hand, advocated having the county run the facility through an independent County Health Authority.
The Board of Supervisors is the five-member panel that governs Los Angeles County, operating with an almost $22 billion budget. Each supervisor represents a different geographic district of the county, with roughly 2 million residents in each district.
Each supervisor makes an annual salary of $178,789, less than Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's annual take of $223,142.