At a Mardi Gras-style opening of his campaign headquarters, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks received a candid assessment of his entrance into the race for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
"I saw Barack Obama dance on the television, and that boy can dance," joked Los Angeles City Councilman Herb J. Wesson Jr., a Parks supporter. "I just saw Bernie Parks dance and, Bernie, you got a little work to do."
Parks acknowledges that he is not much of a dancer, but there's little time for practice in his race for the 2nd District seat against state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) and seven other candidates.
At this stage of the grueling campaign -- a month before the June 3 primary election -- Parks' calendar is loaded with scheduled appearances, especially on Sundays, when he spends the day making what he calls "pop calls" on local congregations, delivering brief messages to potential voters.
A week ago, Parks walked into the 8 a.m. service at the Episcopal Church of the Advent on Adams Boulevard with about 40 worshipers. He talked about the 2010 census, urged congregants to support efforts to bring back Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital and presented a proclamation to a woman celebrating her 90th birthday. A week earlier, he said, he gave a similar proclamation to a woman who turned 114.
Before leaving, he passed out hand fans. "Now you're a Parks fan," he said, and soon he was back in the car -- a large black Cadillac -- reaching into a small back-seat cooler filled with bottled water and granola bars.
"He doesn't eat much," said Tony Thomas, a campaign aide and Parks' driver. On that day, the candidate finally sat down for a meal at 3 p.m.
Altogether, Parks visited eight churches, made a brief appearance at a Beverly Hills fundraiser for a women's shelter and attended a political dinner -- all before retiring to his home in Baldwin Hills, where he planned to prepare for a meeting of the City Council budget and finance committee, which he heads and where he has a reputation as a fiscal conservative.
It has been six years since former Mayor James K. Hahn masterminded Parks' ouster as Los Angeles police chief. But Parks, now in his second term on the council, still attracts attention, though not as much as when People magazine named him one of the 50 most beautiful people on the planet in 1998. On the street, Parks is often called chief and asked for an autograph or to pose for a picture.
"He's tall, handsome, elegant, distinguished-looking and he was a police chief," said Kevin Murray, a former state senator. "That's as successful as you can get."
Based on name recognition alone, Parks is considered the favorite to win the district, a diverse quilt of prosperity and poverty stretching from Culver City and Mar Vista to Watts and Compton.
The race marks only the third time since 1952 that a new supervisor will be chosen in the district, which for 40 years was claimed by Kenneth Hahn. The last open contest was in 1992, when Yvonne B. Burke won a hotly contested election against now-Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles).
Burke, who announced her retirement last year, has endorsed Parks, who also is supported by business interests, including the Los Angeles County Business Federation and downtown's Central City Assn.
Labor groups have rallied behind Ridley-Thomas.
At campaign stops, Parks is quick to connect himself with historical figures of the district. Hahn endorsed Burke when he stepped down, "and now after 16 years in office, I was blessed to get her endorsement," Parks says regularly.
To his supporters, Parks is often described in glowing terms as being honest and having integrity.
"He was always totally committed to whatever he was doing," said David Gascon, Parks' former chief of staff. "He's not a checkers player; he's a chess player, always thinking about the next move."
But he's also known as a loner, someone who is aloof and rigid, a man who doesn't easily forget a slight.
"He is a policeman," said Jerry Edwards, a nightclub owner who used to stage parties after prizefights in Las Vegas -- parties that Parks would sometimes attend. "He didn't have a group of people he could get loose with. His culture is closed, and he's a closed person."
Long LAPD career
Parks has been a member of the City Council for five years, but his reputation -- and resume -- is still dominated by his 38-year LAPD career.
Parks began as a traffic cop. By 1980, he had been promoted to the rank of commander. In the early 1990s, when the department was plagued by the aftermath of the Rodney G. King beating and 1992 riots, he continued to rise. But in 1994, then-Police Chief Willie Williams demoted Parks from second in command.
Parks considered retirement. But he persevered and in 1997 he was promoted by then-Mayor Richard Riordan to police chief. He served until 2002, when Hahn selected former New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton to replace him.
Then Parks opted for a different career path. In 2003, he was elected to a City Council seat in South Los Angeles.
Bratton's brash style was not endearing to the new councilman. On his first day, the new chief said the LAPD "organization chart makes no sense. . . . [It] looks like it was put together by three blind men."
The comment strained the relationship. It wasn't a fight they started, said Bernard Parks Jr., the councilman's son and chief of staff, who has accused Bratton of fudging crime statistics. "We don't start fights, but we don't back away either."
In 2005, Parks tried to settle the score with Hahn in a campaign for mayor, but the effort fizzled and never drew much support. When several pundits questioned the wisdom of allowing his family to run the campaign -- Parks relies heavily on the advice of his wife, Bobbie, and his son -- Parks called the criticism racist. "We're not slaves anymore," he said. "Families are allowed to stay together."
Despite the transition to the City Council, Parks is still questioned about some of the more controversial statements and decisions he made as police chief. He agrees that racial profiling is against the law but doesn't believe that a statistical analysis of arrests can prove it occurs.
He said the police shooting of a homeless woman armed with a screwdriver in 1999 was in policy, although the tactics that led up to the shooting were not.
"You have to defend yourself," he said. "Once she thrust that screwdriver, the officer had every right to defend himself."
His critics, Parks said, fail to take into account his reputation as a tough disciplinarian of officers who violated department policy -- positions that often got him into trouble with the police union.
Parks' supporters applaud his independence and are suspicious of Ridley-Thomas' support from labor. L.A. unions have raised $2.5 million to help elect Ridley-Thomas.
"There are forces out there that choose the candidate they can put on a string and tell what they want them to do," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). "You can't do that with Bernie Parks. We need someone on the board who will be our voice."
Praise from Burke
Burke said she backs Parks because of his background as the administrator of a major city department. "The most important responsibility on the Board of Supervisors is not legislative but providing services to people," she said. "His service as police chief of Los Angeles was great preparation."
In general, Parks has earned mixed reviews as a councilman. He has sought funding to pave alleys in his district, and points proudly to the construction of a $100-million county public service building on an 11-acre site at 83rd Street and Vermont Avenue that had been vacant since the 1992 riots.
He helped reroute the Martin Luther King Day parade to end at a street festival in Leimert Park Village to help local businesses. He has spearheaded efforts to help students at Crenshaw High School.
But Mary Lee, an attorney who met with Parks to discuss the public service building, says he has ignored community concerns about attracting more retail outlets.
"He was dismissive of the concerns about the project," Lee said. "There are other social service offices in the area. The community wanted retail. They wanted a restaurant row, not a social service row."
Parks has also led a campaign to bring a professional football team back to the Los Angeles Coliseum -- which so far has been unsuccessful.
Additionally, he has done little to help jump-start a $170-million urban renewal project -- started under his council predecessor Ridley-Thomas -- at the foot of Baldwin Hills that has languished unfinished for years despite millions in government subsidies.
"Bernard Parks let us down," said Edwards, owner of Jerry's Flying Fox, a nightclub in the urban renewal project. "He could have done more to make that project happen."
The failure to follow through on the project was one of the points that ended his friendship with Parks, said Edwards, now a Ridley-Thomas supporter.
Parks dismisses the split.
"I have few friends," he said. "Very few people who say they know me have ever had dinner with me. What free time I have I spend with my family. I don't golf and they say I don't dance. My life has not been that way."