The battle between City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas to replace retiring Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke in the 2nd District in the south and central portions of Los Angeles County provides both a glimpse of where African American politics has been and where it's going in an era of increasing urban diversity.
To understand it fully, you have to go back to the "big bang" of minority and progressive politics in Los Angeles -- the election of Tom Bradley as mayor in 1973. Before then, L.A. had been deeply conservative, with few prospects for minority or progressive politicians. But that year, an alliance of African Americans, who never made up more than 18% of L.A.'s population, and white Westside liberals (particularly Jews) changed that.
This coalition grew out of factional struggles within the African American community that have some echoes in the contest between Parks and Ridley-Thomas, a former member of the City Council. On one side was the Bradley faction, made up of reform-minded African American liberals who lived in the western portion of South L.A. and in mid-city and who were closely allied with white liberals. The group included Maxine Waters, now in Congress, and Burke, both of whom are key players today in the contest between Ridley-Thomas and Parks.
On the other side was a faction of more established and moderate black politicians led by Mervyn Dymally, then a power in the Legislature. This group was allied with organized labor and state Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh.
The two factions went head-to-head repeatedly in races for the Assembly and state Senate in L.A.'s heavily African American districts, and each side claimed some victories. Bill Greene, for example, backed by the Dymally-led group, won an excruciatingly close Senate special election in 1975 in the 29th District. Waters secured an Assembly seat a year later in the 48th District, beating the Dymally-backed candidate.
At City Hall, the Bradley forces were dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, as the new mayor's allies won seats on the City Council. But over time, the Bradley coalition frayed, and new forces emerged from within. As Waters became a greater power in local politics, she and Bradley grew apart; in 1991, they endorsed rival candidates for two City Council seats. Although Bradley's two candidates (one of whom was Ridley-Thomas) won, their victories were narrow. The Waters-Bradley breach was short-lived, but the relationship between Waters, whose endorsement is widely sought by aspiring black politicians, and Ridley-Thomas has not healed.
When Bradley was succeeded by Republican Richard Riordan in 1993, the African American community found itself mostly on the outside at City Hall. The three most prominent connections to the Bradley era were City Atty. James K. Hahn, son of Kenny Hahn, who held the 2nd District seat for 40 years, Parks and Ridley-Thomas. Like his father, James Hahn was popular in the black community, and when Riordan endorsed a Hahn rival in the 1997 election for city attorney, Hahn easily won because of strong support from African American voters, as well as others.
Parks' connection to the Bradley era flowed through the Los Angeles Police Department. It was Lt. Bradley, at the time the highest-ranking African American officer in the history of the department, who had forged the path that Parks traveled to become police chief and the most prominent African American at City Hall during Riordan's tenure. Meanwhile, Ridley-Thomas, a Bradley ally on the City Council, was a progressive thorn in the side of Riordan.
As Parks' and Ridley-Thomas' influence expanded, Latinos were trying to build their version of the Bradley coalition behind Antonio Villaraigosa. In the 2001 mayoral election, the great majority of African American leaders and voters backed the familiar Hahn, who was supported by Burke, Waters and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Ridley-Thomas was among the few blacks who went with Villaraigosa.
When Hahn opposed the rehiring of Parks as police chief in 2002, the African American leadership was outraged and began to move away from him. Parks emerged as a potent and popular figure when he ran for Ridley-Thomas' vacant 8th District City Council seat in 2003 and easily cleared the field of opponents before the period for filing to run even closed. In 2005, many African Americans (and elected officials) supported Parks for mayor in the primary election, and then more than half voted for Villaraigosa in the runoff against Hahn.
This is where black politics has been. What's next as Los Angeles becomes increasingly Latino and the number of African American voters declines? To survive politically, African American politicians will have to turn to new coalition partners, and nowhere is this more evident than in the 2nd District.
According to Jim Hayes of Political Data Inc., a provider of voter information, African Americans make up at least 40% of the voters in the district (and probably more), and that explains why the campaign is being chiefly fought out in the African American community. The black political leadership has largely backed Parks in the current race, with Burke, Waters and Johnson in his camp, but Ridley-Thomas has significant support among African American clergy.
Latinos represent 26% of the 2nd District voters, with the remainder mostly being Asian American or white. If neither candidate dominates the black vote, the other groups may hold the balance of power.
If both Parks and Ridley-Thomas are heirs to the Bradley legacy, they represent different sides of that historic taproot. Bradley was a moderate progressive in a city that was less conservative than it had been but not nearly as liberal as it is today. While his efforts to reform the LAPD made him a hero among progressives, his close ties to the developers who reshaped the city's skyline sometimes annoyed his liberal allies.
Parks leans more to the conservative side of the Bradley heritage, with his strong support from business, his police background, his base among older African American voters and his appeal to more moderate and conservative white voters, and perhaps to Asian Americans.
Ridley-Thomas is more liberal, has close ties to organized labor and has more appeal among Latinos and liberal whites, with whom he worked in founding the Empowerment Congress, a forerunner of Neighborhood Councils. If Parks wins on June 3, his coalition, ironically, will probably resemble Hahn's 2001 base of African Americans and white moderates. If Ridley-Thomas triumphs, his base probably will look more like Villaraigosa's progressive alliance in 2005 and a bit like Bradley's early coalition.
Which coalition emerges victorious will determine whether labor or business has majority support on the county Board of Supervisors, a factor that will matter greatly in future budget negotiations and in other policy areas. What happens to the troubled Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Medical Center will likely be determined by who fills Burke's seat. And the outcome of the election also will give us more information about the types of coalitions that are likely to emerge in districts formerly dominated by African Americans but in which the racial and ethnic mixes are changing. With the 2010 census on the horizon -- and redistricting reform on the agenda -- the challenge of building alliances across racial and ethnic lines is likely to become even more pressing.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles."
In Tom Bradley's shadow
The contest between Mark Ridley-Thomas and Bernard Parks and is steeped in L.A.'s black political history.
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