Los Angeles mayoral hopeful Bernard C. Parks accused incumbent James K. Hahn on Friday of running a “racist campaign” against his opponent Antonio Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral runoff.
The allegation capped a week in which the police shooting of a 13-year-old African American boy in South Los Angeles on Sunday has pushed racial tensions to the forefront of the mayoral campaign.
Parks, an African American member of the City Council, made the accusation in remarks to reporters after a USC mayoral forum. Responding to a question on the ethnic media’s role in the campaign, Parks invoked a controversial television ad that Hahn ran against Villaraigosa in the 2001 mayoral runoff.
The ad showed a crack cocaine pipe being held to a flame and grainy photos of Villaraigosa. It said he had sought White House intervention to free convicted drug trafficker Carlos Vignali, whose father had given Villaraigosa campaign money.
Parks told reporters that candidates should not drive wedges between ethnic communities, adding: “That’s why it was so devastating to see such a racist campaign last time -- that when we can equate writing a letter for a very innocent purpose to create a commercial where somebody’s snorting cocaine. Now how do you jump to that conclusion without a stereotype that a minority is more apt to be involved with drugs than a majority?”
Asked if he was specifically calling Hahn’s TV ad “racist,” Parks responded: “It was. No doubt.” By raising the subject of Villaraigosa’s letter to the White House and showing “lines of cocaine in a dark room” in an ad about “a minority Hispanic candidate, you are sending that message,” Parks said.
Kam Kuwata, Hahn’s senior campaign advisor, said there was “nothing racist” in the television ad.
“Show me the racism,” Kuwata said.
Parks’ accusation was in keeping with his pattern of caustic remarks about the mayor who opposed his reappointment as Los Angeles police chief in 2002.
It also made Parks the first candidate for mayor in the March 8 election to raise the Vignali drug case that sparked an uproar during the Hahn-Villaraigosa contest of 2001. And, oddly, it put a former police chief in the position of defending a letter seeking leniency for a felon.
“The issue that a person writes a letter of recommendation, we do it all the time,” Parks said. “It is not even an issue that’s worthy of consideration in a campaign in my judgment.”
Vignali was convicted in 1994 of conspiring to sell 800 pounds of cocaine. He was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. His father, Horacio Carlos Vignali, enlisted Villaraigosa and other California politicians, including current mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg, in his campaign to free his son from prison.
Villaraigosa and Hertzberg each wrote letters to the White House urging consideration of Vignali’s request for early release. In a 1996 letter to a White House pardon attorney, Villaraigosa said he was convinced that Vignali had been “falsely linked to a drug ring.” Hertzberg, then state Assembly speaker, told President Clinton in a December 2000 letter that “neither guns, drugs nor drug money was found in Mr. Vignali’s possession.”
On his last day in office, Clinton granted Vignali clemency.
In a Times interview during the 2001 campaign, Villaraigosa denied writing a letter to the White House on Vignali’s behalf, saying he only recalled writing to the judge in the case. When confronted later with his letter to the White House, Villaraigosa said he had remembered incorrectly.
Hahn’s campaign, Kuwata said, wanted to show that “we disagreed with the concept of pardoning drug dealers for campaign donors, and we disagreed with his attempt to hide the fact when asked by the Los Angeles Times.”
“It was not a Latino or a person of color in that TV commercial,” he added. “The person who happened to do those things was our opponent.”
When asked Friday about Parks’ accusation, Villaraigosa said, “That was four years ago. This campaign isn’t about four years ago. It’s about the last four years, and the failed leadership on the part of the Hahn administration. And it’s about the next four years, and what I can offer this city.”
Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.