A Campaign That Lost Its Fizz
Hampered by staff turmoil and a shortage of money, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks is struggling to remain a viable contender for mayor of Los Angeles as supporters fret that he may have botched his campaign.
The former Los Angeles police chief entered the race last spring with notable advantages, including a solid base of support among African Americans and a name familiar to voters citywide.
But Parks has entrusted much of his campaign to family members and friends with minimal political expertise. He has fallen far behind three rivals in raising money, and all of his professional campaign advisors recently quit.
The shrinking of his campaign operation, which comes just as opponents start ramping up for the final push to the March 8 election, has left Parks’ supporters dismayed.
“To put it politely, it’s been kind of a disappointing, underwhelming campaign,” said Kerman Maddox, a Parks family friend who managed his run for City Council in 2003. “My disappointment speaks for a lot of people, because a lot of people would like to see the campaign perform well.”
By now, Parks, 61, had hoped to unite the city’s most prominent African Americans behind his candidacy. Though comedian Bill Cosby and county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke have lent their support, many others -- most notably Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), leaders of the major black churches and former basketball star Magic Johnson -- have yet to endorse him.
“At the end of the day, people want to go with a winner, and the perception is, at least today, that he doesn’t appear to be a winner,” said Maddox, who expects at least Waters to endorse Parks in the weeks ahead. Neither Parks nor Waters returned calls for comment.
For Parks, a key question is whether his wife, Bobbie Parks, has contributed to the campaign’s undoing, as some former advisors allege. Fiercely dedicated to her husband’s success, she has been the central player at his campaign’s headquarters on Martin Luther King Boulevard in the Crenshaw district. She was recently named deputy campaign manager, an honorary title that belies her domination of the operation, according to several former Parks advisors.
That pervasive influence, they said, helped trigger the departure of some of Parks’ professional campaign advisors and contributed to his failure to raise the money that they believed he needed to mount an effective run for mayor.
Several former advisors offered similar descriptions of Bobbie Parks’ role in the campaign. All spoke of the candidate with admiration. All but one, former acting campaign manager Dermot Givens, insisted on anonymity.
“She has extremely good intentions, but she doesn’t understand that professionals need to do their job, and she needs to step out of the way,” Givens said.
Another former advisor said Parks had delegated “every important decision” to his wife, whose presence has endured through a succession of four campaign managers since last summer.
The councilman and his wife see the campaign as “kind of a mom-and-pop operation, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to get elected mayor of a major city with a mom-and-pop operation,” the former advisor said. “Bobbie Parks runs the campaign, and Bobbie Parks has run off any professional advisor who has tried to change that dynamic,” the former advisor said.
Bobbie Parks, 65, whose prior campaign experience was in her husband’s 2003 romp to the City Council, denied meddling in the work of his professional advisors.
“I wouldn’t know the first step of campaign management,” she said. “I do anything they ask me to do.”
Flipping through the campaign’s check registry, she described herself as a volunteer who sweeps the floor, unpacks boxes, picks up sandwiches for staff, washes dishes and raises money. Friends call her “outspoken” and “aggressive.” Her husband calls her “Robert” and jokes that she “helped raise me.”
“She’s not a shy violet,” Maddox said. “If she’s a little unclear on the direction you’re taking, she’s going to let you know about it.”
Bobbie Parks said she appreciated that the campaign’s former management team had taught her and her husband “what the political arena is all about,” but said they no longer needed guidance from costly consultants.
“We have to stop being so top-heavy, money-wise,” she explained.
Among those who have quit are former Al Gore spokesman Chris Lehane, San Francisco media strategist Eric Jaye and Carol Butler of North Carolina, who has managed campaigns around the country. All of them praised Parks after leaving, saying their departure was by mutual agreement.
Among the problems, Givens said, was that Bobbie Parks’ friends and family members tend to report to her rather than the campaign manager. One of her sisters, Rosa Campbell, is the campaign’s office manager. Another sister, Ira Wells, is assistant office manager.
“If you want to order pencils, the [candidate’s] sister-in-law has to get approval from Bobbie,” he said. “No professional wants to work in that environment.”
The couple’s son, Bernard Parks Jr., who took charge of the campaign’s media relations a week ago, criticized Givens for “attacking a 5-foot-2 woman,” and called him untrustworthy.
The most important area that Bobbie Parks has influenced is the campaign’s drive to raise money. From the start, Parks’ consultants have urged the couple to hire a professional fundraiser, a standard practice in campaigns for high public office.
Typically, a fundraiser organizes a candidate’s calls to potential donors, coaches on technique for soliciting money, keeps track of who needs to be called back, sets up receptions with contributors, dispatches messengers to pick up checks and pinpoints lucrative targets, such as lobbyists and City Hall contractors.
But apart from one consultant who left the campaign just days after he started, Parks and his wife have raised money with no professional help, yielding lackluster results. Parks had less than $460,000 on hand at the end of the year, too little to buy the substantial television ad time needed to reach voters citywide and a fraction of the sums raised by Hahn and his top challengers, Bob Hertzberg and Antonio Villaraigosa.
“It’s not all about having money,” said Jewett Walker, Parks’ newly hired campaign manager, the fourth person to hold that job. “It’s knowing what to do with it, and we plan to spend ours strategically.”
Former advisors said Bobbie Parks at times solicited high-dollar checks or endorsements from potential supporters who thought they deserved a direct call from the candidate. Joe Rouzan, Parks’ first campaign manager, recalled the wary reaction of some: “OK, well, I’d like to hear from Bernard.”
Butler, who quit as campaign manager in December, “wanted to get hold of the schedule to lock the candidate into” a disciplined, systematic push to raise money quickly, “but it was never relinquished by the family,” a former advisor said.
Bobbie Parks said her husband, being new to politics, lacked his rivals’ history of tapping labor unions, “multimillionaires” and other major donors.
“It’s not just the big money we’re going after,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I’m personally going to call 20 people today and ask them for $10.”
As for making phone calls for her husband, she said, “I’ve followed up on some of his calls, sure,” but with people “we eat dinner with, go to their homes, go to games with.”
For now, the state of the Parks campaign has raised anew the questions that have dogged the councilman since he launched his candidacy: Is his goal to win? Or is it just to deny Hahn reelection as revenge for the mayor’s support of his ouster as police chief in 2002?
Bobbie Parks said her husband’s goal was to win the mayoralty, not to exact revenge.
“I wish I could think of Bernard as a get-even type of person,” she said. “Bernard could care less about Hahn.”