County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, one of the most prominent African American supporters of failed mayoral candidate Bernard C. Parks, endorsed Antonio Villaraigosa on Friday, a move that could help the Los Angeles city councilman expand his support among black voters.
Parks, the city councilman and former police chief, won more than half of the black vote Tuesday but fell short of making the runoff. Both Villaraigosa and Mayor James K. Hahn intend to compete for those votes, which could prove pivotal in the May 17 runoff election.
The decision by Burke, who endorsed Hahn four years ago, was seen by some observers as a setback for the mayor as he seeks to rebuild support in the black community that helped elect him in 2001.
Parks, who finished fourth in Tuesday’s election, has not decided whether he will endorse a candidate in the runoff but has made comments that indicate he is unlikely to support Hahn.
Late Friday, Hahn’s staff announced he would campaign today in South Los Angeles, including a walk on Crenshaw Boulevard. Less than an hour after Hahn’s schedule was released, Villaraigosa’s campaign said he too would stroll Crenshaw Boulevard today.
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden, who supported Hahn four years ago but has not yet endorsed anyone, said Hahn’s decision to spend today in South Los Angeles demonstrates that he will not allow a challenge for those voters to go unmet.
“He is showing that’s a top priority,” Holden said.
In her endorsement of Villaraigosa, Burke said he showed leadership by helping to settle the 2003 transit strike and by initiating innovative programs at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including one that had young people remove their own graffiti from buses.
“Today, I stand here ready to endorse him because I know he’s what we need,” Burke said during a news conference in front of Pann’s Restaurant in South Los Angeles.
Former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and five African American ministers joined her in endorsing Villaraigosa.
“It’s a chance to provide a mayor who is going to bring everyone together, and a mayor who appeals to every ethnic group and every religious group across this county,” Burke said. “What we have is a person who has not only charisma, he has the leadership, the experience.”
Villaraigosa described Burke as a “hero” and said her backing is a boost to his campaign. “It says this campaign is moving, this campaign has a great deal of support in every community,” the councilman said.
Kerman Maddox, a veteran political consultant and South Los Angeles activist who is not working with any campaign, said the endorsement would help Villaraigosa make inroads with African American voters.
A Times exit poll showed that 71% of black voters supported Hahn in the April 2001 election. But the exit poll in Tuesday’s election showed that just 23% voted for Hahn, while 15% voted for Villaraigosa and 54% for Parks.
“There is a big chunk of the African American vote up for grabs now,” Maddox said. “Yvonne Burke represents more African Americans than any other elected official in Southern California, and she is held in high esteem.”
He also said the endorsement is remarkable because Burke has for years been “part of the Hahn political family.”
“It’s a pretty big setback for Hahn,” he said.
Burke acknowledged her long ties to the Hahn family, noting that Hahn’s father, Kenneth, backed her to take over his seat on the county Board of Supervisors when he retired.
“I’ve supported Jimmy for everything he has ever run for, but, you know, today is a different day,” Burke said of the mayor. “We have challenges we need to meet. It’s going to take a different direction.”
She said a turning point came in 2003 when MTA mechanics went on strike, shutting down the transit system for 35 days until Villaraigosa met with both sides. “It was due to his efforts in bringing people together that resolved that strike,” Burke said. Asked about the role Hahn played in resolving the strike, she said, “I did not recall him being involved.”
Hahn campaign spokesman Kam Kuwata said Hahn did help bring the two sides together. “Jim Hahn was very active,” Kuwata said, adding that Villaraigosa “is now claiming more of a role than he actually played.”
Kuwata downplayed the endorsement, saying, “The mayor and supervisor have had their agreements and disagreements, and this is just something they disagree on.”
Burke said in an interview that the two also disagreed over Hahn’s decision two years ago not to support Parks for a second term as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. “I have to tell you that I was very disappointed,” she said.
In two radio appearances Friday, Hahn continued to sound an upbeat note about selling his record over the next 10 weeks and recapturing support from voters in South Los Angeles.
Calling in to “Talk of the City” on KPCC-FM (89.3), the mayor made no apologies for his decision to force Parks out, a move that has left many black leaders and voters angry to this day.
“I have made some tough decisions that probably cost me some votes,” Hahn said, sounding a central theme in his reelection campaign.
He also offered a strenuous defense of his showdown with Parks. “I couldn’t support him,” Hahn said. “He didn’t believe in community policing. Crime was going up. Morale was terrible. Attrition was skyrocketing. We had to do something to turn that LAPD around.”
The importance of South L.A. to the election was apparent when, hours after Burke’s announcement, Hahn’s staff said he would take his campaign today to Tolliver’s Barbershop on West Florence Avenue and then visit a stretch of businesses on Crenshaw Boulevard.
Several African American community leaders said Burke’s endorsement of Villaraigosa would give him a significant lift.
“Supervisor Burke is highly regarded and her opinion counts, so if she says Villaraigosa, there will be some African Americans who will go Villaraigosa,” said Steve Johnson, the chief financial officer for First African Methodist Episcopal Church, who attended a summit on black leadership at The Times on Friday.
Elenore Williams, the chairwoman of the city housing authority’s board of commissioners who attended the same event, supports Hahn, but said he faces an “uphill battle” in winning back black support because of how he handled Parks.
“A lot of the African American community feels betrayed, and I was one of them,” Williams said. “It was more in his approach as opposed to what he did.”
Williams advised the mayor to apologize for how he dealt with Parks. “I think that if he apologizes and says, ‘You know what? I didn’t handle that well. It wasn’t because I disrespected you or wanted to break promises -- I just didn’t handle it well. I apologize,’ it could go very far,” she said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in an interview Friday he would take another look at the mayor’s race now that the field has narrowed and decide whether to publicly back either Hahn or Villaraigosa.
“I have to again now look at it freshly, with a fresh mind,” Schwarzenegger said. “Looking at both candidates, and then look at which one do I feel has the best chance of straightening out the mess that Los Angeles is in. And then I will decide after that, do I want to get involved in it at all or not get involved with it.”
Also Friday, Villaraigosa’s campaign manager, Ace Smith, voiced concern that city election workers used pens on election night to place “over-markings” on thousands of ballots where ink marks left by voters might not have been clear or big enough to be read by vote-counting machines.
City Clerk Frank Martinez said workers put the marks on ballots in accordance with standards set by the secretary of state and under observation of county officials. The marks are in a lighter shade of blue that allows the original mark to be seen. Martinez also said there was no evidence that anyone tampered with any ballots.
Kristin Heffron, the county’s chief deputy registrar-recorder and its official observer for the city’s vote-counting operation, said, “I saw nothing that compromised the integrity” of the election.
Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and Matea Gold contributed to this report.