Connections he has, but can Ridley-Thomas connect?

Times Staff Writer

During a day of stop-and-go campaigning for the 2nd District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas paused for a little criticism from his campaign manager: You need to do more to toot your own horn.

"You have to close the deal," said Vincent Harris after Ridley-Thomas' debate last weekend with his chief rival for the seat, L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

Harris wanted his boss to show more of a killer instinct when rattling off his accomplishments.

"I can't remember all the things I've done," said Ridley-Thomas, laughing, deflecting the jab with a sigh and suggesting that age may be catching up with him.

The 53-year-old Los Angeles Democrat is competing against Parks and seven other candidates in the June 3 election for a seat in a culturally and ethnically diverse district that stretches from Culver City and Mar Vista to South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton.

Supporters describe Ridley-Thomas as a consensus builder, a politician with the heart of a grass-roots community activist and the flair of an intellectual. But longtime detractors say he's still an elitist with an abrasive style. And some say he's a little of both.

If he wins, the Board of Supervisors will be the next stop on a career path that began in 1991 when he traded his role as a civil rights leader -- executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles -- for a seat on the City Council.

In 2002, Ridley-Thomas was elected to the state Assembly, where he served for four years until he won his current seat in the Senate.

Over the years, he has brought programs, jobs and millions of dollars of development to Southwest Los Angeles.

Following the 1992 riots, Ridley-Thomas founded the Empowerment Congress, a citizen involvement group that became a model for the city's system of neighborhood councils.

In 1995, he invited a select group of civic leaders and community activists to have "A Day of Dialogue" to defuse racial tensions after the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. Since then, thousands of people nationwide have participated in "Days of Dialogue" programs.

In 2002, he founded the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, a political action committee designed to bolster black political power.

His opinions on anything from police accountability to health reform have appeared in the op-ed pages of numerous publications -- he's written more than three dozen pieces for The Times.

Ridley-Thomas has the backing of several elected leaders and officials, including Assembly Speaker-elect Karen Bass, who describes him as "the best choice" to help solve the needs of those who suffer from the consequences of poverty.

Some, like Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), are hoping to avoid the political fray.

"I work with Mark and I work with Parks," Watson said. "My thing is to stay out."

Over her objections, Ridley-Thomas lists Watson among those who have endorsed him.

"No questions about it, she endorsed me," Ridley-Thomas said, recalling a Christmas party where the congress- woman gave him her blessing. "People can split hairs if they wish. Everyone knows the length and depth of the relationship Diane and I share."

Then there are Ridley-Thomas' political enemies, who have strong opinions as well: "Mark is seen as arrogant, egotistical and disrespects folks," Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) said in 2002 when she refused to support his bid for the Assembly. Today, Waters is backing Parks for supervisor, dismissing Ridley-Thomas as being controlled by unions.

There are many theories about the origins of the animosity between Waters and Ridley-Thomas. Some say it began in 1991 after he defeated her deputy, Roderick Wright, for a City Council seat. Others say it was sparked by the Payless Shoe Store he supported in her upscale Vermont Knolls neighborhood after the 1992 riots.

But the signs of war were evident in 1993 after Waters in a Times interview criticized then-Mayor Tom Bradley's "lack of leadership," calling him a "nonthreatening black man" who made white liberals feel safe until Los Angeles "had a rebellion."

Ridley-Thomas, one of several black elected officials who responded in a letter to The Times, attacked Waters as a "self-serving" cynic who had done little more than criticize and had nothing to show for her years in the state Assembly and Congress, other than "verbal broadsides."

The Board of Supervisors' election marks only the third time since 1952 that a new supervisor will be chosen in the 2nd District, which for 40 years was claimed by Kenneth Hahn. The last open contest was in 1992, when Yvonne B. Burke beat Watson.

Burke, who announced her retirement last year, has endorsed Parks. The councilman and former Los Angeles Police Department chief is also supported by business interests, including the Los Angeles County Business Federation and downtown's Central City Assn. Labor organizations have rallied behind Ridley-Thomas, raising an unprecedented $2.5 million for his election.

Parks' greater name recognition has given him an early edge in the contest, but Ridley-Thomas may be able to overcome that, particularly with help from the unions.

In some communities his task will be to get out among the voters so they can put a face on the candidate who has spent the last six years in Sacramento. In Leimert Park, on the other hand, some voters may feel they know him too well.

As a city councilman he pushed for parking meters in Leimert Park in 1998, angering merchants so much that there were street protests. Some merchants distributed caricatures of the councilman, depicting him as pompous, greedy and manipulative.

Looking back, Ridley-Thomas said he could have handled it better. "I didn't appreciate that not everybody bought into the vision of improvement that I had," he said, referring to community improvements that can be financed through meter income. "The outcome would have been the same, but I would have handled it differently."

Ridley-Thomas had a falling out with former Lakers star-turned-businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson over a plan in 1998 to develop the Santa Barbara Plaza shopping center in the Crenshaw district. The Community Redevelopment Agency's Board of Commissioners terminated the Johnson deal the next year, and Ridley-Thomas backed developer Christopher Hammond, a friend, who still has not completed the project, despite millions of dollars in government subsidies.

But Ridley-Thomas scored points when he welcomed a Wal-Mart store into the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a move that many initially questioned.

"He's a bottom-line kind of guy, a problem solver," said Denise Fairchild, president of the Community Development Technology Center at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. "Everybody wanted a Nordstrom, but we can't wait 25 years for a Nordstrom. Sometimes you have to make the hard decision."

In 2002, Ridley-Thomas squeezed out a narrow victory in his race for the state Assembly against Mike Davis, a former deputy to Burke and Waters who had their support. (Davis won that seat in 2006 when Ridley-Thomas was elected to the state Senate.)

That narrow victory against Davis was a wake-up call, some say, adding that Ridley-Thomas needed to do more to connect with people. Ridley-Thomas doesn't deny the observation.

"Some of that may be true," he said. "Maybe I decided to allow people to access my sense of humor more than in the past. I sense things a little less intensely. Maybe it's a function of more maturity."

Still, on some issues he has remained alone. Ridley-Thomas was one of the few elected officials from the area to applaud the decision to close the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center trauma center in 2004 -- a stand that has continued to bring him criticism.

His concern, he says, was that a failure of the troubled trauma center might cause the collapse of the hospital. At the same time, he suggested that the center be reopened by 2006. Today the hospital remains closed except for outpatient clinics. Both Ridley-Thomas and Parks support making the hospital fully operational. Ridley-Thomas has suggested that it be reopened under a public-private partnership.

He said he's tried without success to mend fences with Waters, one of the most powerful voices in the state. The two politicians have bumped heads over how money should be used to rebuild riot-torn areas.

"I've sought in any number of instances to make overtures to her," he said. "She's large, and I readily acknowledge that. We can work together but she can't dictate the terms of the relationship. She can be the senior member, but not in a dictatorial manner."

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john.mitchell@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Mark Ridley-Thomas

Born: Nov. 6, 1954, Los Angeles

Education: Immaculate Heart College, bachelor's degree in social relations (1976); master's degree in religious studies (1980); USC, doctorate in social ethics and policy analysis (1989)

Personal: Married to Avis; twin sons

Party: Democrat

Career: Former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles; served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1991 to 2002; served in the state Assembly 2002-06; elected to the state Senate in 2006.

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