In the final stretch before the Nov. 4 election, state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas and Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks face a formidable challenge in their battle for a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors: how to convince voters -- expected to turn out in record numbers -- to focus on the 2nd District amid the excitement of a historic presidential campaign.
Parks and Ridley-Thomas have already waged the most expensive campaign fight in county history. But with less than six weeks to go, they are also grappling with the possibility that they may have only scratched the surface of the voter pool.
Nearly four times as many voters are likely to cast ballots in November as did in the June primary, when the turnout was roughly 21%.
“This is uncharted territory,” said Dermot Givens, a lawyer and political consultant who has worked on numerous political campaigns in South Los Angeles. “That means that entirely new pockets of voters will be showing up to the polls for this election.”
Statewide, the ranks of voters have been growing. California has nearly 16.2 million registered voters -- more than 500,000 more than four years ago when 76% of registered voters cast ballots.
“There is high interest in this campaign,” said Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who released a report on the number of voters last week. “I would be surprised if we don’t see a record number of voters” go to the polls.
A surge in voter turnout is expected to force Parks and Ridley-Thomas to reach out to new groups in the culturally and ethnically diverse district that stretches from Culver City and Mar Vista to South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton.
Traditionally, candidates in the 2nd Supervisorial District have targeted high-propensity voters -- older people, churchgoers and, frequently, African American women.
But the presidential race between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain has altered the mix, boosting the number of teenage, middle-class and Latino likely voters. The effect of the change makes the supervisorial winner harder to predict based on the primary results: Ridley-Thomas won 45% of the vote over Parks’ 40%.
In general, the two candidates said there would be few changes in their campaign styles; they will just be doing more voter outreach in the lead-up to the November showdown to draw voter attention to their contest.
Since the primary, Ridley-Thomas has been considered the front-runner. His campaign is better organized, with strong backing from labor unions, which have poured $4.5 million into the runoff and promise to continue to support his candidacy.
“We’re looking at a very high percentage of turnout this time,” said Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “Now all it means is that we will have to reach out and talk to four times more voters than we did in June.”
Parks said he believes he has the advantage of greater name recognition over his opponent. That advantage, he said, became clear when Ridley-Thomas failed to win outright in the June primary.
“If you spent $5 million on a race, they should be calling you supervisor,” said Parks, who routinely describes Ridley-Thomas as being under the control of unions.
Parks said the main thrust of his campaign heading into the election will be to reach as many voters as possible. He’s set up a series of “issues only” town hall meetings throughout the 2nd District to meet with small groups of voters. He added that big-name supporters such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and L.A. County Supervisors Yvonne B. Burke and Gloria Molina have been asked to participate.
“We just want him to tell his story,” said Mike Hernandez, a former L.A. councilman who is coordinating the Parks campaign. “He is the son of a cop who became a cop, police chief and a city councilman. It’s a great story.”
Ridley-Thomas said his campaign will be more effective than in the primary.
“We are not taking anything for granted,” he said. “We will be moving from Culver City to Compton and everywhere in between.”
Each candidate plans to devote greater energy to communicating their message to young and Latino voters. In addition, both candidates are relying on the tried and true method of going to church and synagogue services.
As part of the final campaign push, Ridley-Thomas and Parks have been trading attacks, accusing each other of improprieties. Parks questioned Ridley-Thomas’ ties to Tyrone Freeman, who has been removed from the payroll as president of the Los Angeles local of the Service Employees International Union and is being investigated for alleged misuse of funds. And Ridley-Thomas called on Parks to resign from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, accusing him of accepting $21,000 from contractors who do business with the agency.
At the end of August, Parks tried to evict a nonprofit organization, headed by a Ridley-Thomas supporter, from a city-owned building (Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has blocked the move).
And recently, Ridley-Thomas unearthed voting registration records showing that Parks was once a registered member of the American Independent Party, a conservative organization that, years ago, ran segregationist George Wallace for president. Parks said he had been trying simply to register as an independent.
“It’s hardball,” Ridley-Thomas said.