After each City Council meeting, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris heads home, flips on his TiVo and watches a replay of the town hall proceedings. His wife makes notes of the sections she feels her husband should review, along with suggestions of what he could have done better: Temper an angry exchange. Soften a terse response. Listen.
It may seem oddly reflective behavior for a man who has proudly forged a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-boiled politician, more Old West sheriff than diplomat.
After all, Parris is the guy who tried to ban dogs known to be favored by gangs, proposed restrictions on landlords who want to rent to tenants with Section 8 federal housing vouchers, helped fund a program to bus homeless people out of town and shut down a local motel to prevent the notorious Mongols motorcycle club from meeting in Lancaster.
Supporters cheer him for ratcheting up public safety, coming to the aid of local merchants and kicking aside roadblocks for developers wanting to do business in town.
“He doesn’t pussyfoot around,” said Bishop Henry Hearns, who served 18 years on the City Council, including two terms as Lancaster’s first African American mayor.
But critics say Parris, who was elected last year, is an arrogant bully and an unstoppable control freak. “King Rex” they call him, or “T. Rex.” Scott Pelka, 52, a self-described archenemy of Parris and long-time Lancaster resident, said the mayor has created a “dictatorship” in which challenges to his authority are simply not tolerated.
“He is the best of us, he is the worst of us. It depends on whether or not you agree with him,” allowed Diana Beard-Williams, who worked on Parris’ mayoral election campaign.
It’s easy to see why Parris, 57, might polarize constituents. Get him talking about gangs, for instance, and he offers up this:
“There is no mercy,” he said, speaking of gangbangers while in his plush City Hall office adorned with leather furnishings, a curved wooden desk and photos taken with celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell and President Reagan. “You don’t work with them, you destroy them. It’s simple.”
And if there’s “collateral damage,” well, he says he’s willing to take that chance. “I would just like to remove the insanity. If that makes me a barbarian, so be it.”
For all the tough talk, Raymond “Rex” Parris is a complex person. His mother was a waitress. His father disappeared early in his life, and the family -- for a while -- was on welfare. The third of four sons, Parris dropped out of high school, worked as a busboy, got hooked on drugs and nearly went to jail. He eventually righted the ship and went to law school.
Now he has a booming law firm in town that specializes in class-action, personal injury and malpractice cases. He has won several multimillion-dollar jury verdicts for clients, and in July he was lead trial counsel in a civil defamation lawsuit filed by five former employees of Guess Inc. that resulted in a $370-million judgment against company co-founder Georges Marciano.
It’s hard to miss his name in Lancaster. Ads for his services are splashed across television, billboards and local telephone directories. He has given handsomely to charity, underwritten academic grants and been involved in local schools so deeply that one of Lancaster’s high schools was named in his honor eight years ago.
He is hardly shy about wearing the spoils of his success.
An imposing man with a white mane and beard that give him a striking resemblance to country music singer Kenny Rogers, Parris dresses in crisply tailored suits and black crocodile leather cowboy boots. He carries an Amazon Kindle electronic book reader.
He drives an exotic gray Audi sports car that auto industry magazines list between $60,000 and $90,000. Parris said he had to wait about six months for a dealer to get the car from Germany.
On a recent drive home from City Hall, Parris stroked the paneling surrounding the car’s steering wheel.
“It’s made of graphite,” he said, and recalled how a scratch recently set him back $8,000 in repairs.
His home of 16 years in the exclusive Westfield Estates gated community, on Lancaster’s west side, is palatial. The 5,000-square-foot residence, secluded on an acre, resembles a museum, with ornate chandeliers and Italian marble tile floors. His wife, Carrol, was in charge of decorating the home, meticulously selecting each of the furnishings.
Family portraits hang over fireplaces and in hallways. A restored Steinway & Sons piano graces the family room. On top lies a concert violin Parris’ wife bought him after he had taken six months of lessons.
In the backyard, where two great Danes named Jack and Bell roam, a waterfall gushes over rocks into a lake-like pool. There are tennis and basketball courts, a granite-countered bar and grill. Tomato plants, pumpkins and corn flourish in manicured beds.
Parris, the father of four adult children, said he invites disadvantaged local children to swim and hang out in his yard. He said he wants to show them that although they might start out with little, as he did, they can still succeed if they work hard.
“He has a heart of gold,” said Milton Grimes, a notable Los Angeles trial attorney and Parris’ longtime friend. “It’s just hard for you to see it behind the staunch, conservative, Republican, no bull kind of guy.”
A staunch Republican and Baptist who believes gang crime and disproportionate Section 8 housing are the twin curses of his high desert town, he acknowledged that he could “probably do things better” and “could probably be nicer.”
But he makes no excuses for proposing laws he feels make sense or for shutting down opponents he thinks do not.
“I don’t suffer fools easily,” Parris said.
Some critics charge that he intentionally targets minorities in his quest to “clean up” Lancaster, and brand him a racist. Parris calls the charges “a cheap shot” and says it’s “painful to hear that, because it’s so far from the truth.”
“I tell African American mothers, it’s not my children these gangs are killing. It’s not my children who are going to prison because of these gangs,” Parris said.
He explains that he wouldn’t mind accommodating Section 8 tenants if the city got adequate funding to support them. He refuses to allow Lancaster to become a “dumping ground” for all of L.A. County’s homeless. And to “those morons” who want to call him names, he says, check the stats. Lancaster’s crime rate has plummeted by almost 30% since he became mayor, and gang crimes are down 80%, according to statistics from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
His brashness -- and, some argue, bullying -- have earned him enemies. Sometimes he hires security guards when doing business.
“He’s arrogant. He’s self-serving. He doesn’t really care what people think,” said Arnie Rodeo, 55, a local businessman who ran for mayor against Parris last year and lost by 351 votes. “He surrounds himself with ‘yes’ people.”
Johnathon Ervin, 30, believes his refusal to be a Parris “yes man” got him fired in August from his position on Lancaster’s seven-person Planning Commission -- a post to which Parris had appointed him a year earlier.
Ervin, an Air Force reservist, was alone in voting against allowing a Wal-Mart super center on the Lancaster-Quartz Hill border -- a project supported by Parris but fiercely challenged by many area residents.
“If he doesn’t get what he wants, he will get rid of what he sees as the obstacle,” Ervin said. “He has a control fetish.”
“He’s basically killed the whole concept of democracy in Lancaster,” said Denise Latanzi, a homemaker who pursued a failed bid for a City Council seat last year. She called Parris’ governance style “bombastic” and criticized his tendency to “dress down” citizens at council meetings.
The mayor contends that Ervin was trying to cut a private deal with the Wal-Mart developers. As for other opponents, he says many are people who have done little to help improve Lancaster and some are jealous of his success.
Parris’ mother, Jeanne Powers, gushes with pride over her son’s achievements and defends his need “to be ruthless.”
“Rex has accomplished an awful lot in his life against all odds,” she said.
In his home office, which his wife calls his “cave,” Parris buries himself in books on cognitive science, a favorite topic. He also studies Mandarin Chinese with the hope that it may be useful in attracting Chinese manufacturing businesses to Lancaster. At his urging, the city has hired a Mandarin tutor for its staff.
The mayor says he envisions a Lancaster of ethnic and class integration, with community gardens, 60% homeownership in all neighborhoods and a mix of “older Generation Y and younger Generation X.”
“I would like to make this the best small city in America,” Parris said. “How I’ll know that I’m successful is when the happiness level of the people who live here rises substantially.”