Mark Ridley-Thomas: Gospel of Mark

I’ve really never known a Los Angeles without Mark Ridley-Thomas around and running something.

The newest member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors headed the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference for 10 years, then ran for City Council and won in 1991. A little more than 10 years later, Ridley-Thomas went to Sacramento (first to the Assembly and then the state Senate), and in 2008, he became the first black man elected to the Board of Supervisors, representing the 2nd District, where he grew up.

His name is a compound of his surname and that of his wife of more than 30 years, Avis. Family, he says, is his foremost priority, but he chose to pose with a shovel to symbolize his work on a reinvented King-Drew hospital and on light-rail projects, and with the iPhone he used as the arm-twisting tool to get them done.

You’ve been on the board a bit more than a year. What’s surprised you about this job?

It’s an immense responsibility and a tremendous amount of work. And when you think about the issue of healthcare for the residents of the county -- largely the medically indigent -- it’s a huge responsibility; significant investments in the healthcare that is the safety net of the county of Los Angeles are being made by this body.

Each of the five supervisors represents more people than do some U.S. senators. Should there be more elected supervisors?

I’ve always maintained that is an idea to which I am receptive. I think the difficulty is the electorate responds to it as the expansion of government -- not only more politicians but bloated bureaucracy. The case can be made that given the immensity of the task with which the board has to contend, we do well. At the height of the [economic] crisis, we didn’t lay off a single [county] employee. The board and the executive staff have to be commended for that. I take no credit because those decisions quite frankly were made prior to my being here. That does not mean that change is unwarranted.

In years past, you often criticized the LAPD. How is the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which the board monitors to some degree, different?

The sheriff is elected, which probably has a lot to do with the more tame way in which he comports himself, as [did] his predecessors. They didn’t behave in the ways that [former LAPD chiefs] Gates, Parker and Davis and the like [did]. It is not as though the Sheriff’s Department hasn’t had its issues. [It] got to the business of a monitor before the LAPD did, and it is an institutionalized presence, much more than what had been the case with the Los Angeles Police Department. In executive sessions at the Board of Supervisors, the discussion about officer- involved shootings takes on a very different set of dynamics than when I served in the City Council [and discussed the LAPD].

What about your dynamics on the board? You’ve found some common cause with the conservatives, Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe.

I think it’s a mistake to typecast or stereotype me or my politics. On the one hand, I have a particular view of politics, as one who has [been] an advocate of civil rights and human rights and social change: Progressive, yes, unapologetically, but pragmatic. Ultimately an officeholder has an obligation to deliver results. That’s a significant difference between being a civil rights advocate against [being] an elected official.

People thought your natural ally would be Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, but you didn’t back expanding his homeless services pilot program, Project 50. My colleague, Garrett Therolf, reported that Yaroslavsky left the building pretty upset after that.

It was continued for a more thorough review. It’s being looked at in terms of the substantial update of general relief to make it more relevant and see if it’s more cost effective. And Supervisor Knabe suggested that we look at the San Francisco model, Care Not Cash. Now frankly, we ought to have a variety of approaches. And some people are more persuaded that their approach is the approach. I just happen not to feel that way.

On the City Council, you butted heads with then-Mayor Richard Riordan; now I gather he’s sent you a nice note on your work on the board. Are you going to frame it?

[Laughs.] At an opening of an animal shelter in my [City Council] district, he took those ceremonial scissors and sought to use them in an unjudicious way. So that’s the [picture] that hangs in one of my offices.

What part of you was he going after?

It was my neck!

You wanted the NFL at the Coliseum. Now it’s looking for a home in the City of Industry.

The NFL likes to inspire competition, and their attempt to cause competition to take place for a venue in the Los Angeles region is why we don’t have an NFL franchise now. I argued [for] the Coliseum. [Had it happened], the whole corridor from Staples south to MLK [Boulevard] would have been lined with new businesses, art, sports, entertainment. We would have had two to three Super Bowls by now. The economy would have taken a big shot in the arm. And so I think that the NFL has blown it, plain and simple.

Do you feel like a role model?

I feel an obligation to honor the investment my family made in me. My mother died by the time I was 9 years old, a breast cancer victim. My dad died in the early 1970s, never a significant part of my upbringing. I was raised by a grandmother who was blind. This was a woman who came to Los Angeles in the 1920s. They were homeowners by the mid-'40s. My grandfather was a big part of the picture, died at the age of 64 of a heart attack. He smoked those Camels. He was a city worker in a segregated public works department. I try as best as I can to honor [them]. They bought me World Book encyclopedias -- I still have them.

There was a backlash at the news that the plan to renovate and upgrade your offices would cost $707,000. Was that plan a mistake?

No, it was a media-manufactured crisis that tapped into the angst of a certain part of the electorate. It was carried forward by a particular radio station and a couple of hosts who engaged in stereotypes and epithets of a racial nature or an ethnic nature. As was stated by one [critic], “We don’t care if your employees have to sit on an orange crate to do the work.” Well, excuse me: People do deserve decent working conditions. It’s under review, and once that review is completed, we will make an assessment as to how we proceed. The work does need to be done.

Much was made of the fact that when you ran for this office, labor spent about $8 on your behalf for every $1 your own campaign spent.

In each race that I’ve been involved in, we play by the rules. And in the last race, we played by the rules and we won. There are those, most notably my chief opponent [City Council member and former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks] who just can’t get over the fact that he didn’t win. Just like he couldn’t with Willie Williams. Just like he couldn’t with Jim Hahn. Just like he couldn’t with Bill Bratton. He has earned his moniker, “Bitter Bernie,” and somehow fails to make the distinction between a campaign and actual governance. [As a candidate for supervisor,] Bernard Parks had IEs [independent expenditure committees], and he began to whine when his IEs didn’t show up as handsomely as those that showed up for my candidacy.

You were a teacher for a time. Your job doesn’t give you much authority over education, but what would you change?

The most exciting [innovation] that I have come across this year is Freedom Schools, launched by the Children’s Defense Fund.

I feel that education is substantially broken in this nation and has been for a considerable amount of time. That which has to happen is just short of being revolutionary. I don’t believe public education will be what it can be without the support and investment and alignment of the private sector.

. The shift in emphasis and investment [in public schools] took place when there was a change in who the education consumers were. When the student population of LAUSD shifted to largely students of color, things began to be very, very, very different. But it wasn’t unique to L.A. That’s why I say that the private sector has a responsibility, and it’s enlightened self-interest that ought to drive it.

How do you think the same-sex marriage issue will play out? I’ve heard of a lot of black church leaders saying no to it.

There are some that do and some that don’t. It is a very, very emotionally charged issue. The issue of civil rights is held sacrosanct by some because of hard-won advances. But it is appropriate to say it in the context of Martin Luther King Jr. that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. You can’t compartmentalize democracy. So civil rights can and should be broadly defined. The difficulty with those who don’t restrain their homophobic impulses is that it leads to violence -- not simply discrimination but violence. And this high-octane rhetoric -- I would appeal to people to take a few steps back.

Do you supes ever hang out socially?

Rarely does that ever happen. We [he and his wife] are no strangers to the culinary scene in L.A., the 2nd District and beyond. The Baldwin Hills Overlook -- we’re no strangers to that environment when we walk. There are a number of things that I do to recreate. I’m a member of the Love of God Missionary Baptist Church. It’s no secret that I love gospel music. If you look, you’d find that there’s an album with one of my brothers and one of my sisters [and me].

What’s your favorite hymn?

There are many, but it’s hard for me to get around James Cleveland’s “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired.” You ought to get that. It’s on YouTube.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at