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California

L.A. Councilman Bernard Parks finds himself in political wilderness

L.A. Councilman Bernard C. Parks
Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks speaks to a colleague before a vote at City Hall in 2013. Once seen as politically untouchable, the longtime South L.A. lawmaker is a diminished figure in the view of both critics and some admirers.
(Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles Times)

For much of the past decade, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks has been a force at City Hall. He helped topple a mayor, played a key role in steering the city through the Great Recession and served as a counterweight to the political pull of organized labor.

But this spring, the 70-year-old former LAPD chief found himself struggling just to keep control of a signature project: a Fourth of July fireworks show at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

In a string of barbed statements, Parks accused fellow Councilman Curren Price and others of conspiring to cut him out of the yearly celebration, portraying it as the latest sign of disrespect from his political enemies.

“My backstabbers,” he declared in one opinion piece, “have become more brazen.”

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The episode underscored how isolated the South Los Angeles lawmaker, once seen as politically untouchable, has become at City Hall.

At the height of his power, Parks ran the committee that oversees billions in city spending. He had a key voice in salary talks with labor leaders. Now, even some of his sympathizers say he is routinely dismissed by his colleagues.

“Bernard has been sent to Siberia,” said neighborhood council member Jack Humphreville, who has sided with Parks on taxes and other issues. “He doesn’t count anymore.”

Parks still grabs national attention, discussing Donald Sterling on CNN and popping up on the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful.” When protests erupted in Ferguson, Mo., he took questions on MSNBC, Al Jazeera and other news outlets eager to showcase a law enforcement expert once counted among the “most beautiful people” by People magazine.

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But with less than 10 months before term limits force him from office, Parks is a diminished political figure in the view of both critics and some admirers.

Supporters say Parks has been punished for taking principled stands — and warn that the city suffers when one of its few fiscally conservative voices is sidelined. Others contend he caused his political predicament by holding grudges and being inflexible.

“He’s super-intelligent. He actually reads the budget documents. He asks incisive questions,” said Jason Elias, formerly a regional coordinator for Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents roughly 10,000 city employees. “But his bedside manner, so to speak? There’s a lot lacking there.”

Parks called complaints about his style “frivolous” and said he’s not interested in cutting deals with other council members. He dismissed the idea that his political influence has waned, saying he regularly shines a spotlight on overlooked issues.

“People can’t isolate you,” he said. “You still get to talk.... You still get to vote no.”

Parks lost a coveted seat on the budget committee two and a half years ago after breaking with the council’s new president, Herb Wesson. Then his colleagues redrew his district to cut out two major assets: USC and the African American cultural hub of Leimert Park. His closest ally on the council — Jan Perry — left office last year, and he has chilly relations with some elected officials who used to support him.

Council members have yet to take up a detailed budget strategy unveiled by Parks more than a year ago. Some of its suggestions, such as halting a union-backed measure to revamp commercial trash hauling, have already been rejected. Others, such as eliminating three-day workweeks for police officers, have been ignored. Writing on the website CityWatch, Parks recently lamented that the council “simply files” most of his proposals “or sends them to never-never land — aka, various committees — to die.”

A frequent critic of organized labor, Parks regularly finds himself in the minority on union issues at City Hall. And as a sharp-tongued contrarian on a City Council that prides itself on playing nice, Parks also dissents on other decisions.

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Out of concern over food contamination, he cast the only vote against banning plastic bags. He opposed allowing murals in single-family neighborhoods. And he failed to persuade a majority of the council to oppose federal legislation decriminalizing marijuana.

“We have a pretty good record of being right about things,” said his son and chief of staff, Bernard Parks Jr. “But no one listens.”

Several council members said they maintain professional relations with Parks. But they declined to discuss his influence at City Hall and whether it has been diminished. Councilman Paul Krekorian called Parks “a shrewd political thinker” who is quick to speak his mind. Councilman Tom LaBonge said he is “well-respected in the community.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all members of the team called the Los Angeles City Council, and our objective is to score for Los Angeles,” LaBonge said, adding: “Sometimes not everybody feels as close to the team as others do.”

Parks came to the council 11 years ago as an imposing figure — the unyielding former LAPD chief who battled the police union and was pushed out of the job by then-Mayor James Hahn, only to rebound with an easy victory in his first run for elected office.

“He was always a star,” said former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who has known Parks for decades. “It’s a marvelous story — someone starts on the corner directing traffic and ends up the chief. That doesn’t happen every day. And it certainly doesn’t happen to people of color every day.”

As a newcomer to the council, he played a leading role in defeating a major Hahn administration proposal to hire hundreds of police officers, saying the city couldn’t afford it. He later backed Hahn’s opponent for mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, an endorsement seen as crucial in helping sway African American voters. Hahn lost his reelection bid.

After the recession hit, Parks — as head of the budget committee — led efforts to secure votes for employee layoffs and furloughs.

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“He truly helped the city stay afloat economically,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “He was the guy that would always be willing to stand up and say no, so that [other council members] didn’t have to.”

A turning point came in 2008, when Parks lost his bid to become county supervisor. Public employee unions poured millions into efforts to elect his opponent, Mark Ridley-Thomas, and tried three years later to oust him from the City Council. Although Parks was reelected, his margin of victory was so thin that many saw him as weakened.

“His political reputation as a winner was somewhat tarnished,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

Parks lost his powerful budget post the following year, after he declined to support Wesson for City Council president. Another setback came weeks later when council members redrew the boundaries of their districts. Parks said the changes to his district — including the loss of the Coliseum — had turned it into a “poverty pit.”

“There’s no question” that Parks has lost influence, said Burke, the former county supervisor. “It has nothing to do with the issues. It’s political.”

During the recent battle over the Coliseum fireworks show, Price said it made sense for him to run the event, since the new political boundaries put the stadium in his district. Parks accused Price of deception, saying he and USC were retaliating against him because he fought a decision to give the university operational control of the stadium.

Parks is “very vindictive,” said former Councilman Dennis Zine, who served on the board of the police union when Parks was chief. “The guy’s intelligent and dedicated and all that. But the problem is, you’ve got to get along with people.”

Freed from the demands of the budget committee, Parks says he is pouring his energy into neighborhood projects, such as repairing sidewalks, renovating parks and ensuring that the Metro Crenshaw Line is built. He argued that he still makes things happen, even when his 14 colleagues go another way — or remain silent.

Two months ago, Parks stood on the council floor and denounced the use of city trash trucks in a union-backed protest outside City Hall, calling it a “total misuse” of taxpayer-funded equipment and personnel. None of his colleagues rose to echo his concern. But more than 100 sanitation department employees were ultimately disciplined.

“I’m never going to stop speaking out. That’s why I’m here,” Parks said. “Because I’m not here to satisfy 14 other people.”

emily.alpert@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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