South Los Angeles voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to reelect City Councilman Bernard C. Parks or opt for one of his challengers. But the contest has sometimes felt more like a rematch between Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas, another of the city’s most powerful black leaders.
Though only Parks is on the ballot, Ridley-Thomas is a frequent presence at campaign events, where he and Parks often pass each other without exchanging more than a glance — though they have known each other for decades. Criticisms leveled at Parks about the lack of development in the district often lead him to blame Ridley-Thomas, his immediate predecessor in the 8th District, who is quick to rebut any slights.
Animosity flared in 2008 during the race for Los Angeles County supervisor, which pitted Parks, the steely former police chief whose profile was heightened after he was ousted from his post in 2002, against then-state Sen. Ridley-Thomas, who had served on the council for more than a decade until Parks succeeded him in 2003. Labor groups spent a record-shattering $8.5 million in independent expenditures to elect Ridley-Thomas, about nine times what he had raised.
In the recriminations of that campaign, the once cordial relationship between the two men disintegrated. Ridley-Thomas, who had defended Parks when he was under fire as chief — calling his competence “unparalleled” — demanded in 2008 that Parks resign from the county’s transit board after accepting contributions from contractors. Parks, in turn, urged federal authorities to investigate allegations that the union-funded independent alliance had illegally coordinated with Ridley-Thomas’ campaign. (No charges have been filed.)
When Ridley-Thomas won the 2nd District supervisorial seat 61% to 39%, Parks did not call to congratulate him. And they haven’t spoken since.
Now as Parks seeks a third term on the City Council, the two men are back at it as Ridley-Thomas campaigns for Forescee Hogan-Rowles, an executive at a South L.A. nonprofit and the labor-backed challenger in the race. A third contestant, Jabari Jumaane, has garnered little support.
Though Parks rarely breaks his cool demeanor, the similarities to the 2008 race have clearly nettled him. Once again, labor unions have poured in money to defeat him — crossing the $1-million mark last week as they try to reach the 117,629 registered voters in the district.
In this case, however, the unions may have a steeper climb. Hogan-Rowles does not have the political history and name recognition enjoyed by Ridley-Thomas, who became a local civil rights leader when he headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. When Hogan-Rowles ran against Parks in 2003, she barely made a dent.
But her profile has been elevated not only by the dozens of mailings and advertisements from public employee unions but also by the backing of Ridley-Thomas, who maintains deep roots among neighborhood groups in South L.A.
The supervisor said he had no role in recruiting Hogan-Rowles for the race. But one of his former consultants is guiding her effort and there is no question that his support has opened doors for her. At a recent fundraiser that Ridley-Thomas co-hosted for her in Hancock Park, Hogan-Rowles thanked him for making fundraising calls — her contributions shot up around the same time — and said she’d been “blessed” by his mentorship.
Parks has a less generous way of describing Ridley-Thomas’ guidance of his chief opponent: He says the supervisor is trying to expand his power base.
“Just like he’s a puppet [of labor] on the Board of Supervisors, he wants to have a puppet in the council,” Parks said. “If he’d put this much energy in the 8th District when he was here, many of the problems that we’re working on would have been resolved.”
Though he defends his record, Ridley-Thomas sometimes seems amused by Parks’ criticism of his work. At the Hancock Park fundraiser that took place the day after Parks had invoked his name critically during a debate, Ridley-Thomas joked that someone had told him that Parks had “lost his mind yesterday and forgot who was on the ballot.” He added that it was like “post-traumatic stress syndrome, battle fatigue.”
When Parks arrived at a Cherrywood/Leimert Block Club meeting recently, he passed within inches of Ridley-Thomas, but they didn’t exchange so much as a handshake. Parks’ subsequent criticism of Ridley-Thomas’ record during his talk led one woman in the audience to reprimand him.
At a debate last week, Ridley-Thomas arrived late but quickly became a topic of debate between Hogan-Rowles and Parks. As Ridley-Thomas hung toward the back of the room, the councilman questioned why Hogan-Rowles was criticizing the lack of development on a six-acre lot at Vermont and Manchester when for 12 years “it never had a grain of sand turned with my predecessor.”
In particular, Parks has faulted Ridley-Thomas and the rest of the City Council for awarding a project known as Marlton Square to a developer with what he called “very suspect credentials.” The project ultimately fell apart when the developer and his lender went bankrupt.
The 21-acre abandoned shopping plaza has drawn vandals, squatters and other criminal activity — making it a major issue in the campaign.
The supervisor and Hogan-Rowles contend that the delays in the development of Marlton Square illustrate that Parks is more attentive to his role as the city’s budget chairman than the concerns of his constituents. But Parks says his opponents are ignoring the legal entanglements that have blocked development of Marlton Square.
“You can’t just take it from them and say, ‘Give me the property; we’re going to develop it,’ ” Parks said. “On Marlton — how do you develop it in the middle of foreclosure and bankruptcy?”
Ridley-Thomas said the district needs “someone who will stop giving all these excuses and do the work.”
The supervisor believes Hogan-Rowles has a chance to get into a runoff Tuesday because “the sympathy that caused him to be elected in the first instance [in 2003] is no longer here” and because Parks has approached his role as “a bean-counting bureaucrat.”
“This district, where I live, deserves someone who will attend to its needs,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Parks says that many of the district’s problems existed under his predecessor and, indeed, for decades. He cites signs of renewal like the Gateway project near USC and the fact that the 8th District was the only one in the city to post job gains between 2007 and 2009.
When asked what he viewed as Ridley-Thomas’ accomplishments as councilman, Parks made a fleeting reference to the structure that houses one of his district offices, which has borne his predecessor’s name since a council motion in 2003.
“He named a building after himself,” he said.