The year was 1996. Britney Spears was barely out of diapers. O.J. Simpson had just been acquitted of double murder. President Clinton had just been reelected. And L.A. county residents got the rare chance to pick a new supervisor. The point is that L.A. county voters are more likely to spot a dancing bear in their driveway than to vote for a new supervisor. That travesty still screams for real term limits (not the truncated 2 eternity long six years they currently get) and an expanded board. These are two commons sense, democratic measures that the board has mightily resisted.
When Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaithe Burke announced her intention to retire last year that gave voters in the 2nd District their rare chance to choose a new supervisor. It set up the intriguing battle between two of the state’s black political heavyweights, L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks and State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas. The third candidate in the race, community activist Morris Griifin adds some color and humor to the race, and that’s it.
The slugfest between Parks and Ridley-Thomas will decide much more than just which of the two fills Burke’s seat. Parks and Thomas are unarguably two of the state’s best known and politically connected black elected officials. But that’s where the similarity between the two ends. Their ages, style, demeanor, and most importantly philosophy of government are radically different. During his tenure on the city council, the older Parks is unabashedly business friendly. He has virtually made it a mantra to arm twist developers, builders, and big box stores such as Wal Mart into South L.A. He has also fought to put an NFL team back in the Coliseum. He has often bumped heads with pro labor liberals on the city council on these issues. He is backed by the Central City Association, the powerful business group. The stiff, straight laced Parks is not a one dimensional corporate shill. He has also hammered LAPD chief William Bratton for crime reporting, and over the department’s direction
By contrast Thomas is labor friendly and is not shy about touting ala Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama his civil rights and labor activist credentials. He emphasizes spending boosts on health care, education, and crime prevention. Thomas has the solid backing of the L.A. County Federation of Labor.
With Thomas on the board, the county labor unions will have a dependable ally when it comes to battling against employee freezes, and cuts in employee benefits and wages. Parks would be much more likely to take a long look at union contracts, and pensions and to fight anything that’s construed as excessive giveaways to county unions. That’s even more important at a time when the County faces budget deficits and the hunt is on to make spending cuts. Supervisors always look first at the amount of spending on social programs and union contracts. If it’s a matter of cost saving, then Parks is probably the ideal pick. If it’s a matter of sticking up for the unions, Ridley-Thomas is the pick.
The problem though is that their constituents in South L.A., which is part of the 2nd District, are some of the neediest and poorest in the county and would be hurt the most by severe cutbacks in health care and jobs programs. Parks and Ridley-Thomas will walk a near impossible tightrope between maintaining adequate funding levels for services and the required budget belt tightening.
King hospital also poses a similar challenge and headache for Parks and Ridley-Thomas. Both have publicly vowed to fight to get the hospital back in business as a full service hospital. That takes money. Neither has said where they’ll get the cash from. Neither has also said what they will do to provide the kind of tough oversight the hospital needs to avoid the horrendous problems that plagued King on Burke’s watch. The first order of business though is to select the right management team to get King back in business. Both should spell out what they’re looking for in the type of new management team that the board is seeking to take over the hospital. This is the first of many questions voters in the 2nd District should ask Ridley-Thomas and Parks.
– Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).