It is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested races in all of Los Angeles County. Eighth district Councilman Bernard Parks and State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas have emerged as the two front-runners for the Second District Supervisorial seat that will be vacated by Yvonne B. Burke in November.
The two candidates squared off at Our Weeklys Second Supervisorial District forum Saturday at Bethel A.M.E. Church that drew a diverse cross section of community residents, political pundits and candidate supporters eager to listen to the candidates weigh in on such hotbed topics as economic development, education, the reopening of Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, and interracial violence.
Natalie Cole, publisher of Our Weekly, observed that the Second Supervisorial seat was perhaps the most powerful position in one of the most diverse areas in the county. This county covers 4,000 square miles with a population of 10 million residents and an annual budget of $22.5 billion. The candidates before us today have demonstrated a real commitment to this race.
Political insiders have noted that although the two candidates possess different styles, both candidates bring a wealth of experience ensuring a close race to the finish. Parks, 64, considered a Democrat with conservative fiscal leanings, has captured the endorsements of Supervisors Burke, Councilman Michael Antonovich and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. He chairs the Budget and Finance Committee in the city council and comes with many years of experience as a former police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Ridley-Thomas, 53, steeped in years of civil rights activism, chairs the Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee in the State Senate. He was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before joining the City Council and later, the state Legislature. A liberal Democrat, he has been endorsed by a number of unions, including the firefighters, teachers and police and sheriffs deputies as well as the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He has received the endorsements of Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, Congresswoman Dianne Watson, and incoming Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.
L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca has endorsed both Parks and Ridley-Thomas for the position.
Despite differing political backgrounds, both candidates expressed their commitment and dedication to the Second District. Both vowed that if elected, they would work to attract jobs, economic development and a better quality of life to the district.
Rev. Lewis E. Logan, senior pastor of Bethel A.M.E., blessed the event. Kathy Williamson, OW Editor in Chief, served as moderator.
Panelists for the event were Dr. Melina Abdullah, Ph.D., assistant professor of the Department of Pan African Studies at California State University Los Angeles and David L. Horne, Ph.D., professor of Critical Thinking and African History at California State Universities at Dominguez Hills and Northridge. Panel questions ranged from health care to the Iraq war.
Dr. Abdullah pointed out the expansive size and diverse interests of the district stakeholders that is home to a number of constituents. She asked how each candidate would implement a plan that would speak above the systemic and service needs of the constituents.
There has to be movement within our communities to inform people of what the issues are, declared Ridley-Thomas. Thats what empowerment at the fundamental level is.
Ridley-Thomas pointed out that the neighborhood councils, groups formed within his district that tackle quality of life issues, were intrinsically important in educating constituents about government issues. Why? Because that is the only opportunity in a significant way that individuals have a chance to access their elected officials, learn whats going on and do something about it, he declared. In other words, you educate people with a range of systemic issues and you demystify the government. That is to say, they get to find out whats going on in Building and Safety, in the County Sheriffs Department, or in the County Health Department and a range of other departments. Then you go back into the boardroom and have conversations based on the input that you get from constituents.
Parks answered, I think the experience that Ive gained in running a large department with a $1.6 billion dollar budget and 13,000 employees as well as providing service for four million people has given me experience. You have to organize to the point that you are equally efficient in providing services, Parks pointed out. As an individual, you cant be out there handling every other problem. You have to make sure that the county services are centralized. These are the things you get from learning how to be a manager-how to get things done.
Dr. Horne expressed his concern about the educational system, citing that 50 percent of students are dropping out of school. He asked each candidate how they would improve the countys participation in public education so that children remain in school.
Parks pointed out that having resources available plays an important part in combating the drop out rate.
You have put money into programs and make sure the programs are viable so that they reduce those results, Parks observed. We often wait until the tail end of the problem to talk about the drop out rate, but we need to investigate the beginning of the system and ask the tough questions–why arent kids in preschool? Why arent kids being given homework? Why arent hours in school expanded? Why arent we looking at ways in which parents can become more involved and more active in school? Why arent communities adopting schools so that they can play a role in the system? We need to continue to look at most of the preventative nature of our efforts and make sure that young people dont drop out before being rehabilitated. Programs such as the ones offered in Parks and Recreation play a major role in what young people do after school. We have to stop looking at the drop out rate and saying that it is a failure.
Ridley-Thomas felt that forging partnerships were key in combating drop out rates. Education is a high priority for all of us and if you want an educational agenda that makes sense, all of us have to be invested in it, he urged. The first thing we need to do is to build effective partnerships with those who are on the front lines, he pointed out, adding that he had recently secured the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Teachers Association and the probation officers of the County of Los Angeles. You have to garner the support and the affirmation of those who are on the front lines doing the work… Governor Schwarzeneggers proposed budget has resulted in ten percent across the board cuts with some 57,000 teachers in the state of California losing their jobs. Im not supporting the governors cuts because if you want education, you have to have teachers employed.
For many Angelenos, the recent rise in black and brown violence is a growing concern. There are some very real tensions that exist between blacks and Latinos, noted Dr. Abdullah. What role can the county play in encouraging dialogue between blacks and Latinos?
Thats a big question, but its an important question, Ridley-Thomas responded. I sensed that there was an uptake in interracial violence well over a year ago. Many people chose to ignore it or deny it–Why? Because, frankly, were afraid of it. Problems of violence between and among gangs are horrible enough–but problems in terms of violence and crime between the races is even more of a problem for our society. We do have serious challenges and I have introduced legislation to combat it. A hate crime is a hate crime and gang related activity that is based on hate ought to be dealt with in a special category and should be confronted. We need to do scared straight talk around race relations and racial sensitivity.
Parks placed the racial tensions in a historical context, pointing out that several years ago tensions existed between blacks and Koreans and decades earlier, blacks and Jews experienced racial strife.
I was the first police chief to deliver monitored crime statistics by racial impact, Parks pointed out. We cant ignore the fact that there are serious incidents that people are using as a basis for crime-such as when one person is wearing a red shirt as opposed to a blue shirt.
I took the Human Relations Commission to Crenshaw High School and started the Prevention Intervention and Education program, (PIE) where I brought in different ethnicity groups to talk to our students. We knock on wood everyday because there has yet to be a racial incident. You have to bring in human relations to provide those (preventative) services.
An audience member questioned the candidates as how the proposed budget cuts in the Second district will impact the African-American community.
With a $16 billion dollar deficit, the County of Los Angeles is seriously challenged with respect to the cuts and resources. The Department of Health Services is a huge, huge problem. The governor proposed a 10 percent budget cut but the worst news is that the legislative analysts came forward with a proposal saying that the impact is three times more severe in terms of cuts to the County of Los Angeles.
We need to organize and fight to resist these cuts that emanate from the state so that it will trickle down to the county. We will be organizing so that we can save the olympian resources that we have that affect the quality of life in the Second District. This issue is very, very serious, Ridley-Thomas shared.
Parks said that setting priorities and monitoring the budget were extremely important in leveraging funds for the Second district. So often in government, there is a tendency to allocate programs without ensuring that they get results, he pointed out. So its important that we think about priorities and the accountability and responsibility as it relates to our community, he observed. Once those priorities are set and you put funding behind those priorities, the money has to be set aside for specific programs. It cannot be used for any other source except that particular kind of service.
We have to look at ways to leverage those dollars, including grant money. Our number one issue should be that once the money is allocated, the county employees will actually supply the community with services. So often in government, there is a tendency to allocate programs and not ensure that they run efficiently and get results. So it is important that we think about priorities, as well as accountability and its responsibility as it relates to our community. At the end of the day, it is with the budget that we actually achieve these goals.
Another audience member was concerned about the lack of health facilities in South Los Angeles, inquiring whether the candidates would work to get the emergency rooms reopened, especially at Martin Luther King Jr. hospital.
For the prospective supervisor, the number one issue that has to be addressed is the reopening of MLK hospital, Ridley-Thomas declared. Why? Because it not only affects the Watts/Willowbrook community, but the entire seat of the county health networks is at stake. The impact on the Watts/Willowbrook community is beyond healthcare. It is economic. There are 47,000 patient visits at MLK, and there are economic impacts that will cause businesses to close. What happens when businesses are closing and the economy is bad, what do you have? You have an uptake in crime.
Parks said that the first priority is to elect a president who believes in universal health care. The next thing to make sure of is that Medical and Medicare are stipends. Martin Luther King Jr. hospital has to open up a first class hospital–not a pilot. We have to make sure that MLK hospital returns as a first class hospital on a long term basis. The lack of services will impact the rest of the emergency room system. It will begin to cause Harbor General, Cedars Sinai and White Memorial to also collapse if we do not rebuild that hospital. So its important that we set up a structural financial building of medical care to pay those costs so that we as a community will continue to have health care and medical care.
With the community facing high unemployment, the issue of bringing jobs into South Los Angeles was a top priority for many attendees. A question as to what each candidate would do to bring jobs into the community was posed.
We have to make sure that we have a climate that invites businesses into the community, Parks observed. We have to make sure that we have the full spectrum of jobs and that when they put businesses into our community, its something that we clearly need. We also need to make sure that we get a return on our tax dollar to get the advantages of using all the capital that is available.
Ridley-Thomas agreed. What we need are good, living wage jobs where people can make an honest living and at the same time enjoy decent benefits. Beyond that, we need to talk about economic development. As a member of the Los Angeles City Council and the state legislature, my focus has been on the issue of job creation. I know how to get deals done and build jobs, said Ridley-Thomas. There is a reason to have public capital to inspire economic development so that we capitalize and synthesize the developers who come into the community. We want to build projects and create jobs to elevate the quality of life, he pointed out.
With the country marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war and the loss of the lives of 4,000 soldiers, a question was asked if the candidates are willing to commit to and to advance the interest of constituents regarding the war.
Its a serious question and a sobering one, observed Ridley-Thomas. The moral tone of this nation has been so badly tainted until its practically incomprehensible. I entered a resolution in the legislature to get rid of torture, which is a violation of state, federal and international law.
Parks felt that throwing his support to Democratic candidate Barak Obama was critical to bring the war to an end. Im going to put my energy behind Obama because hes the only candidate that said he wanted to stop the war, he said.
With each candidate more than qualified to fill the shoes of the County Supervisor of the Second District, voters will spend considerable thought when choosing who will fill one of the most important and powerful seats in California.