t’s no accident that two of the local top African-American elected officials, State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas and L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks are the top contenders for the job. A third candidate is Morris Griffin, also African-American, and there are two other relatively unknown candidates.
However, the district is a virtual United Nations polyglot of ethnic groups with Latinos making up a large and growing percentage of voters and whites and Asians making up a substantial percentage of the voters. African-Americans are a distinct minority of voters in the district. With the fast changing voter demographics, Parks or Ridley-Thomas will likely be the last African-American to hold the seat.
This diminishing of black political power worries many blacks. They fear that this will result in further slippage in their political power, patronage and influence. But Parks and Thomas will have to reach beyond blacks to get elected. The edge there would seem to favor Thomas with his civil rights and labor backing. But Parks has the better name identification and can tout his emphasis on economic development and his credentials as former LAPD chief to conservative whites. Both though will have to pledge in word and deed to be as even handed as Burke was in insuring that the appointments they make and their staff positions represent the diversity of the district.
Parks got the crucial endorsement of Supervisor Burke, and he’ll probably rack up endorsements from the older guard black religious and community leaders and elected officials. They are the ones worried most about the erosion of black political power in Los Angeles. Thomas, on the other hand, with his support from labor, and younger, more activist religious leaders, are deeply involved in bridge building multi-racial coalitions with other groups.
The race will be a litmus test for the likely direction that black politicians will go in the next few years.
Despite their age and generational gap, Parks and Ridley-Thomas have endorsed Democratic Presidential contender Barack Obama. And both in their own way seek to lay claim to the change label. However, it’s how both see and envision change that seemingly marks the contrast between them. Even here there’s less difference between the two than it appears at first glance. As a city councilman, it was Ridley-Thomas, not Parks, as is commonly believed, who raised the issue of bringing Wal Mart to South L.A. And Parks has not been an outspoken union buster. Despite Ridley-Thomas bagging the endorsement of the LAPD’s Police Protective League (more based on their year’s of feuding and hostility to Parks when he has LAPD chief), both have been fierce critics at times of police practices.
Now back to the board itself. The Parks and Ridley-Thomas fight opens up a desperately needed window of opportunity for voters in the 2nd District and beyond to call into question how decisions are made by a board that affect millions in the county; decisions that are often made with little accountability and public scrutiny. For that, the board has been roundly criticized as being remote and removed. They meet one day a week and there’s a truncated public comment segment at the close of business. There’s also the unwritten rule that the supervisors routinely rubber stamp decisions made by the supervisors in each of their districts with little debate, and little heed to the views of their constituents.
Residents now have the chance to open that window of transparency even wider during the scheduled debates between Parks and Ridley-Thomas. They must probe, challenge, and question Parks and Ridley-Thomas on their plans to improve health care, and education, solve county jail overcrowding, and insure that their constituents have a bigger voice in what and how those decisions are made.
If Parks and Ridley-Thomas are really the change agents that they claim to be they will tell what they will do to make democracy the watchword in how decisions are made on the board of supervisors. The one that best does that deserves the seat. In any case, voters should accept nothing less from both of them.