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CANDIDATE PORTRAITS

Quest For Change

Some suggest he's on a revenge mission, but Bernard C. Parks says he wants to bring a different dynamic to city government.

February 09, 2005|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Bernard C. Parks stands on a busy street corner in South Los Angeles, talking about how to solve the city's notorious traffic problems.

As he strains over the din of passing cars, it becomes clear: What Parks really wants to fix is the man who engineered his ouster three years ago as chief of police, taking away the job he had worked his life to obtain.

The city is "stuck in neutral" because of Mayor James K. Hahn, Parks complains to six reporters and a couple of pedestrians. He flips through a stack of reports to illustrate his point.

Hahn has missed 586 votes as the most powerful member of the MTA, says Parks.

People drive past. They honk. They yell, "Hey, Chief!" Parks ignores them and keeps reading.

"The mayor is a transportation no-show. He has missed 30% of all MTA board meetings since he was elected...."

Finally, Parks looks up. He takes a few questions and then walks to his car, moving slowly in black loafers and a brown suit. He drives away, alone, headed for another stop in his campaign for mayor.

High Hopes

Two years ago, Parks, now 61, was Los Angeles' new political darling. Nearly a dozen reporters followed him into City Hall the day he took out papers to run for City Council, after his unceremonious departure as police chief. The tall African American man with chiseled features made the national news when he won his council seat, representing South Los Angeles, with more than 80% of the vote.

His supporters figured he could easily muster the political heft to unseat his nemesis, Hahn. Perhaps, they thought, he was the next Tom Bradley.

But so far, it isn't working out that way.

Parks has burned through several campaign managers, struggled to raise money and failed to secure key endorsements, even from some prominent members of the African American community.

In many ways, Parks' campaign suffers from the same problems that dimmed the brilliant arc of his LAPD career. Even as his reputation for integrity eases his path, other traits trip him up.

He is a proud and stubborn man who has suffered personal heartbreak, losing a daughter and granddaughter, one to cancer and the other to gun violence. During his early years in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was often the target of blatant racism, leaving him deeply sensitive to any slight.

Like an armor, his personality is strong and controlling -- but it is marked by contradictions. He can be witty and self-deprecating, well-prepared and engaging. Yet he is often undiplomatic, insular, inflexible and single-minded.

Parks fusses over bureaucratic details with so much tenacity that his critics say he misses the bigger picture. Potential political supporters aren't quite sure what to make of him or his motivations for taking on Hahn.

Some see his campaign as pure revenge, an allegation that Parks denies.

"I don't think it is lost on anyone that he feels he has a score to settle with Jim Hahn," said one close associate who declined to speak publicly for fear of offending Parks. "But the truth is, he has every right to run."

As police chief, Parks fought with Hahn, who he thought had no business meddling with the Police Department. He was constantly at odds with the powerful police union and the rank-and-file cops, who viewed him as a cold disciplinarian.

He trusts few people and, even in the throes of a big-city campaign, relies largely on the counsel of his wife, Bobbie, and son, Bernard Parks Jr.--both political novices. When several pundits recently criticized the involvement of his family in running his mayoral bid, Parks became angry, casting the criticisms as racist.

"We're not slaves anymore," Parks says heatedly. "Families are allowed to stay together. They don't sell us off anymore.

"My family is very important. Bobbie is a partner in everything I do. Anyone who doesn't like that, that's their problem."

He's a man who doesn't like his authority questioned, and who never forgets what he considers a betrayal.

"He can be rather impolitic, which is difficult if you're in politics," says Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles).

Even so, former LAPD Deputy Chief David Gascon -- a longtime friend of Parks -- says that Parks is surprisingly affable, if you've earned his respect. (He also rewards loyalty; he promoted Gascon to key positions during his tenure as chief.)

"You hear the descriptions: He's well-prepared and ramrod straight and all that," said Gascon, who was pressured to retire from the department shortly after Parks' departure. "If you really get to know him, or if you deal with him in a small-group setting, you'll find that Bernard Parks is a witty, charming and warm individual."

People stop him on the street to shake his hand and get autographs.

Some call him "Mr. Councilman," but most still call him "Chief."

"You know what?" Parks says. "I'll answer to 'Hey, you.' "

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