Two veteran public officials -- Bernard C. Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas -- accused each other of catering to powerful special interests in their contest to capture a rare open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, during a charged debate Thursday night.
The exchange, which was sponsored by the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters, underscored differences that could alter the dynamics of county government for years to come.
Just 15 minutes into the debate at the Westside Jewish Community Center auditorium, Parks, a Los Angeles councilman and former LAPD chief, suggested that his opponent has been too closely aligned with union groups.
The charge came in response to a comment by Ridley-Thomas -- a state senator and former Los Angeles councilman -- who told the crowd he believed "in investing in people. I believe in empowerment, I believe in making government as transparent as possible."
But Parks said his own career has been more focused on aiding those with little access to government and pointed out his opponent's strong backing from county labor unions.
"When you talk about empowerment," Parks said, "I have not been in the business of empowering the powerful."
Ridley-Thomas said the support he was receiving from organized labor reflected his close ties with workers and the communities -- a comparison intended to highlight, and draw a contrast to, Parks' alignment with influential business organizations.
"It seems to me," the senator said, "that empowerment means being supported by teachers, firefighters, police officers . . . not the powerful, but those who want to access power for the good of the community."
The June 3 primary is presenting one of the clearest choices in decades for voters in the sprawling 2nd Supervisorial District, a diverse patchwork of prosperity and poverty stretching from Culver City and Mar Vista to Watts and Compton.
The results could solidify a liberal-leaning majority on the powerful five-member board or usher in a more fiscally conservative and business-friendly era.
Influential labor groups have rallied around Ridley-Thomas. Formidable business interests are backing Parks, among them the Los Angeles County Business Federation and downtown's Central City Assn.
The race marks only the third time since 1952 that a new supervisor will be chosen in the district, which for 40 years was the domain of Kenneth Hahn. The last open contest was in 1992, when Yvonne B. Burke won a hotly contested election. Burke announced her retirement last year.
The hourlong debate touched on environmental, transportation and healthcare topics.
One of the most pressing and difficult issues facing the district is finding a way to reopen the county's Martin Luther King Jr-Harbor Medical Center near Watts. Both candidates initially sidestepped a question about what should be done.
"Let me ask that question again," said the moderator, newscaster Marc Brown. "What are you going to do to get our hospital back?"
Parks said he asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to involve the University of California system in talks to revive the medical center.
Ridley-Thomas said that was not enough. "I'm going to work very hard to bring public and private sector resources," he said.
In addition to making major development decisions for unincorporated communities, the supervisors oversee 102,000 mostly unionized employees and a $22-billion budget that funds healthcare, child welfare services and a social safety net for the region's neediest residents.
Despite the stakes, the race had been largely amicable until Thursday. But after the debate, the candidates and their staffs continued to jab at each other.
When Ridley-Thomas told a reporter that the reopening of King-Harbor was long overdue, Parks' spokesman, John Shallman, confronted him with a 2004 newspaper opinion piece in which Ridley-Thomas called for closure of the hospital's trauma center.
Ridley-Thomas said he wasn't referring to the hospital in the article and called on Shallman to "correct your candidate."
"I just want to make sure we're accurate when we get the mailer out," Shallman responded.
Thursday's debate was the seventh for the candidates but may be the only one televised. It is scheduled for broadcast at 3:30 p.m. May 3 on KABC-TV Channel 7. It also will appear on Los Angeles cable channel 36 on Tuesday at 2 p.m., Wednesday at noon and 7:30 p.m. and May 4 at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.