Politicians who want to win over African American voters in Los Angeles have long seen winning over their pastors as a key step.
The race to replace retiring Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke is no exception. Both of the major candidates in the June 3 contest for the 2nd District seat are courting supporters among the members and leaders of the district's hundreds of churches.
State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), with deep ties to Los Angeles religious leaders, to date has outpaced his main rival, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, in terms of pastoral endorsements.
Ridley-Thomas has received the backing of more than 45 pastors, including many who lead large, active churches. Parks has been endorsed by five clergy members to date, including one of the city's more prominent ones.
Though it is unclear how active the ministers will be in campaigning for their candidates, their endorsements can be especially important in close contests, political observers say.
"When you like both candidates, sometimes when your pastor is supporting a candidate, that might tip the scale," said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant who has worked for Ridley-Thomas and Parks in the past but has no connection to either in this contest.
"When we run campaigns," Maddox said of political strategists overseeing races in African American communities, "we really, really go after religious leaders because they move voters."
Parks and Ridley-Thomas participated in a charged debate Thursday night in their race for the 2nd District, which stretches from Culver City and Mar Vista in the northwest to Carson and Compton in the southeast. The district is home to about 1,500 churches, according to Burke's office.
Though the pastors must avoid making endorsements in their official roles or risk losing their churches' tax-exempt status, they can -- and often do -- give candidates their individual backing.
(It's a delicate balance. In February, a Buena Park pastor, the Rev. Wiley Drake, learned that the IRS was investigating his endorsement, written on church letterhead and announced on a church-affiliated radio show, of Mike Huckabee for president.)
Dermot Givens, a lawyer and political consultant who has worked for both candidates but is not involved in this campaign, said a pastor will "make it very clear: 'I'm not making an endorsement for the church, I'm not telling people who to vote for. I'm telling you everybody needs to vote, but I'm voting for so and so.' "
Candidates courting black voters have long made it a practice to show up at as many Sunday services as possible and, if they are lucky, to get an introduction from the pulpit of a friendly minister.
James K. Hahn, for example, made sure to attend and be mentioned at Sunday services frequently during his political career as Los Angeles city controller, city attorney and mayor. More recently, former President Clinton attended Los Angeles-area black churches in February, two days before his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, won the California presidential primary.
Some observers attribute Ridley-Thomas' edge in pastoral endorsements in large part to his onetime role as executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the national organization the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. helped found in 1957.
The local branch -- where Ridley-Thomas began his political career -- has been active in many of the same causes as some local churches.
"To be at the helm of Dr. King's agency -- there is a historical and moral connection to our community," said the Rev. Eric Lee, the current executive director of SCLC. "Based on that alone, I think his relationship with the African American community is going to be different."
Others say Ridley-Thomas got the endorsements because he asked first. "I think that's one significant reason: because he actively came to us," said the Rev. Henry L. Masters of Holman United Methodist Church in the West Adams area of Los Angeles.
Ridley-Thomas is a member of Love of God Missionary Baptist Church in Hyde Park and has been endorsed by his pastor, the Rev. Antoine Garrett.
Parks is not a member of a church but often visits congregations throughout his council district, a campaign spokesman said. The councilman said the clergy's endorsement, though important, does not influence an entire flock of voters.
"The religious leaders certainly have influence, but the folks that go to these churches certainly don't vote in blocs," Parks said. "People are far more independent and far more complex."
Parks has been endorsed by the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray, the popular retired pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Adams, and by the Rev. Joe B. Hardwick, head of the Western Baptist State Convention, among others.
Ridley-Thomas, who has worked especially hard to cultivate pastors' support, said: "The power of African American religious leaders should not be ignored, diminished or dismissed."