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A choice, for a change

Two starkly different candidates want to replace Supervisor Yvonne Burke.

January 06, 2008|Harold Meyerson | Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect and an Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post.

Like popes, Los Angeles County supervisors have to win an election to land the job, but once in, they're sitting pretty. The last time there was a contested supervisor election, George Bush was president -- the Bush who didn't send U.S. forces into Baghdad. The five supervisors represent districts so vast (each with about 2 million people), have campaign kitties so deep (coming in good part from companies having business with the county) and remain so consistently indistinct to voters that incumbents seldom face serious challengers. Unlike popes, they're not actually expected to die in office, but they generally take their leave on their own terms.

In March 2006, Yvonne B. Burke, who has represented the 2nd District in the south-central part of the county since 1992, announced that she will not seek reelection when her term expires this year. Her retirement sets up a contested election that will be as significant as it is unusual.

Only two people have represented the district since 1952. Burke was preceded in office by the legendary Kenny Hahn, who held the seat for 40 years. During his time in office, the district -- which runs from Culver City to South Los Angeles to Carson -- went from largely white to largely African American, and Hahn became one of the earliest white elected leaders to promote the cause of civil rights. When he stepped down, the job of 2nd District supervisor became the preeminent position to which a black Angeleno politician could aspire if he or she wanted to represent a majority-black district. The contest to replace Hahn featured two pioneer black elected officials, Burke and (now U.S. Rep.) Diane Watson, who had both been active in civil rights causes and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party since the 1960s. Discerning the political differences between the two candidates was no easy task. Each represented a brand of Tom Bradley's multiracial liberalism that dominated the politics of black Los Angeles. Burke particularly embraced Bradley's alliance with the business establishment, while Watson reflected the liberal, socially progressive impulse that had powered his political ascendancy.

This time around, 2nd District voters will have a clearer choice. The two candidates, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, would bring starkly different resumes and genuinely different politics to the job. (The primary is in June. If no candidate wins a majority, the runoff is in November.) Both candidates are African American, but the district they hope to represent has changed dramatically and is now largely Latino, though the electorate is roughly 40% black, with whites and Latinos making up smaller shares.

Parks is still best known for his 1997-2002 tenure as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, where he consistently took a hard line against anyone, or anything, that might encroach on his authority, be it the Police Protective League, his nominal bosses on the Police Commission, the department's inspector general or members of the Christopher Commission who often wondered what had become of their suggested police reforms in the wake of the 1992 riots.

Confronted with calls for Parks' removal from an unusual coalition of police-reform advocates and the department's rank and file, then-Mayor James K. Hahn chose not to renew Parks' contract in 2002, provoking a firestorm of opposition in black L.A. that contributed to Hahn's ouster in the 2005 mayoral race. Parks, a master of the politics of payback, played his role in Hahn's defeat, running an anti-Hahn campaign in the 2005 primary, then endorsing Hahn's chief rival, Antonio Villaraigosa, in the runoff.

Parks' resume has some superficial similarities with that of Bradley, who also served on the police force until he was elected to the City Council in 1963. But the dissimilarities are greater.

Bradley was always a proponent of greater civilian control over the LAPD, an idea that was anathema to Parks, most especially when he headed the department. Bradley also built a citywide liberal following, anchored in South-Central black and Westside Jewish communities, to which he eventually added the support of the labor movement.

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