State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas was running ahead of Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks on Tuesday in the campaign to replace county Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, according to partial returns, in the most expensive supervisorial contest in county history.
Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) held a lead in the race to represent the 2nd District, which covers South Los Angeles and more than two dozen other communities, but appeared headed for a runoff with Parks in November.
Although buoyed by more than $4 million spent on his behalf by a coalition of labor unions, Ridley-Thomas seemed to be falling short of the 50% plus one vote needed to win outright, even as Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and other county incumbents were coasting to easy victories.
Ridley-Thomas said his early lead showed that the district was demanding action to reopen Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital. "I think voters want change," he said. "They are clearly unhappy with the status quo."
With seven other candidates on the ballot, Ridley-Thomas was facing an uphill battle in his effort to avoid another five-month campaign.
Parks said he was encouraged by the results but was dismayed at being so heavily outspent by Ridley-Thomas' union supporters. By law, Ridley-Thomas' campaign cannot coordinate with those donors.
"All of us in elected life would like to have a campaign one day where someone says, 'Here's $5 million, now run a campaign,' " he said. "We didn't get to do that."
In other contests, Cooley was securing a third term, despite his promise to quit after eight years in office. County Supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich -- Republicans who have held their offices for 12 and 28 years, respectively -- were also handily defeating their opponents.
With so little serious opposition, all the action centered on Burke's 2nd District, which stretches from Culver City to Carson.
With Burke leaving after 16 years, two veterans of South Los Angeles politics fought to become her successor: Parks, who worked 37 years in the Los Angeles Police Department before becoming a councilman; and Ridley-Thomas, who spent eight years as a councilman before leaving to serve in the Legislature.
The race centered on efforts to revive King-Harbor, the county medical center in Willowbrook that closed last year. But the candidates also debated each other's ideologies and political affiliations.
Supporters of Ridley-Thomas sought to portray Parks, a former LAPD chief with pro-business beliefs, as too conservative for the district. Parks, who won Burke's endorsement, described Ridley-Thomas as a tool of special interests -- a thinly veiled reference to unions that marshaled their resources on Ridley-Thomas' behalf.
Tuesday's contest was a test of labor clout in Los Angeles County politics.
The union alliance spent months working to persuade absentee voters to choose Ridley-Thomas and had planned to assign more than 700 workers to get out the vote on election day.
"This is by far the biggest local candidate race for our union ever," said Bart Diener, assistant to the president of Service Employees International Union Local 721.
A Ridley-Thomas victory would instantly set a precedent for the county Federation of Labor, which has been looking for ways to build its clout on the five-member county Board of Supervisors.
If Ridley-Thomas becomes supervisor, the federation's next target will probably be Supervisor Gloria Molina, who represents communities from East Los Angeles to Pomona and who will probably seek reelection in 2010, one political expert said.
"She's never been a purely trusted, sure vote for labor, and labor would love a sure vote," said Jaime Regalado, who heads the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
For Parks, a victory would have a different, more personal, meaning. Only six years ago, he saw his bid for another term as police chief ended by then-Mayor James K. Hahn. Parks successfully worked for the ouster of Hahn in 2005, pouring his energy into the election of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
By succeeding Burke, Parks would capture a district represented by Hahn's late father, the well-regarded Supervisor Kenneth Hahn.
Parks came into the race with a prominent public profile forged largely by his five years heading the LAPD and has communicated a relaxed charm.
Ridley-Thomas tapped his extensive network of grass-roots support, from the Empowerment Congress he created as a councilman to the county Federation of Labor.
He also relied on other political firepower, touting the support of the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers and such high-level Democrats as Rep. Jane Harman of Venice.
Ridley-Thomas repeatedly pointed out that Parks had been endorsed by county Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the most conservative member of the board. Parks, on the other hand, criticized Ridley-Thomas for supporting the closure of the King trauma center.
To deliver that message, Parks relied on Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who traveled across the district attacking Ridley-Thomas in the campaign's final days.
Supporters of Ridley-Thomas scrambled to reach the district's Latino voters, sending Spanish-language campaign mailers that showcased the support of Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, and the newspaper La Opinion.
Parks relied heavily on a 30-second television spot that highlighted his newspaper endorsements and the backing of businessman and former basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson. To pay for such expensive ads, Parks did not send his last round of campaign mailers -- literature that had already been printed.