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Foes vow to dig in for supervisor runoff

The unions backing Ridley-Thomas have deep pockets. Parks must find a way to overcome the threat.

June 05, 2008|Jean-Paul Renaud and Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writers

The most expensive Los Angeles County race in history is about to get even costlier -- and more contentious -- during the upcoming runoff between Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas for a rare open seat on the Board of Supervisors.

The Democratic state senator from Los Angeles bested Parks 45% to 40% in Tuesday's primary, thanks in large part to an independent, $4.4-million campaign by labor unions on Ridley-Thomas' behalf.

Because neither of the two main contenders in the nine-candidate field was able to win a majority, they must compete again in a Nov. 4 runoff, and on Wednesday each claimed a victory and promised a fierce, five-month campaign.

The two are vying to replace retiring Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke in the 2nd District, which stretches from Mar Vista through South Los Angeles and Watts and into Carson and Compton. Parks, a former L.A. police chief who is well-known in the district, initially was considered to have an edge over Ridley-Thomas. But that evaporated when unions supporting the state senator flooded district mailboxes with campaign brochures, organized telephone banks and mounted extensive precinct walks.

Parks said Wednesday that his campaign spent $900,000, while Ridley-Thomas reported spending $800,000 -- not counting the millions spent by unions outside his campaign.

On Wednesday, union representatives promised another vigorous effort.

"We didn't break the bank in the primary," said Bart Diener, assistant to the president of Service Employees International Union, Local 721, adding that no specific fundraising goal had been set. "We'll spend whatever we feel it'll take."

Some political observers say Parks now must figure out how to overcome Ridley-Thomas' advantage.

"The race took a fundamental shift," on Tuesday, said Kerman Maddox, a political consultant who has worked for both candidates but is not associated with either of them in this race. "Mark Ridley-Thomas was the pursuer, the underdog. Now he's the front-runner."

Parks nonetheless claimed a "major victory" Wednesday in his second-place showing.

"What we saw is that they have accused me of almost everything but starting the Chicago fire," said Parks during a news conference in which he highlighted several negative campaign mailers sent by Ridley-Thomas or the labor unions. "Everything but the kitchen sink was thrown into this campaign. You can bash us, you can throw mud, but the public sees through it."

Parks supporters in the business community, who have railed against the unions' deep involvement in the race, agreed.

"The fact that Bernard Parks was a mere 5 percentage points behind someone who had five times the money indicates someone who has incredible strength," said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., a downtown business advocacy group. "I think the message came through in the end that special interest money -- and unions are special interests -- should be objectionable to any community."

Union leaders have said that communicating with the 2 million residents of the district is costly.

"All we expect from Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas is that he make sure working class men and women have a true voice," said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "I mean active support, not passive. Hopefully, that's something the other members of the Board of Supervisors agree with."

Ridley-Thomas has repeatedly dismissed allegations that he would be beholden to union leaders.

The winner would be a key vote on the five-member board, which oversees the largest county government in the nation and is the largest public employer in California, setting salaries and benefits for 102,000 employees.

On Wednesday, the state senator called union support "fundamentally important" to his campaign.

"Don't hate me because my supporters are stronger," he said.

He promised to highlight Parks' conservative streak.

"I will assist him in identifying himself as a Republican," he said.

Parks, a Democrat, said that kind of "venom" will fall on deaf ears with voters.

"He has an answer for everything, a solution for nothing," Parks said. "His message is divisive."


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