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The 2nd time around

Presidential politics are sure to shake up the Bernard Parks/Mark Ridley-Thomas rematch.

June 08, 2008|Raphael J. Sonenshein | Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the author of "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles."

While Barack Obama was making history by claiming the Democratic presidential nomination Tuesday night, Mark Ridley-Thomas was creating some historical ripples of his own in the 2nd District race to replace retiring Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke. In a surprise showing, the state senator outpolled the favored Bernard C. Parks, 45% to 40%, in Tuesday's primary and, in so doing, dealt at least a temporary setback to Los Angeles' traditional African American leadership. But 45% wasn't quite enough, and now the two are headed for a November runoff, where the dynamics of the presidential race ensure that anything can happen.

Besides business support, City Councilman Parks snared the endorsements of several of the city's top black political leaders -- Burke, Rep. Maxine Waters and Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a key advantage in a district where blacks make up more than 40% of the voters. But Ridley-Thomas' strong grass-roots campaign, coupled with strong support from organized labor, should make him the favorite in November. If he wins, Ridley-Thomas and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a longtime ally and another grass-roots organizer, might become a powerful force in local black politics.

In one sense, Obama's victory over the once-favored Hillary Rodham Clinton should be encouraging to Ridley-Thomas. In their respective primary battles, Clinton and Parks seemed assured of victory because they enjoyed support from older and more traditional Democratic voters, who tend to be disproportionately powerful in low-profile, low-turnout primary elections. But Obama's and Ridley-Thomas' grass-roots operations overcame the political establishment. Ridley-Thomas' appeal among Latinos, who make up about 26% of the voters, was strong. The contemporary rise of organized labor in L.A. politics is intimately related to unions' outreach to Latino workers, and labor support can therefore help mobilize Latino voters.

Ridley-Thomas might further benefit from Latino support if Obama successfully reaches out to these voters and they turn out in greater numbers in November.

But the fact that the Parks/Ridley-Thomas race will be decided in November, on the same day as the Obama-John McCain contest, makes predicting the political future in the 2nd District very dicey. For obvious reasons, there will be many, many more voters in the fall than there were Tuesday, when only 17% of the voters in the district -- 123,992 -- cast ballots. By contrast, in the November 2004 presidential election, 78% of the county's registered voters turned out. If voters in the 2nd District turn out at the countywide November 2004 rate, 557,949 voters would choose between Ridley-Thomas and Parks -- more than four times as many as those who voted on Tuesday. And that does not take into account the boost that could come from a nationwide plan announced last month by the Obama campaign to increase voter registration.

Parks and Ridley-Thomas, both early Obama supporters, can be expected to tighten their embrace of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The historic battle to elect an African American president will unify the black community and could lead to a gigantic African American turnout in the 2nd District.

How such a turnout could affect the electoral fortunes of Parks or Ridley-Thomas will remain unknown until we learn how the two split the black vote Tuesday. But to the extent that the Obama campaign generates a revived sense of political possibility among L.A.'s African American voters, the candidate endorsed by the black political establishment might well gain a productive harvest.

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