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Connections he has, but can Ridley-Thomas connect?

Backers say he has the soul of a grass-roots activist, but others consider him too remote for voters.

May 11, 2008|John L. Mitchell | Times Staff Writer

During a day of stop-and-go campaigning for the 2nd District seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas paused for a little criticism from his campaign manager: You need to do more to toot your own horn.

"You have to close the deal," said Vincent Harris after Ridley-Thomas' debate last weekend with his chief rival for the seat, L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks.

Harris wanted his boss to show more of a killer instinct when rattling off his accomplishments.

"I can't remember all the things I've done," said Ridley-Thomas, laughing, deflecting the jab with a sigh and suggesting that age may be catching up with him.

The 53-year-old Los Angeles Democrat is competing against Parks and seven other candidates in the June 3 election for a seat in a culturally and ethnically diverse district that stretches from Culver City and Mar Vista to South Los Angeles, Watts and Compton.

Supporters describe Ridley-Thomas as a consensus builder, a politician with the heart of a grass-roots community activist and the flair of an intellectual. But longtime detractors say he's still an elitist with an abrasive style. And some say he's a little of both.

If he wins, the Board of Supervisors will be the next stop on a career path that began in 1991 when he traded his role as a civil rights leader -- executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles -- for a seat on the City Council.

In 2002, Ridley-Thomas was elected to the state Assembly, where he served for four years until he won his current seat in the Senate.

Over the years, he has brought programs, jobs and millions of dollars of development to Southwest Los Angeles.

Following the 1992 riots, Ridley-Thomas founded the Empowerment Congress, a citizen involvement group that became a model for the city's system of neighborhood councils.

In 1995, he invited a select group of civic leaders and community activists to have "A Day of Dialogue" to defuse racial tensions after the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial. Since then, thousands of people nationwide have participated in "Days of Dialogue" programs.

In 2002, he founded the African American Voter Registration, Education and Participation Project, a political action committee designed to bolster black political power.

His opinions on anything from police accountability to health reform have appeared in the op-ed pages of numerous publications -- he's written more than three dozen pieces for The Times.

Ridley-Thomas has the backing of several elected leaders and officials, including Assembly Speaker-elect Karen Bass, who describes him as "the best choice" to help solve the needs of those who suffer from the consequences of poverty.

Some, like Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), are hoping to avoid the political fray.

"I work with Mark and I work with Parks," Watson said. "My thing is to stay out."

Over her objections, Ridley-Thomas lists Watson among those who have endorsed him.

"No questions about it, she endorsed me," Ridley-Thomas said, recalling a Christmas party where the congress- woman gave him her blessing. "People can split hairs if they wish. Everyone knows the length and depth of the relationship Diane and I share."

Then there are Ridley-Thomas' political enemies, who have strong opinions as well: "Mark is seen as arrogant, egotistical and disrespects folks," Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) said in 2002 when she refused to support his bid for the Assembly. Today, Waters is backing Parks for supervisor, dismissing Ridley-Thomas as being controlled by unions.

There are many theories about the origins of the animosity between Waters and Ridley-Thomas. Some say it began in 1991 after he defeated her deputy, Roderick Wright, for a City Council seat. Others say it was sparked by the Payless Shoe Store he supported in her upscale Vermont Knolls neighborhood after the 1992 riots.

But the signs of war were evident in 1993 after Waters in a Times interview criticized then-Mayor Tom Bradley's "lack of leadership," calling him a "nonthreatening black man" who made white liberals feel safe until Los Angeles "had a rebellion."

Ridley-Thomas, one of several black elected officials who responded in a letter to The Times, attacked Waters as a "self-serving" cynic who had done little more than criticize and had nothing to show for her years in the state Assembly and Congress, other than "verbal broadsides."

The Board of Supervisors' election marks only the third time since 1952 that a new supervisor will be chosen in the 2nd District, which for 40 years was claimed by Kenneth Hahn. The last open contest was in 1992, when Yvonne B. Burke beat Watson.

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