Bernard Parks, left, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, are seated next to each other… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
The hard-fought race for a rare open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors looks like a traditional clash over a top perch of black political power in California.
But the contest between L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) also foreshadows an uncertain future for black political leaders in the L.A. Basin.
Latinos outnumber African Americans now by nearly 2 to 1 in the county's vast 2nd Supervisorial District, an area of 2 million people that was predominantly black until the 1990s. At its core are Crenshaw, Watts and Baldwin Hills; around the edges are Marina del Rey, Culver City, Koreatown, Compton, Carson and Inglewood.
"The changing demographics make a lot of people a little uncomfortable, because many African Americans feel they're losing political power," said Kerman Maddox, a veteran advisor to candidates in the area. "After 12 years, is the next [supervisor] going to be African American? A lot of people aren't so sure."
Even now, Ridley-Thomas is relying heavily on organized labor -- the engine of Latino power in California -- to defeat Parks, who is backed by leaders of the black political establishment. Parks' supporters include incumbent Yvonne B. Burke, former Lakers star-turned-businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), the leader of a mighty old-guard political machine. The seat is the only one on the board currently held by an African American.
Whatever the racial crosscurrents, the winner of the June 3 election -- or of a November runoff if neither wins more than 50% -- will hold a job with immense power over the lives of 10.3 million people crammed into the nation's most populous county.
Though often invisible to constituents, the five supervisors oversee a sprawling and, by many measures, failing healthcare system that determines how quickly county residents get emergency treatment -- if at all. They employ more than 100,000 people, including paramedics, firefighters, sheriff's deputies, beach lifeguards, social workers, librarians, restaurant inspectors, helicopter pilots and museum curators.
Millions -- among them abused and neglected children, victims of domestic violence, the homeless, the mentally ill, jail inmates, criminals on probation, drug addicts in rehabilitation centers and welfare recipients -- depend on the county's core social services. The county's performance has been chronically substandard in many of those areas.
Ridley-Thomas and Parks are vying with seven others for the 2nd District seat at a time of deep stress on the county's $22-billion budget. Beyond threatened state and federal cuts, a decline in home values portends a drop in property-tax revenue on which the county depends.
The campaign's intensity, along with its rising acrimony, stems partly from the infrequency of vacancies on the board. The seat has turned over just once since Kenneth Hahn first captured it in 1952.
Burke, who is retiring, won it in 1992 after a fiercely contested race against Diane Watson with the Los Angeles riots as the backdrop. The race pitted two of the California Democratic Party's pioneering black women against each other. Burke became the first black supervisor. Watson, the first black woman in the state Senate, now serves in Congress.
During that campaign, Latinos were just surpassing African Americans in population share. Since then, the surge of Latinos has accelerated, but many are not citizens or have not registered to vote. As a result, blacks will still be the dominant force in next week's election, making up just over 40% of the voters, with whites perhaps 30% and Latinos roughly 25%, strategists estimate.
Nonetheless, the rapid population shifts suggest that black clout will wane further by 2020, when Parks or Ridley-Thomas, if still in office, would be barred from seeking a fourth term.
"This is probably the last African American-only election in that district," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank on Latino politics.
Both candidates are trying to extend their appeal beyond African Americans.
A former L.A. police chief, Parks has adopted a variation of the strategy that failed him in his 2005 run for mayor. Then, he tried to build a coalition of blacks and conservative whites. This time, he is highlighting his support from such white Republicans as former Mayor Richard Riordan and county Supervisor Mike Antonovich.
Parks is running as a fiscal conservative with support from business, notably the real estate industry. He has voiced doubts about rent control and opposed a council measure to boost the wages of hotel workers.
In an interview, Parks suggested that labor's alliance with Ridley-Thomas could spell trouble for the county.
"What do you do, just drive [the county] into bankruptcy because you have an allegiance to people who have given you thousands of dollars?" Parks asked.