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Lancaster mayor is anything but politically correct

Rex Parris has proudly forged a reputation as a no-nonsense leader. But some say he's gone too far.

September 20, 2009|Ann M. Simmons

After each City Council meeting, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris heads home, flips on his TiVo and watches a replay of the town hall proceedings. His wife makes notes of the sections she feels her husband should review, along with suggestions of what he could have done better: Temper an angry exchange. Soften a terse response. Listen.

It may seem oddly reflective behavior for a man who has proudly forged a reputation as a no-nonsense, hard-boiled politician, more Old West sheriff than diplomat.

After all, Parris is the guy who tried to ban dogs known to be favored by gangs, proposed restrictions on landlords who want to rent to tenants with Section 8 federal housing vouchers, helped fund a program to bus homeless people out of town and shut down a local motel to prevent the notorious Mongols motorcycle club from meeting in Lancaster.

Supporters cheer him for ratcheting up public safety, coming to the aid of local merchants and kicking aside roadblocks for developers wanting to do business in town.

"He doesn't pussyfoot around," said Bishop Henry Hearns, who served 18 years on the City Council, including two terms as Lancaster's first African American mayor.

But critics say Parris, who was elected last year, is an arrogant bully and an unstoppable control freak. "King Rex" they call him, or "T. Rex." Scott Pelka, 52, a self-described archenemy of Parris and long-time Lancaster resident, said the mayor has created a "dictatorship" in which challenges to his authority are simply not tolerated.

"He is the best of us, he is the worst of us. It depends on whether or not you agree with him," allowed Diana Beard-Williams, who worked on Parris' mayoral election campaign.

It's easy to see why Parris, 57, might polarize constituents. Get him talking about gangs, for instance, and he offers up this:

"There is no mercy," he said, speaking of gangbangers while in his plush City Hall office adorned with leather furnishings, a curved wooden desk and photos taken with celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell and President Reagan. "You don't work with them, you destroy them. It's simple."

And if there's "collateral damage," well, he says he's willing to take that chance. "I would just like to remove the insanity. If that makes me a barbarian, so be it."

For all the tough talk, Raymond "Rex" Parris is a complex person. His mother was a waitress. His father disappeared early in his life, and the family -- for a while -- was on welfare. The third of four sons, Parris dropped out of high school, worked as a busboy, got hooked on drugs and nearly went to jail. He eventually righted the ship and went to law school.

Now he has a booming law firm in town that specializes in class-action, personal injury and malpractice cases. He has won several multimillion-dollar jury verdicts for clients, and in July he was lead trial counsel in a civil defamation lawsuit filed by five former employees of Guess Inc. that resulted in a $370-million judgment against company co-founder Georges Marciano.

It's hard to miss his name in Lancaster. Ads for his services are splashed across television, billboards and local telephone directories. He has given handsomely to charity, underwritten academic grants and been involved in local schools so deeply that one of Lancaster's high schools was named in his honor eight years ago.

He is hardly shy about wearing the spoils of his success.

An imposing man with a white mane and beard that give him a striking resemblance to country music singer Kenny Rogers, Parris dresses in crisply tailored suits and black crocodile leather cowboy boots. He carries an Amazon Kindle electronic book reader.

He drives an exotic gray Audi sports car that auto industry magazines list between $60,000 and $90,000. Parris said he had to wait about six months for a dealer to get the car from Germany.

On a recent drive home from City Hall, Parris stroked the paneling surrounding the car's steering wheel.

"It's made of graphite," he said, and recalled how a scratch recently set him back $8,000 in repairs.

His home of 16 years in the exclusive Westfield Estates gated community, on Lancaster's west side, is palatial. The 5,000-square-foot residence, secluded on an acre, resembles a museum, with ornate chandeliers and Italian marble tile floors. His wife, Carrol, was in charge of decorating the home, meticulously selecting each of the furnishings.

Family portraits hang over fireplaces and in hallways. A restored Steinway & Sons piano graces the family room. On top lies a concert violin Parris' wife bought him after he had taken six months of lessons.

In the backyard, where two great Danes named Jack and Bell roam, a waterfall gushes over rocks into a lake-like pool. There are tennis and basketball courts, a granite-countered bar and grill. Tomato plants, pumpkins and corn flourish in manicured beds.

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