Bernard Parks debates with challengers Forescee Hogan-Rowles and Jabari… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks' bid for a third term in his South Los Angeles district once looked to be a lock.
The councilman was elected with 78% of the vote in 2003, riding a wave of anger among black voters over his ouster a year earlier as police chief after 37 years with the Los Angeles Police Department. No one challenged him in 2007. And his two opponents in the March 8 contest have meager campaign treasuries and a fraction of his name recognition in the 8th District, which stretches from the neighborhoods around USC almost to the 105 Freeway.
But suddenly, the 67-year-old Parks has found himself in a heated race with citywide import. The two-term councilman has become the top target of the city's highly organized employee unions, which have tightened their grip on the City Council in recent years. His defeat could shift the balance of the City Council toward a majority already heavily influenced by union leaders.
Parks' chief opponent in the March 8 election, Forescee Hogan-Rowles, has been helped somewhat by discontent in the district over continued high unemployment. But unions are the driving force in turning the contest into a fight. They have already spent more than $469,000 on her behalf, dwarfing the $10,000 her campaign treasury held at the end of the January filing period.
Both sides see more than a single council seat at stake. Over the last few years, as Los Angeles has struggled to keep its finances out of the red, Parks has guided the city's Budget Committee, nudging colleagues to make politically perilous employee layoffs and furloughs and to weigh cuts to future pension benefits while warning that delays could lead to insolvency.
Though the mayor and council backed job cuts, Parks' repeated assertions that the city has been too generous with employee benefits have made him the focus of unions' anger. Their campaign against him could serve as a warning shot to other elected leaders who dare to cross them.
At a recent rally near Parks' headquarters on Crenshaw Boulevard, San Fernando Valley Councilman Greig Smith told Parks' supporters that they were on "the front line of a much bigger fight."
"He has one word that doesn't go over well on the City Council — it's 'No,'" said Smith, who shares Parks' fiscal conservatism. "There are people coming after him that don't like being told 'No.' "
If Parks "somehow loses this fight," he said, "the city of Los Angeles will go bankrupt."
On the other side, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, which represents 8,551 DWP workers, has aired gauzy television ads to introduce Hogan-Rowles as the candidate focused on "job opportunities." The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor has spent more than $122,000 for field work, consultants, phone banks and brightly colored mailings that highlight her work helping low-income businesses at the nonprofit organization she heads, the Community Financial Resource Center.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents about 9,000 rank-and-file city police officers, has aired radio ads attacking Parks as a "typical politician and a hypocrite." It sent out a campaign flier last week falsely charging that Parks "took 1,000 police officers off our streets."
Hogan-Rowles cannot legally coordinate her efforts with the unions' independent committees, but she is clearly thrilled that labor is raising her profile.
"I kind of feel like one of those people who has been in a rock band for a long time — they've been playing in those nightclubs that nobody hardly goes to — and then all of a sudden they think they're an overnight success," she said during a recent teleconference with voters.
For Parks, the union opposition is an uncomfortable replay of his unsuccessful 2008 run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, when labor spent $8.5 million to aid his opponent, Mark Ridley-Thomas.
The unions, he said, demand a "100% voting record for their wishes" and "believe that they are in charge of the City Council."
"Folks that do not live here do not have a voice in the 8th District," he said.
Labor leaders say Parks should have seen this coming. The Police Protective League has sparred with Parks since he was police chief. His history with the county labor federation does not stretch back as far, but his relationships with its members have been strained as the city's budget deficit has worsened.
Few of Parks' stances have rankled more than his advocacy for scaling back pension benefits for future workers to curtail what he views as unsustainable city spending.
The unions opposing Parks believe their most potent ammunition is the fact that Parks collects a $265,000 police pension and a $178,789 council salary.
"He espouses this frugal approach when it comes to others, but he certainly hasn't practiced what he preaches," said Maria Elena Durazo, the labor federation leader.