Councilwoman Janice Hahn greets Councilman Bernard Parks the day after… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles' public employee unions put their substantial political muscle into defeating their chief target, Bernard C. Parks, in the city election — and found themselves trailing by a sliver as Parks was narrowly exceeding the tally needed to avoid a runoff.
It was a rare setback for the city's most powerful political agents and one that spurred debate over whether, under fire nationally and in various states, the public employee unions had lost ground even in a favored city.
As supporters celebrated around him early Wednesday, Parks insisted that he had won because he had been unafraid to blame what he views as overly generous employee pensions and benefits for setting the city on a path to insolvency — and was unwilling to make promises to labor or his constituents that a broke city cannot keep.
Supporters of the second-place candidate, Forescee Hogan-Rowles, for whom labor had poured in $1.2 million, argued that the results said little about the unions' continued potency in Los Angeles, but merely underscored the difficulty in taking on a two-term incumbent and former police chief who still commands respect in South Los Angeles almost a decade after his controversial ouster from the department.
The two sides also disagreed over the outcome: Parks declared victory early Wednesday, and held on to a little more than 50% of the vote — a threshold that he must maintain to cinch reelection without a run-off. Hogan-Rowles and her backers pinned their hopes on thousands of uncounted ballots; she declined to concede pending a more definitive count, which may not be available for weeks.
Tuesday's election took place amid two strong political cross-currents: organized labor is under siege — a tumult sparked by the showdown between the Wisconsin governor and that state's unions — and the political environment is swirling with anti-incumbent sentiment in the midst of an economic downturn.
In Los Angeles, those pressures had differing impacts: Labor was trailing in its biggest race, yet all of the City Council, school board and community college incumbents held on to their seats despite significant challenges.
"All the incumbents won because there were no big scandals, as in Bell, and no cutting issue," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist who has studied Los Angeles politics. "The budget is just awful everywhere, and incumbents other than Parks did not risk taking risky positions to solve the budget."
Sonenshein and others were skeptical that Tuesday's results suggested any weakening in the power of organized labor, which in the last several years has backed the mayor and a majority of the City Council. Several noted that in a city as vast as Los Angeles, it is difficult to defeat any incumbent, and particularly one as well-known as Parks.
"To have the money and resources that you need is extremely difficult," said veteran political consultant Bill Carrick.
In Parks' case, Carrick said labor's independent expenditures clearly helped to rocket Hogan-Rowles from the 5% of the vote that she won when she ran against him in 2003 to the 43.99% she won Tuesday night.
A third candidate, Jabari Jumaane, finished in the single digits.
"At the end of the day, more people know Bernard Parks, they were more familiar with him," Carrick said. "And you can't beat somebody with nobody."
Kerman Maddox, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley who has advised Parks in past races, said Parks' slender lead was a testament to labor's growing influence.
The lesson from Tuesday's results, Maddox said, was that "if you're a member of the Los Angeles City Council interested in being reelected you should think long and hard about getting on the wrong side of labor because it could have consequences."
But Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said labor's influence is threatening the independence of elected bodies in the county. She cited the 2008 county supervisor's race that pitted Parks against Mark Ridley-Thomas.
In that contest, an independent alliance led by the County Federation of Labor spent $8.5 million to help secure the win for Ridley-Thomas.
"You'd think they would listen to people and allow them to be independent and strong, but instead they seem to want elected officials who will bend to their every wish even though some of the things make no sense whatsoever," Molina said.
Labor did not come into Tuesday's contest with an unbroken winning streak.
In the 2009 special election to replace City Controller Wendy Greuel in a San Fernando Valley council seat, groups that included the city's utility union backed former Paramount Pictures Corp. Executive Christine Essel. But other labor groups supported then-Assemblyman Paul Krekorian, who won.
What was unusual in the Parks race was that a powerful trio — the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, which represents DWP workers — all opposed him.
In the 8th District, the unions' spending amounted to about $174 for each ballot cast for Hogan-Rowles. Outside groups including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce spent $144,000 to boost Parks — about $18 per vote.
Parks said that spending had turned voters off. "Hopefully down the road, other elected officials will stand up to the bullies in the pit."
But Hogan-Rowles, who has said repeatedly that she's "nobody's puppet" regardless of what was spent on her behalf, said it was too early for Parks to be jumping to conclusions about the results.
"I believe things are going to turn out just in our favor," Hogan-Rowles said.