Yesterday I spent some time at an often contentious debate in the race for the 2nd District of the LA County Board of Supervisors. The two most high-profile candidates for the seat, State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas and former LAPD Chief and current City Councilman Bernard Parks, squared off in a pretty lively debate which featured a lot of sniping and criticism.
Why the heated exchanges in a county Board of Supervisors race? Why is a state Senator and a very highly recognized City Councilman running in this race? Why is Sheila Kuehl planning to run for the Board of Supes when Zev Yaroslavsky’s term is up in the near future?
Because these are unbelievably powerful positions.
Los Angeles County has 10.3 million residents, over a quarter of the whole state. The county covers 88 cities and multiple unincorporated areas. Ridiculously enough, there are only five seats on the county Board, meaning that each Supervisor represents over two MILLION people, more than 15 states and the District of Columbia. I have to assume that these are the biggest districts in terms of population anywhere in the country. Right now, seats on the board are held by Gloria Molina, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Zev Yaroslavsky, Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich. LA County is immense and rich in diversity, the most in the nation according to the last US Census. Burke, Knabe and Antonovich’s seats are up for re-election this year, but a sitting Supervisor actually getting challenged in a race is a rare event indeed. Before term limits (now 3 terms or 12 years), the seat was practically a lifetime position. The winner of the Parks/Ridley-Thomas race in the 2nd District will yield only the third Supervisor to hold that seat since 1952.
Given all this, what exactly does the Board of Supervisors do? Well, the Board is the largest public employer in the state of California, serving 102,000 employees, including control of the pension funds. They also provide services for the entire county, managing county lockups, county hospitals and a host of social services. It’s a mammoth job and I can’t for the life of me imagine why it still contains only a 5-member board other than the fact that it increases incumbency protection. When these seats are contested, the dollar sums are outrageous. Parks and Ridley-Thomas raised well over six figures in the first quarter of 2008, and labor is spending immense amounts in favor of the state Senator.
Using a political tool that sidesteps campaign financing limits, Los Angeles labor unions have raised an unprecedented $2.5 million to elect state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas to the county Board of Supervisors.
Before voters head to the polls in June, union officials say they will add an additional $1.5 million to the “independent expenditure committee” pot.
“It is a tribute to my colleagues and brothers and sisters in labor,” said Tyrone Freeman, the head of Service Employees International Union Local 6434, one of the contributors to the Alliance for a Stronger Community.
Obviously, an office with such sway over public employees and county service contracts will catch the eye of labor, and they’ve gone almost all in for Mark Ridley-Thomas. Councilman Parks voted against creating a living wage zone around LAX-area hotels, and has a history of pro-business policies on the City Council. In yesterday’s debate, he sidestepped the question by saying that the zone shouldn’t be confined to the LAX area, while Ridley-Thomas said outright that “a lving wage law is a tool to fight poverty” and any effort to extend it ought to be taken.
It’s a very interesting race. Parks has the higher profile and the support of a lot of local leaders, including Yvonne Burke, who has held the seat for 16 years. Ridley-Thomas has the support of the entire Democratic caucus of the State Senate (every single one of them is down on his endorsement list) and much of the Assembly. Parks has Maxine Waters’ support, and Ridley-Thomas has Diane Watson’s (she ran against Burke for the seat 16 years ago and lost). The district includes Mar Vista and Culver City all the way down to South LA and Watts, the majority of residents in the district actually have Spanish surnames, yet this is a major contest in the African-American political community.
And these two appear to really, really not like each other. The first question in the debate was about gang violence and gang activity, and while Parks stressed youth development and afterschool programs, Ridley-Thomas slyly noted that “some would say that the Los Angeles Police Department acted as a gang during Rampart” (a reference to a major scandal that happened under Parks’ watch as police chief). It went pretty much downhill from there, with Parks claiming that Ridley-Thomas applauded the closure of King-Drew Medical Center and made sweetheart deals with developers as a City Councilman; with Ridley-Thomas hitting Parks on all sorts of issues (health care, environment, labor) and saying “He will know what leadership looks like when it’s working,” and on and on. There are differences between the candidates, particularly on issues like the living wage ordinance, but both are stressing economic development for their depressed district, investments in education and health care access, transportation issues (even congestion pricing).
The fierceness of the contest reflects the importance of the race, and the fact that they’re running for what amounts to a 12-year term. It may not be a sexy seat for progressives to pay attention to, but it has an incredible amount of importance.