Barring a stunner, Bernard Parks isn't going to be mayor of the city where he served as a cop for most of his life. Don't dismiss him, though, as merely a spoiler who's only on the March 8 ballot to exact revenge for his firing as police chief by a mayor he loathes. Sure, he'd take a moment to appreciate the plot twist should James K. Hahn lose. But if Parks had just proved to be a more capable campaigner, he might have played himself into the conscience of the race.
So far, the front-runners haven't closed the sale with voters. In front of crowds, Hahn and Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa default to safe, consultant-polished message bits. Former assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg pops his points earnestly, but wonkish lectures don't enthrall audiences. That has left room for Parks and, to a lesser degree, the underfunded state senator Richard Alarcón to wow them with plain talk and populist appeals. Both men connect emotionally, but heads nod more vigorously when Parks rolls out his case that crime, traffic, and special interests are ruining Los Angeles and that the mayor is letting it happen. "We were promised we would be the safest big city in America...but what we got was the biggest corruption scandal in 70 years," he likes to say. He tells black audiences that eight in ten of them voted for Hahn in 2001, a mistake they shouldn't make again. "If he fooled you once, it's his fault. If he fools you twice, it's your fault." His best line, measured by laughs and the scribbling pens of reporters, has been "This mayor has an answer for almost everything, but he doesn't have a solution to anything."
Parks's easiest target is the flexible LAPD workweek Hahn approved shortly after taking office. Crowds tend to listen when it's the ex-chief who accuses the mayor of buying the police union's endorsement with an innovative schedule that turns street cops — many of whom live outside the city — into visitors. Some have taken side jobs, he complains, and come to Los Angeles to work their shifts 120 or so times a year. "People fall out of their chair when you tell them officers only work three days," Parks says.
The Crenshaw-area councilman also scores with doubts about another labor-backed project, Hahn's plan to invest $11 billion in a makeover of LAX: "You and I will not be able to drive down Sepulveda if they allow 70 million people to come to an airport that doesn't have a public transportation system." He's ruthless when it comes to the ethics questions being raised about Hahn's administration: "He's created an environment of corruption. I never heard of pay-to-play until I got on the city council."
Such arrows zing where they hurt Hahn the most. Parks's pitch is tuned for the ear of older residents in the middle-class African American neighborhoods, such as Crenshaw and Leimert Park, that elected him to the city council in 2003. He is also trying to attract whites and Asian Americans in pro-police areas of the Valley. These fragments of the city electorate gave Hahn the victory edge over Villaraigosa four years ago, and he probably needs them to win a second term. They represent the most conservative blocs up for grabs, so for them Parks is offering to be the pro-business alternative in a field of labor-cozy liberals.
He hopes to appeal to people who remember him as chief not because of the Rampart scandal and the way his tenure came to a crashing end but because of how elegant and commanding he looked in uniform. Parks stands six feet three with a spine as straight as a steel rod. People magazine once put him on its "50 Most Beautiful People" list. Cable TV sexologist Susan Block cooed in print that he was an "African American Cowboy," "tall, dark, svelte and sexy, with deep soulful eyes, a sensuous but rugged mouth, that distinguished silver tint to [his] hair."
Parks's run for mayor is completing the transformation of his image from policeman to politician that began when he convincingly won an open seat on the council. At 61, he is the oldest contender, and he's been working as hard as anybody. (Endurance is a family trait. His mother, Gertrude, attends some campaign appearances. Her mother, Agnes Smith, who will turn 102 in April, still gets out.) Parks has floated his own plan for the airport and another one to ease traffic around the city. They show he's in this to become mayor, he says. Settling scores has nothing to do with it. That would be taking advantage of friends, contributors, and volunteers. "This isn't about winning a moral victory," he says.
Parks came to L.A. from Texas when he was a baby. In 1965, the year Watts exploded, he was part of the second generation of young blacks to join the Los Angeles Police Department. The first, which included Tom Bradley, knew they had the wrong skin color to rise through the ranks and left early to pursue other careers. Parks stuck around, earning his degree from Pepperdine University (as did Hahn) and moving up under conservative chiefs such as Ed Davis and Daryl Gates. After becoming deputy chief, he thought he was in line to be the first African American to lead the LAPD. In 1992, his hopes were crushed when Bradley-coming to the end of his 20 years as mayor-was able to replace his nemesis, Gates, and recruited an outsider, Willie Williams from Philadelphia.
Williams was brought in to reinvent a department then reeling from the Rodney King beating and its aftermath. He juggled the senior staff, exiling Parks to a lesser position-one from which he kept building relationships outside the spotlight. Williams eventually alienated people with a disengaged management style. In 1997, Mayor Richard Riordan and a new police commission looked for a replacement. Parks finally got his dream job.
At first he seemed to be the kind of chief that Los Angeles deserved: capable, photogenic, and homegrown. His five-year term, however, was turbulent. Questionable shootings brought relentless media attention. Rogue cops in the Rampart Division invited new calls for reform. Parks believed in diversity more than his predecessors did, drawing praise in the gay community and elsewhere. But he was surprisingly old school when it came to outside scrutiny. A propensity to micromanage and to be gruff with underlings didn't help, and he engaged in open warfare with the Police Protective League. Soon after Hahn became mayor, he agreed with the union that it was time for new leadership.
It was a risky move for Hahn. If he becomes the first mayor since Sam Yorty to lose, pundits will point to black defections to Parks. Still, it was the right call. Morale was shot, and officers were fleeing the department. Hahn's hire, William Bratton, has good relations with the union, the public, and the press. In fact, if Hahn wins, Bratton's popularity could be the reason.
With Parks you get the family package. His son, Bernard junior, shares his dad's birthday and high school alma mater (Daniel Murphy) and left a newswriting job at CBS 2 to serve first as press deputy in Parks's council office, then as chief of staff. He took a leave this year to help run the campaign. "Unlike most parents, I get a return on my educational investment every day," Parks senior quips.
The more prominent part of the team is Bobbie, Parks's wife of more than 35 years. She helped him cram for police exams when they were younger and was a familiar presence around Parker Center. In the campaign for mayor, she has proved to be an imposing force. At the December opening of Parks's headquarters in the Crenshaw district, Bobbie was the belle of the morning in a red suit. A tootling jazz trio kept time as she greeted old friends and nudged the shy toward pans stuffed with chicken, meatballs, and rice. These were the loyal folks, people the couple had met while raising four kids in southwest L.A. When it was time to introduce the candidate, Bobbie did the honors. First, however, she made her own wishes clear: "I'm pleased to say that I have the chance to be the first lady of the city. I want to be that one who you say, 'This woman represents our city.'"
She has always been an outsize player in her husband's public life and career. "It's a two-for-one deal," says Kerman Maddox, the KCAL 9 political commentator who managed Parks's council campaign. "Bobbie Parks plays a huge role in the life of Bernard Parks. Without her, he never would have become chief. They finish each other's sentences." However, her influence in the mayoral campaign has been controversial. A succession of campaign managers have quit, complaining about Bernard and Bobbie's refusal to accept advice and their tight grip on matters better left to the pros. News stories blamed her control over details and access to the candidate for driving off potential supporters. Soul Vine, a gossip and notes column in South L.A.'s Wave newspaper, praised an L.A. Weekly piece for revealing "virtually everything the community has been saying about that campaign, up to and including Bobbie Parks's Lady Macbeth role and the fact that no one involved in any previous Parks endeavor will touch this campaign." The columnist, Betty Pleasant, has not been especially friendly to Bernard, either, chiding him for verbally threatening a blogger who reported on a dispute at city hall. "We all know he's imperial, high-and-mighty, thin-skinned and can't take criticism," she wrote.
Parks makes no apologies for his wife. "Bobbie Parks is an integral part of everything I do," he says. One of her charms is that she works for free. Parks's campaign has been starved for cash. His reluctance to personally call on donors has frustrated his consultants, but the greater obstacle is that many of them decided early that he lacked citywide appeal.
Everyone around the parks campaign sticks to the story that the endgame is about winning. If he does, he will be L.A.'s second African American mayor. When Bradley beat Yorty in 1973 to become the first, his coalition of black voters and white liberals went on to dominate city elections for a generation. No such historic movement is behind Parks. His only notable early endorsements came from black entertainers such as Bill Cosby and Nancy Wilson and from Mike Antonovich, the most partisan Republican member of the Board of Supervisors. When the African American prospect for mayor needs help from a Valley conservative, you know times have changed. Blacks' political clout was ascendant in Bradley's day, but now it is Latinos whose numbers and power are on the rise. That puts a burden on Parks, who may represent the last shot at electing a black mayor for a long while.
So for the third time Parks is becoming a community rallying point. As chief he was the highest-ranking African American in city government. When he was being ousted, leaders such as Magic Johnson, Representative Maxine Waters, and Reverend Cecil Murray — along with pretty much everybody else who mattered — came to his defense. Parks got a lot of support again when he ran for the council, winning the seat vacated by Mark Ridley-Thomas. There are good reasons why the embrace isn't as warm these days. Some black leaders are close to Villaraigosa or Hertzberg, and Hahn has friends in the neighborhoods where he grew up and where his dad, Kenneth, was a popular county supervisor for decades. Also, there's nothing like backing a winner.
Crucially for Parks, he's now just one of three black council members, the one planted atop the mayor's do-not-call list. It matters, too, that Parks leans more conservative than other black politicians in the city. He's not a lone wolf-he joined with Waters and others in arguing against the county's closure of the trauma center at King/Drew Medical Center-but on hot-button issues like the opening of a Wal-Mart in the old Crenshaw Boulevard Broadway store he opted for jobs over concerns that Wal-Mart is nonunion and might hurt local merchants. He's for development, and while Hahn and liberal black leaders push for more affordable housing, he encourages market-rate homes and apartments that make his district look more prosperous.
No prominent African American leaders signed on early or attended the Parks headquarters opening. As the election nears, some have made modest public shows of solidarity. No one wants him to be embarrassed. Parks doesn't have to win, but a flop would be damaging. The stronger his finish in the primary, the more valuable his endorsement will be in a runoff. If he helps to elect a new mayor, black political clout will grow. "There is a desire in the community to have an impact on the race," says Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist who has written the definitive book about the Bradley phenomenon.
As a councilman, Parks has shown political skills. Shrewdly guarding his cards, he observed a behind-the-scenes battle for the council presidency until the pivotal moment and then gave the deciding vote to a grateful Alex Padilla. Parks emerged as chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee and received a seat on the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, where he gets to push his pet project: again filling the historic stadium with National Football League fans on autumn Sunday afternoons. He has also developed a good relationship with Villaraigosa, so it wouldn't be a surprise for Parks to endorse him in a runoff.
If Villaraigosa ended up winning it all, the stumbling race Parks has run wouldn't have been a total loss. He would continue serving on the council, this time with a friend in the mayor's office. He would have helped people forget that he was the police chief who got fired. And, of course, the man who fired him would be gone from City Hall.
©Kevin Roderick 2005