As Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas prepares Friday to exit his post after 12 years and move on to the Los Angeles City Council, he leaves behind a board that has grown more powerful and more progressive during his tenure.
When he was elected in 2007 as the first, and so far only, Black man on the board, Ridley-Thomas joined three white men and one Latina, who had all held their posts for more than a decade. The group had once been pejoratively called the “five little kings” because of its outsized influence and limited oversight.
When former state Sen. Holly Mitchell is sworn in to replace Ridley-Thomas, there will be five women running the county. A budget that stood at $22 billion during the supervisor’s first year has grown to more than $38 billion. And the board, which is elected on a non-partisan basis, has almost undeniably moved to the left, with just a single registered Republican, Supervisor Kathryn Barger, holding a seat.
Ridley-Thomas told City News Service he believes the most meaningful change over the course of his tenure has been a shift in the board’s priorities.
“When we think about the issue of homelessness, it is a huge priority for the Board of Supervisors, as evidenced through Measure H,” he said. “When we think about criminal justice reform, particularly as it relates to the Sheriff’s Department, it’s a very, very high priority for the board.”
As proof, Ridley-Thomas pointed to the inquest — opened this week and the first such proceeding in Los Angeles County in more than 30 years — into the death of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was shot by a sheriff’s deputy near Gardena.
The supervisor also highlighted ordinances that established the Civilian Oversight Commission and Office of Inspector General as watchdog agencies over the department.
“All of what I am describing has been hard-fought,” Ridley-Thomas said.
Whether pushed by the tenor of the times, the political and policy beliefs of its members or both, the board has also begun to work more closely with its critics. Advocates who once were relegated to staging rallies outside the Hall of Administration to influence the board have been invited by Ridley-Thomas and his colleagues to join task forces and inform work on alternatives to incarceration and juvenile justice reforms.
Ridley-Thomas says it’s too early to declare a paradigm shift, but has long been a proponent of gathering more voices. Back in 1995, he championed “Days of Dialogue” as a way to bring Angelenos together in conversations about race following divisive reactions to the not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. That program continues Friday.
The supervisor recently put forth an anti-racist agenda for the county, pushing to address systemic racism and inequities in health care, housing, employment, education and criminal justice.
Calls for equity by groups like Black Lives Matter have gained traction with a broad swath of Americans following nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police. However, it is also true that Proposition 16, which would have rolled back a decades-old California ban on affirmative action, was rejected by California voters in last month’s general election.
Asked to explain that result, Ridley-Thomas says those who seek social change will still have to fight for it.
He noted that hate crimes tracked annually by the county’s Human Relations Commission “give a real expression to certain dimensions of the temperature of racial intolerance in a county that is otherwise viewed as enlightened, in a state that is viewed as the most progressive in the nation.”
“We should not underestimate the forces of racism. Frederick Douglass was clear about it, `Power concedes nothing without a struggle, never has, never will,”’ Ridley-Thomas says, paraphrasing the abolitionist leader. “I think that’s what we’re dealing with, that’s what we confronted in Proposition 16… So there is a Portuguese expression that’s invoked by persons who are longstanding in movement politics: `a luta continua,’ namely, `the struggle continues.”’
The supervisor has a penchant for quoting not only civil rights icons, but passages of scripture, a habit that has earned him the nickname Brother Redemption from Supervisor Janice Hahn, who he in turn calls Sister Salvation.
As the only Black member of the county board, Ridley-Thomas had a unique platform and vantage point. He also had the advantage of needing to enlist only two other supervisors to move most issues forward. Still, he often sought a full consensus on even fractious decisions, like the recent action to ban outdoor dining countywide to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In that case, his efforts for harmony failed, with Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Hahn remaining opposed to the ban rather than presenting a united front to the public.
However, much of the board’s agenda and its efforts toward reform have been promoted by unanimous vote, and while the behind-the-scenes politicking is not always evident, that unanimity is likely due in no small part to Ridley-Thomas himself.
The Los Angeles City Council, where Ridley-Thomas served three previous terms before being elected to the state Assembly and then the Senate, may put his skills of persuasion to a tougher test based solely on the fact that it is comprised of 15 members with diverse agendas.
As he talks about taking a seat on the council for the second time — the fourth such term in his political career — Ridley-Thomas has made clear that he is gearing up to continue the fight against homelessness as a centerpiece of his work. He will do what he can to convince voters that a second round of Measure H funding is essential even as people are falling into homelessness faster than the county and city can provide interim or permanent housing.
He also anticipates a broader agenda on behalf of the arts, entertainment and bioscience.
“I will seek to play to the strengths of Los Angeles as the centerpiece of the creative economy in the state of California. So I declare that the arts matter, but not only that. Entertainment matters, sports matter, and all of it is connected to culture, and so you should expect advocacy from me on that front,” Ridley-Thomas told CNS. “I think we are the locus of what’s new and what’s next.”
There is no denying the public good he has accomplished, from seeing through his commitment to transform community health care in South Los Angeles with the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center, to his perseverance on behalf of the Crenshaw Line from South Los Angeles to Los Angeles International Airport.
“The amount of work that we’ve been able to do, the things that we’ve been able to accomplish, have been really rather wonderful,” he said of the county board.
However, Ridley-Thomas is also not above playing hardball to get what he wants. Just one example was his bold move to seize a long-vacant lot at Vermont and Manchester avenues by eminent domain in order to build a mixed-used development and public boarding school. The site was burned to the ground during the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King.
“It’s going to be a game-changer in the life of those young people, many of whom are at risk, but show tremendous promise — a public boarding school right at the location of the civil unrest,” he said. “Each member of the board was fully supportive. Not sure that previous boards would have done that — this board did.”
Ridley-Thomas’ long career in politics, which began back in 1991 on the Los Angeles City Council, is evidence enough that he is a consummate politician, adept at cultivating relationships and largely successful in skirting scandal.
Many suspect that he aspires to run for mayor of Los Angeles in 2022, when Mayor Eric Garcetti’s second term ends.
“It would be nice to be able to take my oath of office for the City Council before contemplating that,” Ridley-Thomas said, laughing when asked about his intentions. “Can a brother catch his breath?”
He will be sworn in as the councilman for the city’s 10th District next week.
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