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Multiculturalism in L.A.

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Task 1: Read the article "Black political leaders face a new era in Los Angeles" by Michael Finnegan taken from the L.A.Times on May 27, 2008.

Task 2: Briefly sum up the main cultural changes the Los Angeles area has gone through in the past and will go through in the future, according to this article.

Task 3: Imagine you were living in the Los Angeles area. How would you evaluate the racial shift in local politics? Would you see it as an opportunity or as a threat? Discuss a possible outcome.

Task 4: The author argues that “a big question […] will be which candidate can draw support from Latinos, whites and Asians.” How can this be achieved? Make suggestions.

Black political leaders face a new era in Los Angeles

L.A. Times - May 27, 2008 by Michael Finnegan

The hard-fought race for a rare open seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors looks like a traditional clash over a top perch of black political power in California.

But the contest between L.A. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) also foreshadows an uncertain future for black political leaders in the L.A. Basin.

Latinos outnumber African Americans now by nearly 2 to 1 in the county's vast 2nd Supervisorial District, an area of 2 million people that was predominantly black until the 1990s. At its core are Crenshaw, Watts and Baldwin Hills; around the edges are Marina del Rey, Culver City, Koreatown, Compton, Carson and Inglewood.

"The changing demographics make a lot of people a little uncomfortable, because many African Americans feel they're losing political power," said Kerman Maddox, a veteran advisor to candidates in the area. "After 12 years, is the next [supervisor] going to be African American? A lot of people aren't so sure."

Even now, Ridley-Thomas is relying heavily on organized labor -- the engine of Latino power in California -- to defeat Parks, who is backed by pillars of the black political establishment. Parks' supporters include incumbent Yvonne B. Burke, former Lakers star-turned-businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), the leader of a mighty old-guard political machine. The seat is the only one on the board currently held by an African American.

Whatever the racial crosscurrents, the winner of the June 3 election -- or of a November runoff if neither wins more than 50% -- will hold a job with immense power over the lives of 10.3 million people crammed into the nation's most populous county.

Though often invisible to constituents, the five supervisors oversee a sprawling and, by many measures, failing healthcare system that determines how quickly county residents get emergency treatment -- if at all. They employ more than 100,000 people, including paramedics, firefighters, sheriff's deputies, beach lifeguards, social workers, librarians, restaurant inspectors, helicopter pilots and museum curators.

Millions -- among them abused and neglected children, victims of domestic violence, the homeless, the mentally ill, jail inmates, criminals on probation, drug addicts in rehabilitation centers and welfare recipients -- depend on the county's core social services. The county's performance has been chronically substandard in many of those areas.

Ridley-Thomas and Parks are vying with seven others for the 2nd District seat at a time of deep stress on the county's $22-billion budget. Beyond threatened state and federal cuts, a decline in home values portends a drop in property-tax revenue on which the county depends.

The campaign's intensity, along with its rising acrimony, stems partly from the infrequency of vacancies on the board. The seat has turned over just once since Kenneth Hahn first captured it in 1952.

Burke, who is retiring, won it in 1992 after a fiercely contested race against Diane Watson with the Los Angeles riots as the backdrop. The race pitted two of the California Democratic Party's pioneering black women against each other. Burke became the first black supervisor. Watson, the first black woman in the state Senate, now serves in Congress.

During that campaign, Latinos were just surpassing African Americans in population share. Since then, the surge of Latinos has accelerated, but many are not citizens or have not registered to vote. As a result, blacks will still be the dominant force in next week's election, making up just over 40% of the voters, with whites perhaps 30% and Latinos roughly 25%, strategists estimate.

Nonetheless, the rapid population shifts suggest that black clout will wane further by 2020, when Parks or Ridley-Thomas, if still in office, would be barred from seeking a fourth term.

"This is probably the last African American-only election in that district," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a think tank on Latino politics.

Both candidates are trying to extend their appeal beyond African Americans.

A former L.A. police chief, Parks has adopted a variation of the strategy that failed him in his 2005 run for mayor. Then, he tried to build a coalition of blacks and conservative whites. This time, he is highlighting his support from such white Republicans as former Mayor Richard Riordan and county Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Parks is running as a fiscal conservative with support from business, notably the real estate industry. He has voiced doubts about rent control and opposed a council measure to boost the wages of hotel workers.

In an interview, Parks suggested that labor's alliance with Ridley-Thomas could spell trouble for the county.

"What do you do, just drive [the county] into bankruptcy because you have an allegiance to people who have given you thousands of dollars?" Parks asked.

The two rivals have taken markedly different career paths. Following the model of Tom Bradley, L.A.'s first black mayor, Parks, 64, rose through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, becoming chief in 1997. His ouster in 2002 engineered by a white mayor, James K. Hahn, transformed Parks into a political icon for many black voters, and he won a seat on the City Council in 2003.

Ridley-Thomas, 53, started out as a high school teacher, then turned to civil rights advocacy as executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles. He then was elected to the City Council, the state Assembly and state Senate.

Citing a wide array of supporters -- La Opinion newspaper, the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women and Police Chief William J. Bratton, Parks' successor, to name a few -- Ridley-Thomas said he was better suited than Parks for a job that demands compromise.

"I am a leader who can build consensus between labor and business, between various ethnic groups," he said.

Leaning back in a swivel chair at his headquarters on Jefferson Boulevard, Ridley-Thomas issued a scathing assessment of Parks, describing him as vindictive and contemptuous of critics.

"It's amazing how anybody can alienate so many groups," Ridley-Thomas said, noting that law enforcement unions have sided unanimously with him over Parks.

He also accused Parks of trying to exploit sympathy over his ouster as police chief. He said the eruption of the Rampart corruption scandal when Parks was chief exposed his failure to fight police misconduct. And every morning, he said, Parks wakes up and asks himself, "What can I go and do to mess with Bill Bratton today?"

Parks said he never could have made it to the top LAPD job if he did not work well with others. He described the department's system for civilian complaints against officers as a showcase achievement of his reform efforts. He recalled that Ridley-Thomas wrote lavish praise of his tenure as police chief in 2002, saying in a newspaper article that Parks' "work ethic is unmatched and his competence unparalleled."

Parks criticized Ridley-Thomas' record on the City Council, saying he had left too many streets unpaved and failed to stop the spread of fast-food restaurants in the district.

On a more pressing matter, the two have tangled almost daily over which candidate would be a stronger champion of reopening Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in Willowbrook, just south of Watts, formerly the King/Drew Medical Center.

However voters sort through the back-and-forth, a big question next week will be which candidate can draw support from Latinos, whites and Asians.

After years of television exposure, Parks is more widely known. But labor is putting at least $2 million into its independent campaign for Ridley-Thomas, and a big part of it is an aggressive appeal to Latinos through mail, advertising and home visits.

"Coalition politics are key," said Anthony Thigpenn, the field director of the labor campaign. "And that will be increasing in the future."


[ Source: L.A. Times - May 27, 2008 by Michael Finnegan. http://articles.latimes.com/2008/may/27/local/me-supes27 - 9 NOV 2009 ]