No one was really expecting Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks to have much trouble defeating Forescee Hogan-Rowles in the upcoming city election. But that was before big labor got involved with the race for Council District 8.
The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO has spent more than $80,000 in support of Hogan-Rowles, and the IBEW—the electrical workers union—more than $125,000. Through an innocuously named group, Working Californians to Support Forescee Hogan-Rowles, the IBEW is prepared to spend almost a quarter million more on the race. And Hogan-Rowles has drawn further endorsements from the SEIU local 721, the firefighter's union and the policemen's union, which just put in its opening ante on Friday: $47,550 for Hogan-Rowles and $54,000 for radio ads attacking Parks.
So why do the unions have it in for Bernard Parks?
"Bernard Parks is disrespectful to working families and unions," said Steve Barkan, campaign consultant for SG&A campaigns, which has been retained by the Hogan-Rowles campaign. "In fact, he does nothing but try to blame working people for the city's ills."
L.A. City Council members rarely face serious challenges once in office. And until recently, Parks's re-election was considered a slam dunk. The sudden influx of union money on the other side, however, could put the race—to be decided March 8—up in the air.
Parks brushed aside the accusation that he's anti-labor.
"It's very simple," he said. "I don't believe in the herd mentality. I say things like, 'We need to do something about budget and pensions.' They don't want to hear it."
He added, "I'm not going to change my views for the unions."
Parks has a long history of nettling organized labor, starting with his tenure as L.A.'s top cop, when he angered the Los Angeles Police Protective League by firing officers over misconduct.
"The police union never found a corrupt officer they didn't like," said Parks.
The League charged that Parks was an insufferable micro-manager, and the then-chief was widely criticized for harshly cracking down on petty offenses while turning a blind eye to greater misdeeds, such as the notorious Rampart scandal.
As a city councilman, Parks further stirred the pot by supporting the building of a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market in his district (the grocery chain hires non-union workers) and suggested that the city reel in pensions as a way of solving the budget crisis. By 2008, the L.A. County Federation of Labor had had enough. It spent more than $8 million to defeat Parks in his ultimately unsuccessful race for county supervisor against, among others, Mark Ridley-Thomas, who emerged victorious.
"[Parks] tries to politicize city retirement funds by taking it out of the hands of appointed boards," said Barkan, who also worked on the 2008 supervisor race.
Dennis Gleason, Parks's spokesman, offered this rebuttal: "Councilman Parks never suggested balancing the budget on the backs of workers. The only thing he's ever proposed is changing the pension structure for future employees."
To which Barkan retorted: "[Parks] repeatedly attacked city workers on pensions, and blames their pensions for the city's financial problems, but doesn't do anything himself. Almost every member of the city council offered to take a pay cut. He doesn't take a pay cut. In fact, he's double dipping: he takes home $440,000 a year. His policeman's pension is $265,000 a year, and his city council salary is $178,000. He has the nerve to go after people fixing the streets, he goes after their pensions, but he doesn't give anything up himself."
Barkan, of course, was perfectly on message. The LAPPL radio attack ad uses the "double dipper" sobriquet as well.
Parks seemed to be irked by the attack.
"Do you realize how stupid that is?" he said. "Let me tell you how stupid that is. Bernard Parks works 38 years for the police department and earns a pension. I earned it. Bernard Parks runs for office, and there's a salary. I didn't negotiate a salary. Should I say, 'I'll just throw away this pension or not take my salary?' This is what you find with unions and their stupidity. Whoever this guy is, is he working for free? Because he did make a ton of money on the Ridley-Thomas campaign."
He pointed out that many city workers, especially police officers, get other jobs after they retire. In fact, to bar them from doing so would create a disincentive to retire.
Parks decried the amount of influence independent expenditures can have in local races and blamed the low individual contribution limits, which for city council races are $500 per person.
"All this talk about spending limits only hurts legitimate candidates," he said. "Political officials are offended by a candidate like Meg Whitman, but say nothing about a union putting in $10 million for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. The folks that get the independent expenditures, they rule."
According to city campaign finance law, groups can spend unlimited amounts of money in the form of independent expenditures—directly paying for television ads, mailers, phone banking, precinct walking, or any campaign activity that directly supports or opposes a candidate. The only catch is that the outside groups are not supposed to coordinate with the candidate's own campaign—a regulation that's routinely skirted.
"It's clear that they're coordinating with the candidate," said Parks. "To say that it's not coordinated is insulting our intelligence." It's a charge denied by his opponents.
Parks said that other city council members agree with him in private but aren't willing to risk their careers by standing up to the unions.
"It's frustrating, but you can't do anything about it," said Parks. "They got them into office. One councilman told me, 'You bite your lip and do what you have to do.'"
What Parks will have to do over the next three weeks is hang onto his seat against a previously unknown candidate now floated by powerful union funding.