For Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Big Move, a Big Fight and a Big Warning

DTLA—Mark Ridley-Thomas has been making big political moves since long before he became a County Supervisor, and he’s been a Supervisor for a long time. He was elected to the City Council in 1991, and although his Eighth District was anchored in South L.A., he emerged as the key council force pushing the approval of Staples Center, after Downtown Los Angeles rep Rita Walters bizarrely fought against the arena. Ridley-Thomas also rode herd on a now-forgotten but nearly successful effort to return the NFL to the Coliseum. 

He did a stint in the state legislature, and since being sworn in as the Second District Supervisor in 2008 by Kamala Harris (yes, that Kamala Harris), he’s been among the most savvy and powerful leaders in the region. He’s got labor backing but also maintains strong ties with the business community. He has pushed major transportation projects and helped create the lauded Martin Luther King Jr., Community Hospital in South L.A.

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Elected officials can be an overly cautious breed; Ridley-Thomas is willing to break that mold more often than most. He took that tack when he was the speaker at a Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum luncheon at The Palm on May 1. During the nearly hour-long session he spoke with surprising candor on a trio of subjects, from his own future, to a nasty tangle with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, to L.A.’s effort to wrestle with homelessness.

Top Job

When Mayor Eric Garcetti was pondering running for president, he deflected every query on the subject like he was the world’s greatest hockey goalie. Though everyone knew Garcetti wanted to run, he wouldn’t cop to it until the day he announced he wasn’t running.

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So it was refreshing when, in front of about 65 Downtown power players, Ridley-Thomas veered from the traditional path of obfuscation. He is currently running to return to the City Council in 2020, but a lot of people think he wants to be mayor in 2022, when Garcetti is termed out. I asked him about that during the Q&A session.

He detailed some of his achievements, then said, “I have unfinished business in public service. And I trust that the people of the 10th District will be kind enough to acknowledge that and think that I have a little bit to offer. So that’s where I am today.

“It is impermissible to discuss step two, because if you are candidating for one seat, it has implications for raising funds and the like,” he continued, and even if “candidating” is not in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, it should be. “You can’t do both at the same time…. Therefore there’s one seat that I pursue at this time ladies and gentlemen, and the rest will take care of itself.”

This is where most pols would clam up. This is also where, perhaps, Ridley-Thomas gauged what other chatted-about 2022 candidates might do. He forged ahead.

“A little tactual insight here,” he told the Palm crowd. “I was planning, frankly, to leave the Board of Supervisors, take 18-plus months as a private citizen, and build the campaign for what you describe as step two.”

Then Ridley-Thomas described learning that, due to a clause in city law, he could serve another four years on the council. He verified it with the City Clerk, the City Attorney’s office and his own counsel. A golden path had revealed itself.

“I shared it with my political consultants and some of my advisors, and they said, ‘You ought to recognize a gift from God when you see it,’” Ridley-Thomas said. “It’s better to run for step two, from the position of having secured step one, rather than going from zero to two.”

A moment later he told the audience, “Now you all know more than you’re entitled to know.”

Everyone laughed, as he knew they would.

Battle With a Boss

Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Sheila Kuehl have been at the forefront of the fight with Villanueva, who was sworn in last December and has emerged as something of a law enforcement tornado. His path of destruction included replacing virtually the entire experienced upper crust of the department (as many new sheriffs do) and rehiring a deputy who had been fired in the wake of domestic abuse allegations (which no sheriff has ever done).

The clash has been stunningly public and vocal, with Villanueva asserting that he is providing deputies “due process,” and the supes maintaining that the sheriff can’t reinstate someone whose firing was OKed by the County Civil Service Commission. As the matter makes its way through the courts, relations are frosty.

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Ridley-Thomas unloaded at the Current Affairs Forum.

“Who could have possibly believed that we would be tossed in the middle of this kind of conflict with the sheriff?” he asked. “It is unprecedented. I seek to remind you of the fact that I spent the first three or four years on the City Council wrestling with another law enforcement official by the name of Daryl Francis Gates. I want you to know that we won ultimately, and I suspect we’ll win again.”

People don’t bring up Gates frequently; it’s kind of like saying “Candyman” out loud five times. The late LAPD chief embodied all that was wrong with local law enforcement in the era before the 1992 L.A. riots. In Ridley-Thomas’ view, Villanueva is moving the Sheriff’s Department backwards.

“I cannot imagine the investments that we’ve made in reform of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s public safety agenda… being so rigorously subjected to the process of turning the clock back,” he declared. “We don’t countenance domestic violence. And if someone is fired on that basis, it is incomprehensible to some of us as to why anybody would have the temerity to rehire such an individual.”

The Supervisor noted key differences between the present and the Gates era, chiefly that Villanueva is an elected official, which limits what the supes can do. It’s a point the sheriff has made repeatedly, and Villanueva has charged that those opposing him are doing so because they never supported his run against the man he toppled, Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

Ridley-Thomas continued, making sure that the room grasped the gravity of what’s at stake. The zinger was two short sentences. Twelve words.

“It’s not good,” he pronounced. “I’m almost to the point of embracing Daryl Gates.”

The time the laughs were mixed with shock. Of course, Ridley-Thomas knew that would be the reaction.

On the Streets

Ridley-Thomas and Garcetti have led the public charge to respond to the region’s out of-control homelessness crisis. They helped get a pair of voter tax measures, Proposition HHH and Measure H, passed to provide funds for housing and services, respectively. They have marshaled city and county resources for the challenge.

Like everyone, they’re awaiting the results of the next “Homeless Count” from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Last year’s finding of a 3% decline in the county homeless population, to 53,195 people living without shelter, gave Angelenos hope that, even if the numbers are a travesty, progress is being made.

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Ridley-Thomas said LAHSA officials met with the supes recently and revealed that many counties in California are seeing a spike in homelessness. He didn’t offer any numbers, but in a read-between-the-lines manner, the implication was that Los Angeles isn’t so special or unique that it will buck the state’s trend.

“Every other county that we have paid attention to, there is an uptick, and an appreciable uptick,” he stated. “Public records will reflect somewhere between 43% to 20%, that kind of swing. I do not necessarily anticipate that being the case in Los Angeles County, but we would be less than attentive if we didn’t acknowledge that the trend is something with which we have to be concerned and prepared.”

This was a warning shot, and it was exacerbated by Ridley-Thomas declaring that L.A. County has an affordable housing shortage of 560,000 units. He said issues of mental health and addiction play a role, but economic factors are increasingly contributing. That will come as no surprise to anyone who writes a monthly rent check.

It’s not just tent encampments, either, he noted. In another possible foreshadow, he pointed to a trend that is often overlooked.

“More and more people are now living in their vehicles,” he said. “You have vehicular homelessness in some ways outstripping the street encampments and tents. The recent data is beginning to reveal that more and more.”

The report hits in a few weeks. Consider yourself warned.

Copyright 2019 Los Angeles Downtown News