By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — It’s the day before his last day as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has represented District 2 (Carson, Compton, Lynwood, Inglewood and South Los Angeles), is in a good mood.
He’s waxing lyrical about his accomplishments during his three-term, 12-year stint on the board, and eager to talk about what lies before him as the newly elected city councilman for the 10th District, which stretches from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor and includes the neighborhoods of West Adams and Mid-City.
His eagerness to talk is tempered by his caution not to speak out of turn. His words are noticeably slow and deliberate, seemingly as not to make any unwelcomed missteps.
His nearly 30 years as an elected official have taken him from City Hall to Sacramento, to the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration and back to City Hall.
Contributing writer Darlene Donloe talked with Ridley-Thomas, a former high school teacher, about his high-profile career in public office. He doesn’t shy away from any questions including his silence concerning the sale of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, his most recent contentious campaign, his regrets, and his legacy.
But then, when it comes to the question about whether he intends to run for the mayor of Los Angeles in 2022 …
DD: How would you describe your 30 years as a public servant?
MRT: It’ll be 30 years in July of next year. I’d say it’s been fulfilling. It’s a lifetime of service advocating for justice, advocating for equity, advocating for distribution of resources that my constituents can benefit from. And I’ve had a good time.
DD: What have you learned about yourself in your 30 years as a public servant?
MRT: I’ve learned that I’d rather build cooperative relationships than be involved in confrontational relationships. I learned I have more capacity to get the “yes.” Not everybody knows how to do it.
DD: If you could change one thing in your career, what would it be and why?
MRT: These are good questions. I don’t know that I know the answer to that question. I do feel that I wish there was higher consciousness related to justice, related to fairness and related to equity. I just don’t know that that’s all that it needs to be.
DD: Any re-dos or take-backs?
MRT: Good question. The one that I can think of right now is the Santa Barbara Plaza project that went sideways. I don’t know that it could have been easily avoided, but it was a tough moment and that project has not yet been built out. I trust that it will. I will have an opportunity to close it up as a councilman.
DD: Why did you want to be a supervisor?
MRT: I understand the elements of public policy making. I have been able to develop the skillset and portfolio to work on a broad range of issues, and the Board of Supervisors provided an extraordinary opportunity to make it work.
DD: It’s been 12 years, what are you most proud of as a supervisor?
MRT: Where should I begin? The Martin Luther King medical campus, 6,000 affordable housing units under construction or in pre-development, the Crenshaw-LAX line. Should I mention criminal justice reform? Should I mention 10-plus libraries that were built or renovated?
The number of parks that have been renovated, not the least of which is the Magic Johnson Park and the work of the bridge of Stoneview Nature Center. Kenneth Hahn Park and the 13-miles Park to Playa Trail. The trail that is for walking, hiking and biking. The bioscience work done to create jobs and diversity in that industry. The establishment of the L.A. County Department of Arts and Culture. I think we’ve been very busy over the last 12 years. I’m immensely proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish.
DD: Let’s address the elephant in the room. Are you running for mayor in 2022?
MRT: I haven’t even been sworn in as councilman of the 10th District yet. What kind of question is that?
DD: Are you thinking about it?
MRT: Listen, I haven’t even been sworn in. [December 4] is my last day in office as a member of the Board of Supervisors. I haven’t even shown up at City Hall to do what I have to do and you’re asking me about something else. Why are people asking that question?
It’s because of the length of service and the accomplishments that I can point to and so it’s logical that they think that that’s what I would wish to do. I would simply say to you that I have had a pretty extraordinary career to date and being a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is a tremendous opportunity. Not sure that the distinguishing piece of the role of mayor to have a bigger pulpit. But in terms of the extent of one’s authority, hardly anything compares to being a member of the Board of Supervisors.
My reason then for returning to the City Council at this point in time is because it extends the opportunity for me to work on homelessness and I think in order to have the kind of impact that I can and should have, I think that it’s maximized by being an officeholder.
DD: As a Black county official, why haven’t you been more vocal about the controversy surrounding the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and the issue of black self-determination, i.e., ownership of the mall. What do you think should happen to the mall?
MRT: It’s a city issue. It’s a land-use issue in the city. It will come to my attention as a member of the City Council. I’ve been working on another range of projects and my scope of duty like the 13.5-mile trail from Baldwin Hills to the beach is what I’ve been focused on and working on affordable housing all over the county’s Second District, the Magic Johnson Park, and more, those libraries from A.C. Bilbrew to Carson, Gardena, the library we built in East Rancho Dominguez and the renaming of the View Park library in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell.
Those are the projects I’ve been working on and have not been deeply involved in projects that are within the city of Los Angeles proper because I didn’t have the authority as such. When moving to the City Council, I obviously will, and you will hear how I will land on those projects. I didn’t talk about any projects in the city of Los Angeles that I can think of — land use projects. I’ve been working on building Bio-Science in Culver City to get jobs and diversify that industry to those good-paying jobs. That’s what I’ve been doing.
DD: So, after you are sworn in, will you tell us how you feel about it personally?
MRT: I can tell you now how I feel about it. The overall sense of it is this. Development is very hard and we have to have intelligence, a balance that is inclusive on the boulevard. But that thing that is very, very, bad and very, very, damaging to the quality of life of communities is to have vacant lots, dark corners, abandoned buildings. It’s the stuff of what blight is made.
The real objective is to do everything possible to move an agenda forward that creates jobs and provides the appropriate kind of amenities for our community. Crenshaw deserves at least that. That’s why I put my shoulder in on the issue of the Crenshaw-LAX line.
Crenshaw had been deteriorating significantly being the mecca of car dealerships in the core areas of the city. That was Crenshaw Boulevard. It has since then moved to Carson. You cannot underestimate the force of poverty. You’ve got to do stuff to reverse that. I resent strongly, the dissolution of redevelopment. When Jerry Brown and the Legislature took redevelopment out, it put a lid on the opportunity to do appropriate projects in developing communities.
In other words, redevelopment is to eliminate and prevent blight. You took that out of state law and that’s when affordable housing became more and more scarce. You had a slow down in building commercial projects because those redevelopment projects helped make those projects pencil in communities like the 15th Council District, particularly as it relates to Watts.
In the 10th District, in the 9th District, in the 8th District, in parts of the 14th and1st districts, and moving toward East L.A. That’s why you have to have redevelopment laws across the state. And so, I tell you when you’re trying to build projects, and I don’t believe in demonizing developers.
I support particularly those that are coming forth from faith-based and nonprofit developers. There are a number of developers who are for-profit who get it done and leave the community better than they found it. That’s what we need to do. And I will tell you, from my point of view, that perfect is the enemy of good in public life.
DD: The old King/Drew hospital has been repurposed as a 500,000-square-foot Behavioral Health Center, named after you. It’s opening next year. Tell me what that means to you.
MRT: On December 2, 2008, I stood in front of that hospital and said this will not be the last word of what happens on this campus. Fast-forward to October 2020, standing in front of the same building, completely repurposed. It captures the essence of county priority to embrace care first and deals last. It’s the most compelling and concrete illustration of alternatives to incarceration. It’s the first of its kind in the state of California. A tremendous amount to be thankful and proud of. Mental health, public health, diversion, and re-entry, or health service, Department of Public Social Services, and more. It’s really quite wonderful to be a part of causing that to happen.
DD: Talk about the Crenshaw-LAX transit line that you helped get upgraded from a bus line to a rail line.
MRT: It’s a tribute to Tom Bradley (former Los Angeles mayor) who stood as a towering figure in L.A. history, a five-term mayor who wanted a rail line to the airport. I took it upon myself to try to deliver that. It’s a big deal. It’s a $2.2 billion project. It will have eight stations. You can take it to the front door of the airport. It will be what essentially transforms the face of Crenshaw Boulevard.
DD: What comes to mind when I say COVID-19?
MRT: Unbelievable! It’s incomprehensible!
DD: What do you think about the city, county, and state of California’s response to COVID-19?
MRT: The city, county, and state’s response to COVID would have been significantly better had the federal government had its act together. Regrettably, it did not.
DD: In your 2020 race for Los Angeles City Council, you were criticized for accepting donations from the fossil fuel industry. Reportedly, you were the only candidate to do so. Why did you accept their donations?
MRT: I think it’s fair to say that the donations as we analyze them were minimal at best. We raised $1.5 million during the campaign. The contributions from oil companies, etc. were not even $5,000, so what they did was blow it out of proportion and try to make it look like I was a tool of the fossil fuel industry. They were plain wrong. That’s why I was able to put my record forward and defend it.
Give the breadth of my policy agenda and the extent of my work in building relationships in various sectors. When I came forward to do Measure H, a significant accomplishment, that industry was helpful because they, like others, felt and feel like we need to address the homeless crisis in earnest. The resources were not necessarily for me proper, or my own political campaign, in a significant way, but around issues that, of course, they have a right to support. Their support was welcomed.
The League of Conservation voters endorsed my candidacy. They weren’t troubled by the minimus contributions. That was a sought after endorsement. The Sierra Club embraced, but did not endorse, but figured out a way to do business with me in terms of a just transition motion that would move from dependency on fossil fuels, shutting down oil wells properly and capping them in a way that squared with public health and public safety.
The steelworkers and the Sierra Club supported that initiative. It was brought to my attention by the Sierra Club and so those who tried to reduce me to being some kind of retrograde diesel-carrying lackey for any particular industry will have a hard time making such a caricature stick.
I’m an unapologetic progressive. People who know my work, know what I do on the environment, on justice reform issues on anti-racist work, and more. I’m not one-dimensional. I have a broad range of relationships.
DD: Politics can get ugly. You sent a cease-and-desist letter to Grace Yoo, who ran against you in the race for City Council District 10, because of a new attack website launched by Yoo — using your name. It brought up the probe of your son at USC and talked about you not ruling out a run for mayor in 2022. Now that the dust has settled, was all of that fair game?
MRT: Politics gets ugly because there are ugly people in politics just like there are honorable people in politics. When desperation envelops a campaign, then they resort to a range of tactics. Politics, some people describe it as a contact sport and it is increasingly evolving into being a collision sport. That’s unfortunate.
The Grace Yoo campaign was fraught with missteps and a range of misrepresentations. What she essentially did was to summons those who have been trying to oppose me or take me down for a good period of time. Principle among them would be a former police chief, Bernard Parks. Among them would be former council member Jan Perry, among them would be former LA County CEO, Bill Fujioka. She thought it was smart. She thought it was cool to try to get them together to help her win.
She was unsuccessful. She misrepresented herself about the polls over and over again. In the primary, I was at 44%, she was at 23%. That’s where it ended. In the general, it ended with my being at 61% and her being at 39%. Not even close in either instance. She sold wolf tickets throughout the campaign as to how good she was and how competitive she was and how much she was able to basically take me down because she was better suited and more qualified.
People of the 10th District just simply saw through that and I applaud them and thank them for it. She would not have been an effective representative for this district and the more I got to know her, the more I saw the work that she was doing and how substandard the quality of her presentation was in terms of the knowledge she has of city government, as a resident of the 10th District, I simply would not have voted for her even if I had not been on the ballot.
DD: Homelessness, mental health, and racism are all behemoth undertakings that you’ve tackled. Isn’t that an insurmountable task?
MRT: You gotta keep swinging. I don’t give up. I’m not discouraged. I’m hopeful. Look at what we accomplished so far.
DD: During your career, have you had too much power?
MRT: No, my head is on straight. There are appropriate checks and balances. It’s not unfettered power. I’ve had more authority than I’ve had power.
DD: Describe your political style. How do you serve — by your heart or by your head?
MRT: Heart, head, and gut, but not necessarily in that order.
DD: What is it the public doesn’t know about being a politician?
MRT: I think it is sometimes underestimated how challenging, demanding, and how hard it is.
It is not for the faint of heart.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.