The newest member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors headed the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference for 10 years, then ran for City Council and won in 1991. A little more than 10 years later, Ridley-Thomas went to Sacramento (first to the Assembly and then the state Senate), and in 2008, he became the first black man elected to the Board of Supervisors, representing the 2nd District, where he grew up.
You've been on the board a bit more than a year. What's surprised you about this job?
It's an immense responsibility and a tremendous amount of work. And when you think about the issue of healthcare for the residents of the county -- largely the medically indigent -- it's a huge responsibility; significant investments in the healthcare that is the safety net of the county of Los Angeles are being made by this body.
Each of the five supervisors represents more people than do some U.S. senators. Should there be more elected supervisors?
I've always maintained that is an idea to which I am receptive. I think the difficulty is the electorate responds to it as the expansion of government -- not only more politicians but bloated bureaucracy. The case can be made that given the immensity of the task with which the board has to contend, we do well. At the height of the [economic] crisis, we didn't lay off a single [county] employee. The board and the executive staff have to be commended for that. I take no credit because those decisions quite frankly were made prior to my being here. That does not mean that change is unwarranted.
In years past, you often criticized the LAPD. How is the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, which the board monitors to some degree, different?
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The sheriff is elected, which probably has a lot to do with the more tame way in which he comports himself, as [did] his predecessors. They didn't behave in the ways that [former LAPD chiefs] Gates, Parker and Davis and the like [did]. It is not as though the Sheriff's Department hasn't had its issues. [It] got to the business of a monitor before the LAPD did, and it is an institutionalized presence, much more than what had been the case with the Los Angeles Police Department. In executive sessions at the Board of Supervisors, the discussion about officer- involved shootings takes on a very different set of dynamics than when I served in the City Council [and discussed the LAPD].
What about your dynamics on the board? You've found some common cause with the conservatives, Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe.
I think it's a mistake to typecast or stereotype me or my politics. On the one hand, I have a particular view of politics, as one who has [been] an advocate of civil rights and human rights and social change: Progressive, yes, unapologetically, but pragmatic. Ultimately an officeholder has an obligation to deliver results. That's a significant difference between being a civil rights advocate against [being] an elected official.
People thought your natural ally would be Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, but you didn't back expanding his homeless services pilot program, Project 50. My colleague, Garrett Therolf, reported that Yaroslavsky left the building pretty upset after that.
It was continued for a more thorough review. It's being looked at in terms of the substantial update of general relief to make it more relevant and see if it's more cost effective. And Supervisor Knabe suggested that we look at the San Francisco model, Care Not Cash. Now frankly, we ought to have a variety of approaches. And some people are more persuaded that their approach is the approach. I just happen not to feel that way.
On the City Council, you butted heads with then-Mayor Richard Riordan; now I gather he's sent you a nice note on your work on the board. Are you going to frame it?
[Laughs.] At an opening of an animal shelter in my [City Council] district, he took those ceremonial scissors and sought to use them in an unjudicious way. So that's the [picture] that hangs in one of my offices.
What part of you was he going after?
It was my neck!
You wanted the NFL at the Coliseum. Now it's looking for a home in the City of Industry.
The NFL likes to inspire competition, and their attempt to cause competition to take place for a venue in the Los Angeles region is why we don't have an NFL franchise now. I argued [for] the Coliseum. [Had it happened], the whole corridor from Staples south to MLK [Boulevard] would have been lined with new businesses, art, sports, entertainment. We would have had two to three Super Bowls by now. The economy would have taken a big shot in the arm. And so I think that the NFL has blown it, plain and simple.