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South L.A. staying loyal to Ridley-Thomas despite charges

Public trust in government is circling the drain in America and has been for quite some time.

As Gallup reported this month, just 44% of adults say they have a “great deal” or even a “fair amount” of confidence in the politicians who already hold or are running for elected office. The findings are among the most pathetic since Gallup began polling Americans about it in 1972.

Examples abound as to why and one might think L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, indicted this week on bribery charges over an alleged quid pro quo with USC, is one of them.

But if you thought that, you would be very wrong.

“I certainly I think people are shocked and saddened by what they’ve read. But I’ve also heard people share how much respect they have for the work that Mark Ridley-Thomas has done,” said state Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles).

“Ultimately, there’s room for forgiveness in the hearts of many in Black L.A. because he has been such an effective champion who fights for resources for this community,” longtime South L.A. activist Najee Ali told me.

In other words, few who live or have deep ties to South L.A. are ready to throw Ridley-Thomas under the bus. There’s a fear of losing leadership and a fear of who might replace him.

So many of his allies and constituents are staying loyal — even as calls escalate in some quarters for him to step down or, at the very least, lose his committee assignments.

On Sunday, for example, several Black pastors are planning a “citywide prayer service” for the career politician. It will be led by Xavier L. Thompson, senior pastor of Southern Missionary Baptist Church of L.A.

(Honestly, it’s probably a good idea, too, because Ridley-Thomas can use all the prayers he can get at this point.)

Meanwhile, on Friday, several Black activists gathered to defend him at a hastily called a press conference in the parking lot of a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts on Crenshaw Boulevard.

They took turns urging members of the City Council to respect due process and to “withdraw and discontinue” demands for him to step down. Ridley-Thomas’ attorney, Michael J. Proctor, has urged the same.

Ultimately, most decisions about what to do next will fall to council President Nury Martinez, who has said “appropriate action” is needed but has yet to be more specific. I can’t blame her. With widespread support from his constituents, she probably knows it will tough to get rid of him.

Still, Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is running for mayor, wants Ridley-Thomas gone, and others, including Councilman Paul Krekorian, have come close to agreeing.

None of this sits well with Ali, who was among those who gathered outside of the Krispy Kreme on Friday.

“The Black activists who have been with MRT” — as Ridley-Thomas is known — “for decades will not abandon him now,” he told me over text, alongside a photo of the pair during a protest in 1996.

Indeed, that he has inspired such unwavering loyalty, even as he faces federal charges, should come as no surprise.

As Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, put it: “Ridley-Thomas has been a one-man institution in Black politics and in the Black community, for many, many years. He’s got a lot of constituents, a lot of people, who look to him not just to be their representative — they see him as a political leader.”

He led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles for a decade and was elected to the City Council for the first time in 1991. He then made moves to California Legislature and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, before returning to the council in December.

It was in his role as a county supervisor that, according to the 20-count indictment, Ridley-Thomas steered millions of dollars in L.A. County contracts to USC in exchange for admitting his son Sebastian into graduate school with a full-ride scholarship and paid professorship.

He allegedly did it all with the help of Marilyn Louise Flynn, then dean of the USC School of Social Work.

There is definitely disappointment in South L.A., as my colleague Donovan X. Ramsey reported. It’s an ugly case and, when the indictment was announced, more than a few people told me they felt like a relative, rather than Ridley-Thomas, had been charged.

“I really am heartbroken by the whole thing,” political consultant Kerman Maddox told me. “As I tell my wife, I feel like I’ve lost a family member.”

But even after learning the sordid details, many also said they still think of Ridley-Thomas as the politician who took on police reform, homelessness and the affordable housing crisis, and the inequitable distribution of vaccines for COVID-19.

But perhaps most of all there’s the work he did to close and then replace the troubled King Drew Medical Center with the state-of-the-art Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital.

The hospital maintains deep ties with the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science also in Willowbrook. And it was only a month ago that Ridley-Thomas was smiling, leaning back in a leather chair ahead of a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new, on-campus Avis & Mark Ridley-Thomas Wellness Center.

There was a massive sign celebrating his “30 years of public service in elected office.” Sitting next to him in an identical leather chair was Rep. Karen Bass, who is now running for mayor.

“When you get started and you empower people and you give them a sense of hope and destiny,” Ridley-Thomas, his chest puffed out with pride, told reporters at the time, “tremendous things can happen.”

Many in South L.A. believe that. This is the unfortunate the trade-off of Los Angeles politics.

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