Supervisor Yvonne Burke is retiring at the end of the year, meaning there will be a rare changing of the guard in one of the region's most powerful political positions.
Of the nine candidates vying for Burke's seat, Ridley-Thomas and Parks had long been recognized as the clear front-runners. Either one would become the first black man every elected to the county Board of Supervisors.
Since neither candidate appeared likely to win 50 percent of the vote, the two will square off in a November runoff.
"I think they (voters) want change," Ridley-Thomas told reporters as he arrived at his election-night party at the Sheraton Gateway hotel near LAX. "They are clearly unhappy with the status quo. And I think they perceived in me someone who would be hard-working, honest, with a considerable amount of experience while at the same time push for the kind of changes that will make a difference in their lives."
Despite the lead for Ridley-Thomas, Parks said he remained confident and would be paying close attention as the election returns were tallied.
"I just wanted to come by on behalf of my family ... just to say thank you for all the things you've done," Parks told supporters at his South Los Angeles campaign headquarters. "We're going to be running off in a little bit to watch some of these results, but we'll be back. And when we come back we'll have some substantial numbers, and we just hope that they come in much more quickly. But again, whatever time it takes, we'll be here until we figure out what the final results are."
He added: "We believe very strongly that we're going to be victorious."
More than 100 people -- many dressed in suits or dresses -- had gathered at the Parks campaign headquarters by about 9 p.m., many glued to a television set tuned to local election coverage. Orange streamers hung from the ceiling and multicolored balloons decorated the rooms. There was also a large white sheet cake with blue icing that read "Congratulations Bernard Parks 2008."
At Ridley-Thomas' election-night party, about 50 people cheered when the early returns were announced. The crowd swelled as the night went on, with many in the crowd wearing purple Service Employees International Union T-shirts -- a sign of the candidate's support from the labor union.
"If things stay as they are, with the absentee returns and the precincts that have already reported, I think it's clear from the visual representation behind me that we're in good shape," Ridley-Thomas campaign spokesman Fred MacFarlane said. "We'd like to see that trend continue."
"If there's a higher turnout, it plays to our advantage," MacFarlane said. "The more Democrats that go to the polls, more working families who are Democrats who go to the polls, plays heavily to our advantage, and that's what we're hoping for tonight."
The last change on the five-member Board of Supervisors occurred in 1996, when Don Knabe took over the 4th District from Deane Dana, for whom Knabe had previously served as chief of staff. The last race that was this hard- fought was four years before that in a battle between two black women, when Burke narrowly beat out Diane Watson to replace Kenneth Hahn as the 2nd District supervisor.
This year's race became an increasingly bitter struggle between the Parks and Ridley-Thomas campaigns, with each side hastening to secure endorsements and attack the other side.
Parks had the support of most of the old guard, including Burke and Supervisors Gloria Molina and Michael Antonovich; as well as nine of his fellow Los Angeles City Council members.
"Statistically, I think it's hard to avoid a runoff," Councilwoman Jan Perry said at Parks' election-night party. She said she backed Parks because "I don't have to start from square one with him," and said Parks would work with her to address homelessness issues.
As she arrived at Parks' campaign headquarters, Burke said simply, "It's looking good."
However, Parks, a former Los Angeles police chief, failed to garner the support of the police. Likely owing to a falling out Parks had with the LAPD rank-and-file, whose union expressed its dissatisfaction with him in 2002 by issuing a vote of no confidence, six law enforcement unions threw their support behind Ridley-Thomas.
"Mark Ridley-Thomas has always been a friend to law enforcement ... We know he will be willing to listen to all points of view and will be a reasonable and conscientious county supervisor," said Tim Sands, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, said he has known Ridley-Thomas for 25 years.
"Mark Ridley-Thomas is a very focused and principled visionary," Mack said. "He is what I would call a pragmatic idealist."
Ridley-Thomas also received the active backing of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. With the Los Angeles County Business Federation behind Parks, some characterize this race as a proxy battle between the titans of labor and business.
"We need big dramatic change and we hope that with Sen. Mark Ridley- Thomas on that board that all the members of the Board of Supervisors get swept up in what's happening in this whole country," Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer Maria Elena Durazo said.
Others pointed to the race as a clear choice between a conservative Democrat -- Parks -- and a solid liberal -- Ridley-Thomas.
Even with labor's resources behind him, Ridley-Thomas fell behind Parks in the fundraising arena -- though the gap has narrowed. Recent fundraising reports place Ridley-Thomas' total cash raised for the race at $526,000, while Parks raised $647,000. Those numbers do not include numbers from independent expenditure committees.
The 2nd District encompasses more than 150 miles of southwest Los Angeles County, including Compton, Inglewood, Culver City and portions of South Los Angeles.
"This seat encompasses the largest collection of African-American votes west of the Mississippi," said political analyst Kerman Maddox, noting that although there are more Latinos in the district than blacks, there are about twice as many black voters as Latino voters in the district.
The area is also one of the poorer parts of the county, Maddox said.
One of the key issues in the race has been health care, with much of the attention focused on efforts to reopen troubled Los Angeles County King- Harbor Hospital.
The closure of the Willowbrook hospital is often viewed as the major failure by Burke, who has been accused of standing by while the facility spiraled into decline -- an accusation she denies.
Emergency and in-patient services were halted at the facility following a highly publicized decline that culminated with King-Harbor -- formerly known as King-Drew Medical Center -- failing a "make-or-break" inspection by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
County officials have since been under pressure to reopen the hospital, with the burden of its closure straining the county's already fragile health care system and leaving area residents without adequate access to medical services.
Ridley-Thomas recently formed the Senate Select Committee on the Los Angeles County Healthcare Crisis, and was appointed as its chair. He has advocated setting up a public-private partnership to oversee its reopening.
Parks, on the other hand, has advocated having the county run the facility through an independent County Health Authority.
The other candidates on the ballot were real estate agent Antonio Alvarez, painter Martin Luther King Aubrey, Dr. Drew Fenton, maintenance technician Morris Griffin, attorney Thomas Neusom, Dr. Delaney Smith Jr. and Dr. Florian Thompson.
In the 5th District, Antonovich clobbered warehouse worker Stephen Mark Hinze.
The Board of Supervisors is the five-member panel that governs Los Angeles County, operating with a $21.9 billion budget. Each supervisor represents a different geographic district of the county, with roughly two million residents in each district.
Each supervisor makes an annual salary of $178,789, less than Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's annual take of $223,142.