April 06, 2023

By Jasmyne Cannick


The conviction of former L.A. City Councilmember and one-time power broker and kingmaker Mark Ridley-Thomas on federal corruption charges should serve as a cautionary tale to Black politicians (and those aspiring to be one) that what others might get away with - they can’t.  Well, that and, of course, just don’t do it, to begin with.

For me, whether or not Ridley-Thomas actually did it is an issue that can be debated until we’re all blue in the face.  Less talked about is the fact that he’s a Black politician, which meant that there was going to be a different level of scrutiny on his activities from the jump. And the more powerful he got, the more eyes were going to be on him. Ridley-Thomas is a politically astute and smart man.  As long as he’s been in politics, he had to know that much for sure.

In politics, we often say that it is all about the optics.  What it looks like, not necessarily what it is.

It looked like Ridley-Thomas made a deal with officials from USC to give his adult son a bump up in life - a scholarship, job, and admission to USC as well as the funneling of $100,000 he provided from his campaign account through USC to a nonprofit operated by his son to obtain a lucrative county contract. There were emails between Ridley-Thomas and an official from USC that helped prosecutors make their case.

So, there you have it.  Whether he did it or not, I believe the optics were just so damning that the chances of his political career’s survival were over - even if he had been acquitted. 

My political mentor, Assemblymember Mervyn Dymally, taught me this lesson years ago and it has stayed with me throughout my career working in politics.

One day Mr. Dymally shared with me the story of how his not being indicted ruined his prospects for running for reelection as California’s Lieutenant Governor. Yes, you read that correctly.

In 1978, Mr. Dymally had lost his bid for reelection after Michael Franchetti, then the Assistant Attorney General, disclosed a confidential memorandum to Republican gubernatorial candidate George Deukmejian’s campaign about a rumor that Mr. Dymally was going to be indicted. That rumor was reported statewide as fact, and Mr. Dymally, who was running for re-election as Lieutenant Governor, was defeated by Mike Curb.

In 1998, during an interview with the New Federalist, Dymally explained, “A Los Angeles Times reporter went to an investigator in the Attorney General's office in California and told him that he was informed by the feds that I was going to be indicted. The investigator then wrote a memo to his boss, and on the memo, he put a ‘P.S.--this is only a rumor.’ The P.S. was erased, and the report was given to the wife of a reporter, Bill Stout of CBS television. His wife was working for my opposition. Bill Stout read, very dramatically, on the news, a week-and-a-half before the election, that I was going to be indicted, and - I paraphrase him - he said, ‘I read it, you heard it, Dymally knows it, he's going to be indicted.’”

Dymally continued, “I was leading by six points [in the polls] at the time, and, when I heard the news on the radio, CBS radio, KNX, I said to my campaign manager and my son Mark, ‘I think it's all over, let's pay off all our debts.’  A friend loaned me his plane, a Gulfstream jet, I think it was, and I had the unique distinction of visiting every county in California as a candidate, all fifty-eight.”

In the end, Mr. Dymally was never indicted, but just the rumor that he was going to be, coupled with the news reports, was enough to sink his campaign.

It was one of many lessons that he imparted to me during my time working for him.

Since I’ve written about the conviction of Ridley-Thomas on my social media, numerous comments have been left about how great he was to the community he served, and they’re still coming.  They rival, if not succeed, the comments cheering for his conviction which tells me that regardless of his guilt or innocence in his attempts to help his adult son, he had a positive impact on the community he served.

While we may be split on Ridley-Thomas’ guilt or innocence - and the community is split - we should be singing from the same page of the same hymn book when it comes to understanding that Black politicians are always going to be under a higher level of scrutiny than their non-Black counterparts.  So, while it’s best to just not do it - add to that it’s best to not even look like you’re doing it. Indictments and convictions aren’t the only tools used to take out Black politicians. As I’ve explained, rumors alone can have the same effect.

Just because they do it and get away with it doesn’t mean the same rules apply to us.

Based in Los Angeles, Jasmyne Cannick is a Gen X award-winning journalist and on-air contributor from SoCal. She writes and talks about the collisions at the intersection of politics, race, and other social issues.

Category: Opinion