California Forum

A cynical campaign to knock off an upstart in South Central Los Angeles

Los Angeles Times

The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow is made up of fine and upstanding people.

They quote from the Bible and Gandhi, and worry deeply about deadbeat dads.

The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow includes doctors, nurses and firefighters, and oil companies, insurance conglomerates, payday lenders, casino owners and the world’s largest cigarette company, Philip Morris U.S.A.

On behalf of California’s tomorrow, the Alliance seeks to destroy the Assembly candidacy of a 26-year-old Democrat named Prophet Walker.

Walker grew up in Watts, the son of a heroin-addicted mother who abandoned him at age 6. He spent five years, three months and 23 days in jail and prison, not that he was counting, after being convicted at age 16 of robbing a man of a CD player and busting his jaw in three places.

From behind bars, Walker earned an associate of arts degree. Upon his release, he went to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and studied engineering. Now he has a job overseeing construction projects.

“We’re in poverty, and it remains that way for a reason,” Walker said of the area where he grew up. “I’m sick about it, and I want to fight it. I’m not naive enough to say I’m going to take over Sacramento. But I’m not afraid to do what is right.”

Clearly, Walker is not the sort of guy the alliance would want to hold California office – not tomorrow, not any other day.

The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow sent one mailer to voters earlier this year that quoted from the Book of Matthew: “Beware of the false PROPHETS, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

Another mailer quoted from Mahatma Gandhi: “Action expresses priorities. First priority. Funding his campaign. Second priority. Living in luxury. Last priority. Paying his child support.”

Yes, Walker lives in an apartment in the South Central Los Angeles district he hopes to represent. And, true, he didn’t pay child support when he was in prison. Now that he has a job, he has paid his back child support, and shares custody of his 9-year-old daughter.

Democratic politicians ought to embrace Walker. His story is one of redemption. But he had the audacity to challenge the South Central Los Angeles power structure. Politics is a brutal business, and the people involved in it are jaded. But the campaign against Walker is remarkably cynical.

Assemblyman Isadore Hall, a Los Angeles Democrat who holds the seat Walker seeks, soon will fill the vacancy left when Sen. Rod Wright stepped down after his perjury conviction.

Hall hopes to pass the Assembly seat to an ally, Carson City Councilman Mike Gipson, a former union official and longtime aide to South Central L.A. politicians. The California Democratic Party and most of its major patrons are backing Gipson.

You can tell plenty about candidates by the donors who fund them. Gipson, who didn’t return my call, gets labor money, particularly from public school unions. He also gets money from oil companies, payday lenders, alcohol companies and casino owners. Hall, who also didn’t call back, chairs the Governmental Organization Committee, which controls legislation dealing with gambling and alcohol.

“WHO HAS THE EXPERIENCE TO SHAKE UP SACRAMENTO?” one of the mailers sent on Gipson’s behalf reads. “MIKE GIPSON: The ONLY Candidate With The Experience to Shake Up Sacramento!”

The wild-eyed radicals behind Keeping Californians Working include insurance companies, Realtors, apartment owners, dentists and Chevron. They clearly want to shake up Sacramento, which is why they spent $175,166 for mailers to help Gipson.

Walker spent an hour and a half on the phone the other day telling me his story, and talking politics. It’s a tale made for Hollywood, which may tell it one of these days.

He was 6 years old when his mom took him and his sister to Nickerson Gardens, one of the toughest housing projects in the state, and told them to wait. He next saw her when he was 9. The arm into which she had been shooting heroin had a blackened cavity. He was locked up when she died.

In jail, he met Scott Budnick, the producer of the “Hangover” movies, who regularly visits inmates to teach creative writing. Budnick is used to hearing story pitches. Walker suggested a different sort of concept.

Instead of sending young felons directly to the highest-security prisons, Walker suggested that prison officials evaluate them to determine their potential for reform. The idea became legislation, Assembly Bill 1276. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law last month.

“I want an elected official who is fighting for the least of us,” Budnick said. “I want an elected official who is fighting for the people who can’t donate to their campaigns.”

Budnick helped Walker line up an experienced campaign manager, Roy Behr, and has raised money for him. Donors include producers Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Norman Lear, and actors Kate Capshaw and Matt Damon.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison officers, has given him money. The Service Employees International Union broke with most other unions and is heavily backing Walker.

The Walker-Gipson race has become a proxy war between charter public school advocates – former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg donated $8,200 to Walker – and the California Teachers Association, which opposes charter schools. CTA has spent $155,220 to block Walker’s election.

“I’m not afraid to say our schools need change,” he said. If some mother wants a better education for her child, no one should stand in her way. “My goal is to make sure no child has my story.”

On Friday, Marion Shapiro turned on the radio, and heard Walker on the air, talking about his second-grade teacher at Ascot Avenue Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles. When he became frustrated, that teacher, Shapiro, would hold him and calm him down.

“He had a beautiful smile, but he was a very unhappy boy,” recalled Shapiro, who retired last year after 20 years at Ascot. “If someone touched him, he would go off.”

Shapiro told me by phone she doesn’t like charter schools but intends to help Walker however she can.

“I know he is going to make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

First, he must defeat the political machine that knows how to elect its friends, with the help of Chevron, payday lenders, casinos, Philip Morris, Realtors, insurance companies, the teachers’ union and the California Nurses Association.

They all care deeply about South Central Los Angeles and California’s tomorrow. Why else would they be spending all that money?

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.

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