South L.A.’s man in Sacramento

Celes King-portrait

Celes King IV stands on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and Denker Avenue in South Los Angeles, outside the bail bond shop started by his parents in 1947.

“Votes are important,” whispered Celes King IV. “It keeps them in office.”

It’s 10:05 a.m. in Sacramento, and King knows that the relationship he has with the community is his main tool. He’s walking out of a committee hearing, rocking sideways with each step as he balances his good leg and his prosthetic one. The transcript would show King’s impact on the meeting was negligible. He voiced support for a bill about monitoring of sex offenders by stating his name and the civil rights organization he represents – the Congress of Racial Equality of California, CORE.

But he’s not in Sacramento to change sex offender monitoring laws. What’s more important is the bill’s author, Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway. “There’s so many bills I’m tied to that she’s tied to,” said King, so maintaining that relationship with Conway is paramount.

It’s only 10:05 a.m. but the septuagenarian has been awake for nine hours, and he’ll spend seven more at the Capitol, meeting with staffers, coaxing officials and prodding along bills covering a wide range of issues: healthcare, the ability of non-profits to hold bingo fundraisers, and bail schedules. Regardless of the issue, King knows that making an impact in Sacramento requires relationships with the right people.

“If you measure power by how many people he knows, that would make him very influential,” said Conway, who represents Tulare County.

What makes King different from others is that he’s neither a lobbyist nor a gadfly, neither elected nor appointed. He’s the master community advocate. The son of legendary civil rights bail bondsman Celes King III is now engrossed in a fight to save his family’s livelihood – the bail industry – and continue advocating for marginalized communities. But he’s also in Sacramento, on his own dime, because keeping a hand in the game of politics has become the game. Lacking the lobbyist’s cash and corporate backing, he is relying on relationships more than ever.

Talks of the future business endeavors and of Sacramento politics, however, are always couched in relation to the King family’s bread and butter: bail. “As long as there’s a King alive, there will be a King Bail Bonds,” he said. “But we’re opening new doors.”

Generations of Celes Kings

On a Monday in early May, Pearly Holland, 64, walked two blocks from her house on Halldale Avenue to Celes King III Bail Bonds Agency on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Denker Avenue. She didn’t need bail, notary, faxing or copies – or any number of services offered by the King’s shop – just a free copy of the black-oriented newspaper, the Los Angeles Wave.

“Were you related to the gentleman that used to own this place?” asked Holland, looking at King.

“What do you mean?” asked King. “My name is Celes King. My father was Celes King. His father was Celes King. His father was Celes King.”

“Now why’d you have to go confusing me like that,” said Holland.

It was a more lighthearted exchange than Holland had in the same shop in 1997, when her daughter was arrested and charged with robbery. “I came in and I poured my heart out to him,” said Holland, pointing to the large portrait of King’s father and mother, Celes and Anita, that hangs on the wall lined with plaques and community awards. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry mama, it’s going to be ok,'” she said. With her savings, money from her son, and her landlord’s signing over her house, they posted $2,000 to get her daughter out, she said.

Tina Allen's sculpture of Celes King III sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards, the starting point for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.

Tina Allen’s sculpture of Celes King III sits at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards, the starting point for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.

Back in 1997, the King’s bail agency was celebrating its 50th anniversary – marking half a century of “reuniting families,” as King described the mission. Getting black folks out of jail and countering discrimination was the impetus for King’s father to enter the bail industry. In 1947, activist Bayard Rustin was arrested during his Journey of Reconciliation, a protest that inspired the Freedom Riders, but because Rustin was black, he could not find a bail agent to take his case. King’s father – a Tuskegee Airman in his final semester of law school – abandoned plans to join a high-powered law firm and took the bail license test.

But he couldn’t.

Blacks could not sit for the exam, so King’s mother – a native Californio with Spanish and Native American ancestry – became the licensed agent.

The civil rights era

Posting bail for more than 5,000 protesters thrust the Kings into the center of the civil rights movement. They rubbed elbows with the “Memphis” Kings – Martin Luther and Coretta Scott – along with Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

“It didn’t matter how radical or conservative they were – we were in the middle,” said King, who grew up with politicians at family gatherings and celebrities like Cab Calloway at the family’s other business: the Dunbar Hotel on 42nd Place and Central Avenue.

“To live in Los Angeles and to be a part of the African-American community, you just knew the Kings,” said retired Congresswoman Diane Watson, who relied on King and his father to generate support for education, housing and healthcare programs during her terms in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Even though Watson is a Democrat and the Kings are all lifelong Republicans, the party difference was less important, she said.

“I could work through King, into the inside of his party and get support for things that did the most good,” said Watson.

King’s political training accelerated in 1963, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy began promoting alternatives to bail. State legislatures proposed laws to eliminate bail, said King, and his father testified in every state, with his son in-tow as researcher and assistant. On the road and in his late teens, said King, he and his father disagreed over the civil rights movement’s strategy.

“My position was, if you didn’t give it to us now, let’s burn the house down,” said King. “My dad was more moderate and pragmatic.”

Their differences weren’t just political.

Where his father had four degrees in law and business, it took King 19 years to finish his bachelor’s. His father worked in bail for more than 50 years, but King bounced around like a playboy – setting up restaurants in Texas, a record store in Louisiana, a bar in Denver and an airplane shuttle service between Miami and Vegas.

“If it made a dollar and it made sense to me, I would do it,” said King.

When travel agencies cut into his Vegas-bound airline, he began flying out Coors beer to Honolulu and selling it on the black market.

The colorful life ended in the early 1990s, when his parents became sick. King took care of them until they died, months apart in 2003. In mourning, he rejected the family – and its attendant responsibilities. His sister Teri took over the bail business full time in 1998, but said both she and her brother looked at their parents’ empty shoes and resisted filling them. “Even with our solid background, it was a challenge to acknowledge that now, we’re going to be up to the plate,” said Teri, 64.

The next generation takes over

But anxiety about the burdens of the family legacy faded away, said King. People kept calling and coming in to the family’s bail bond shop, asking him the same questions they asked his father. He became involved in 2004’s Initiative 1074, which sought to establish a petroleum commission and limit gas company profit margins to 5 percent. The ballot measure failed, but opposition by oil companies put him on the map, he said. Months later, when a new wave of legislation threatened the bail industry, sister Teri “screamed” out for help, she said.

“I don’t want just your suggestions,” Teri told her brother. “I want your mind, your spirit, your soul. We need it all.”

“I looked up,” said King, “and I was in Sacramento.”

And for the last nine years, he’s worked the corridors of the California Capitol – and with ever-increasing tenacity.

Man about the halls of the State Capitol

In those halls, where grey and blue suits are the standard uniform, King stands out. The sharp dresser has 60 suits, from lavender to baby blue, and matching shoes for each.

“It’s easy to notice him,” joked Former Assembly Speaker pro Tempore Fiona Ma, who said it’s not just his dress that gets him noticed – it’s his tirelessness.

“Unlike lobbyists…he makes the effort to make the rounds, go and track people down, see them and give them a hug,” said Ma, who said she was touched when King showed up at her San Francisco birthday party in March. He would always pop into her office unannounced, checking on a bill or alerting her to key issues, said Ma, who worked closely with him during her three terms.

Staying so present to the Sacramento legislators means he keeps their schedule: driving up Tuesday morning, and leaving Thursday night. In 2012, he drove more than 90,000 miles in his gold Saab convertible – 40,000 more than the last year.

The difference, he said, was the October 2011 passage of AB109, known as realignment: the state’s plan to reduce the prison population by sending low-level offenders to county jails.

King said pushing low-level offenders to the county jail system reduced the need for bail – because accused criminals know they will be let out anyway. And accompanying the reconfiguration of the correctional system was an onslaught of bills targeting the bail industry. In 2012, he said, he opposed or modified 30 out of 31 bills that focused on the bail industry.

In response, King helped generate enthusiasm to study the bail industry – from a patchwork of Republicans and Democrats, including Ma, Conway, State Senators Curren Price and Roderick Wright. All signed a letter supporting the Little Hoover Commission’s analysis of the bail system in relation to realignment, which began last November.

As King looks for the commission to release its report in the early summer, he is gaining support for Assemblyman Curt Hagman’s bill, AB1118, a placeholder bill that can be modified based on the commission’s recommendations. To a capitol staffer, King named the leaders signing on to support the bill – and they came from all sides of the aisle. “It’s going to look like a checkerboard when it’s done,” said King.

King doesn't have a bail agent's license. His sister and his niece operate the bond business, but he knows the pathway through the criminal justice system, inside and out.

King doesn’t have a bail agent’s license. His sister and his niece operate the bond business, but he knows the pathway through the criminal justice system, inside and out.

Hagman, a bail bondsman representing Chino Hills and a friend of King’s for more than 10 years, lamented that the bail community was “totally excluded” from the realignment discussion. Although the specifics of AB1118 will change, King said the bill creates a judicial council to guide county-level judges when setting local bail schedules – all in an effort to cut down on disparities in bail.

Other political advocacy

Yet King’s advocacy in Sacramento isn’t limited to bail: he helps out on a variety of issues, ensuring that “marginalized communities all over California,” as he said, are represented – especially the people of South L.A.

Reggie Fair, the former legislative director for Senator Curren Price, said King is instrumental in bridging the divide between the capitol and Price’s constituents. When Price was developing an education bill, he said, King was the conduit to the community – bringing together stakeholders and offering perspective on policy. And when the L.A. Unified School District’s Office of Civil Rights came under fire for not offering enough resources for black students to improve their English skills, said Fair, King was instrumental in guiding the senator’s policies in the community. “We would have lost a lot of time and not have been so effective if it wasn’t for Celes,” said Fair.

Even for political action limited to L.A. – like last year’s Measure J ballot initiative – transportation activist Damien Goodmon said King’s foothold in Sacramento yields positive results. Goodmon, the Executive Director of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition, relied on King to plug into a broad swath of community groups to oppose Measure J, which would have prolonged the Measure R sales tax. King connected Goodmon with leaders in Boyle Heights and Beverly Hills, provided strategic messaging, and coached him in the background on elected officials. Despite being outspent and going against unions and contractors, said Goodmon, his coalition defeated Measure J – and “it was a direct product of [King],” he said.

Goodmon, who met King in 2007, sees him as a mentor. “Most people my age would benefit from having more people guide them and provide that base like he did for me,” said Goodmon, 31.

Despite the King family’s varied political advocacy and community work, which includes a string of non-profits supporting fatherhood, offering affordable housing, and education – King and his sister Teri are aware that their advocacy for the bail industry is vulnerable to accusations of self-interest. After all, business is down more than 45 percent since realignment took effect, he said. But according to his sister Teri, the business has spent more than $250,000 to fund her brother’s advocacy since realignment bill passed in October 2011. She said the strain his work puts on their mom-and-pop business is significant, and they wouldn’t take on a state-wide battle if they didn’t think it was worth it.

Still, King sees the writing on the wall. Posting bonds gave the family the ability to do work in the community, he said, and now that well is drying up. And it’s the end of the line in another way: there’s no fifth or sixth Celes King. None of his 10 grandchildren or two sons has the family name.

New ventures

So with time running out, he’s pushing ahead with a new venture, and he’s leveraging the entire family’s assets to do so. The Kings are purchasing more than 1,000 housing units in Las Vegas, with a possible 240 in Sacramento, and offering insurance-based financing through a non-profit organization: Celes King III Community Center Operations.

“We’re starting all over,” he said on a recent Sunday, sitting on the front porch of Pepper Steak, a folksy diner in Highland, near San Bernardino.

Opposite him is Andrew Valles III, CEO of SafeCare Limited Trust, the company partnering with King to let homebuyers bypass the usual mortgage process and finance a home with insurance.

The pair met, said Valles, when he hired King to do what no other lobbyist could: securing the company’s validation to operate from the Attorney General’s office.

King said he helped out Valles because he took to SafeCare’s model: letting customers buy homes without a down payment, packaging all necessary insurance like automobile and life insurance, and granting customers an equity position from the outset.

“It’s a game-changer,” said King.

The pair dined on poached eggs and toast, discussing pending deals and even shifting revenue from the future properties in Sacramento to create a super PAC with a few hundred thousand dollars going in each year.

“It creates a capital base to grease the wheels,” said King.

Sacramento is, after all, a means – to get legislation, to maintain influence, to secure the family interests.

“In seven years, I’ll own a hotel,” said King. “Vegas.”

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