Mayor R. Rex Parris delights in rattling cages, putting Lancaster, California, on the map in China and beyond

Mark Magnier
·11-min read

He lured a multibillion-dollar Chinese company to the California desert, encouraged Chinese “birth tourists” to have babies with US citizenship and envies Chinese officials who have real clout.

The United States has its share of colourful mayors. But few compare with R. Rex Parris of Lancaster, California.

“He’s a schemer,” said Matt Sheehan, author of The Transpacific Experiment: How China and California Collaborate and Compete for Our Future. “ Rex Parris would make a great Chinese mayor. He’s fully in that groove.”

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Never one to think small, Parris proposed a US$31 million, 10-story Buddha statue complex in this city of 160,000 east of Los Angeles to welcome Chinese companies before US-Chinese tensions spiked. Parris, a Republican, has made Lancaster carbon neutral – rare in a political party known for denying climate change – and suggested residents carry firearms to deter the homeless.

Mayor R. Rex Parris, a Republican who is a proponent of renewable energy, is in his fifth term as mayor of Lancaster, California. Photo: Handout
Mayor R. Rex Parris, a Republican who is a proponent of renewable energy, is in his fifth term as mayor of Lancaster, California. Photo: Handout

Lancaster’s links to China almost didn’t happen. In 2009, Parris considered skipping a business dinner where he met Wang Chuanfu, the billionaire founder of electric bus and battery maker BYD.

The gritty city was battling 17 per cent unemployment and Parris was promoting solar power given Lancaster’s location on the Mojave desert’s periphery. The two huddled over renewable energy and hit it off.

Parris had visited Asia only once on a quick church trip but jumped on a plane to Shenzhen, BYD’s headquarters, and returned impressed. Gaining BYD’s trust took longer, however. “It was very, very difficult,” he said.

He made three more trips, did a modest solar housing project, then lined up tax breaks and permits, beating out Los Angeles to land BYD’s first North American factory.

The timing was fortuitous. Costs were rising in China, Donald Trump’s presidency was still unimaginable and the US electric bus market showed promise.

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Shortly after the plant opened in 2013, however, BYD ran into problems after it resisted collective bargaining and was reported to be paying Chinese employees US$1.50 an hour on US soil, leading to a US$100,000 fine and course correction.

“That’s illegal,” Parris said, blaming “cultural” differences, while industry analyst CleanTechnica notes: “BYD has been trying to deal with something it is probably not used to back home, namely unions.”

Bigger problems remain deteriorating US-China relations, fuelling charges that BYD aids Communist Party espionage, which it denies, and a law preventing buyers of Chinese-made buses and trains from using federal funds that cash-strapped municipalities rely on.

Parris, 69, said he has spent an inordinate amount of time defending BYD, in which investor Warren Buffett holds shares, against “ridiculous” spying allegations fanned by competitors. “Primates show more intellect,” he said. “I’m in protective mode. The Chinese simply don’t have any friends in DC at the moment.”

A worker leaves BYD’s manufacturing plant in Lancaster, California, where the Chinese company produces electric buses. Photo: Xinhua
A worker leaves BYD’s manufacturing plant in Lancaster, California, where the Chinese company produces electric buses. Photo: Xinhua

When not navigating cultural gaps, Parris says he has overhauled city hall, encouraged employees to study Mandarin, absorbed public criticism so workers can focus and cut red tape. “If I want it to take 20 minutes, it’s 20 minutes,” he said. “I’ll deal with all naysayers, take the bullets.”

Re-elected last year to his fifth term with 70 per cent of the vote, the hard-charging personal injury lawyer is a lightning rod for controversy. Supporters praise his ability to blow through obstacles, think outside the box, fight crime and face down opponents, from white supremacists to truculent bureaucrats.

“I was glad Rex won instead of me. There’s no way I could do the job he’s done for Lancaster,” said retiree Leslie Underwood, one of four challengers in 2020 who thinks the “trip-and-fall lawyer” is America’s best mayor. “He’s a problem solver and has scruples.”

Critics – he has been labelled “dictator”, “corrupt Grinch” and “tin pot mayor” – counter that he wields lawsuits and hardball tactics to cower any adversary. Former California governor Jerry Brown, whom he sued, called him a “son of a b****”, according to Parris.

“He’s a great attorney, but you have citizens in fear of going against that,” said Aubray McPherson, an educator and 2020 mayoral candidate. “He’s been able to stay too long.”

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McPherson says she challenged Parris after her charity was discouraged from participating in a local fair chaired by the mayor’s brother. “It’s a good old boys club,” she said. “I never ran for mayor thinking I was going to win. But I’d at least be a thorn in the guy’s [rear end]. So I think I accomplished something.”

One thing few dispute: Parris looms large in dusty Lancaster, from his policy decisions and a school bearing his name to his law firm’s “Dog Bites. Call Now” billboards.

His unconventional approach was evident with his 2013 Chinese “birth tourism” proposal, which came two years after Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s twin daughters were born in Lancaster’s hospital, securing their US citizenship.

“There were cartoons in local newspapers of [People’s Liberation Army] soldiers marching into Lancaster with babies under their arms,” said Sheehan. “He crossed the line.”

A 2013 cartoon in a local newspaper lampooned the mayor’s “birth tourism” proposal. Illustration: Sergio Hernandez/Antelope Valley Times
A 2013 cartoon in a local newspaper lampooned the mayor’s “birth tourism” proposal. Illustration: Sergio Hernandez/Antelope Valley Times

Parris still argues it was a good idea undercut by xenophobia and US State Department resistance: Chinese want US passports, Lancaster’s hospital is underfunded and it’s not illegal.

“How does it not make sense to open arms, attract affluent, educated people from China to come and seek citizenship?” he asked. “But there’s this jingoist view of Asia. … There’s no difference between them and us, except they have black hair.”

Eschewing political correctness, Parris has suggested that any January 6 US Capitol insurrectionists coming to Lancaster would be strung up on lamp posts and threatened to mount 50-caliber guns at known crime spots. “I didn’t really mean that,” he said, but added that he favoured a “scientific” approach to crime.

And he believes “pretty robust science” also points to a natural attraction between people of different races. “I think it’s a great thing,” he said, adding that his daughter-in-law is African-American. “It’s based on smell.”

“He speaks his mind. And sometimes that gets you in trouble,” said Frank Visco, a local developer and insurer holding contracts with Lancaster. “At least he’s out there doing something.”

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Parris has also ruffled feathers with a long-standing campaign against homeless people, accusing them of endangering local health and safety and suggesting that residents carry concealed firearms to ward them off.

“They don’t have this problem in China,” Parris said. “They have lots of problems, but not this problem in cities because the mayor says no, no.”

“I have to say outrageous things so we get money. … When I threaten to give everyone a gun permit and shoot homeless, suddenly I get funding.”

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California filed suit against Lancaster, claiming that onerous fines effectively “criminalise poverty”.

Lancaster said it was reviewing its citation system.

Speaking his mind carries a price. Parris warns BYD executives not to share anything they don’t want publicised (BYD executives declined to be interviewed), is licensed to carry a concealed weapon and travels with security, not that anyone will shoot him, he adds, but rather so “toxic people” don’t get in his face.

“I recognise I’m what you call controversial,” he said. “Given the need to keep a secret, I can. But I prefer not to.”

Workers at the BYD bus assembly workshop in Lancaster, California. Photo: Xinhua
Workers at the BYD bus assembly workshop in Lancaster, California. Photo: Xinhua

Supporters say his policies have created jobs, rebuilt downtown and helped turn around a city with a checkered past. An erstwhile railroad watering stop, Lancaster expanded on the heels of a gold discovery, benefited from US Air Force bases built nearby and has served as a backdrop for Westerns and a Quentin Tarantino film.

His embrace of renewable energy, including rules mandating solar panels on new homes, earned him a “Green Power Leadership” award co-sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2019.

But critics counter that many projects are costly and misguided, including a shuttered solar farm, an unrealised street camera project and the continuing “Eye in the Sky” airborne surveillance system to deter lawbreakers. In 2019, Business Insider ranked Lancaster No 50 on a list of most miserable US cities, citing crime, addiction and neo-Nazis.

“One thing I do admire him for, he has guts,” said David Stilwell, a retired security worker and civilian pilot in Lancaster. “What I don’t admire is the way he spends money, and the back-room deals.”

“Anyone who runs against Rex Parris gets squashed like a bug. He’s the Tammany Hall of Lancaster.”

Rex Parris would make a great Chinese mayor. He’s fully in that groove

author Matt Sheehan

Parris, who made his name in 2009 chasing motorcycle gangs out of town, said he admires China’s no-nonsense approach. Leader Deng Xiaoping made the right decision sending in troops during the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, he said.

“Sometimes you have to be ruthless. Yeah, Tiananmen was a terrible thing. But at the same time, he was able to avoid another Cultural Revolution,” he said. “You can totally understand when you look at what pressure he was under.”

Parris said China has influenced his tough security approach. “In Shenzhen, how do you police a city of 14 million? You do it ruthlessly,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s to protect the hardworking people.”

Chinese officials are well educated with authority to jump-start economic development and accountability if they fail, he said, citing one Chinese mayor who explained how he initially listened to subordinates: “Then he just gets fed up and says, ‘You don’t say, I say,’” Parris added. “That’s how I run the city.”

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Parris’s pandemic management has been criticised, including on a “Get Parris Out Of Lancaster” Facebook page. He has resisted state rules barring mass gatherings and local businesses from reopening, then threatened fines for residents ignoring safety guidelines. “I look to the science,” he said. “I said, ‘wear your [expletive] mask.’ I got in trouble for that.”

His decision to cosy up to former president Trump was justified, evidenced when Washington favoured Lancaster once Covid-19 exploded, he said. “He takes care of his friends,” Parris added. “It’s just hard to stay friends.”

He believes Beijing and Washington need to find common ground on education, the environment and business, that eBay and Amazon share blame often levied at Beijing for selling fake products and says security concerns exist on both sides. “The Chinese government has lots of influence in Chinese companies,” he said. “You think the Defence Department can’t pick up the phone and call Google?”

Given the dire outlook for worsening climate change and social unrest, Parris believes Beijing and Washington will eventually partner in countering a “Muslim hoard”. He acknowledges that China – which is holding up to 1 million Uygurs in detention camps it terms employment centres – has not handled the situation in Xinjiang well.

“An authoritarian regime, they act quicker and more decisively without mercy,” he said. “Could it have handled it more humanely? Yes. Do I know how to handle it humanely? No, but I’d try.”

Mayor R. Rex Parris of Lancaster, California, speaks at a ceremony marking BYD’s factory expansion in 2017. Photo: Robert Delaney
Mayor R. Rex Parris of Lancaster, California, speaks at a ceremony marking BYD’s factory expansion in 2017. Photo: Robert Delaney

Born in neighbouring Palmdale, Parris’s father abandoned the family when he was 11, leaving his mother, a waitress, to raise four boys. Parris left school in 10th grade and struggled with drugs before graduating from college, law school and eventually entering private practice.

Despite his pro-business stance, his firm has won hundreds of millions suing Tesla, Apple, banks, insurers, governments and individuals. “You pay no fees unless we win,” the firm boasts. Last year, critics questioned his commitment to Lancaster after he bought the former beach house of ex-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca for US$6.6 million.

“He’s earned it,” said Underwood. “All you jealous, small-minded people, get [moving] and earn US$6 million.”

Parris says he welcomes critics although consensus is not his strong suit. “I don’t really work well with others,” he said.

“If you have the ability to effectuate positive change and you don’t do it, you really are pond scum,” he added. “I didn’t want to end up as pond scum.”

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