By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Deron has his godfather, it’s Nate,” L.A. County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras noted as he sat down in his office to talk about what was then the upcoming City Council election to replace Nate Holden. It was Tuesday, April 29, three weeks before the runoff election in L.A.’s 10th Council District between Holden staffer Deron Williams and Martin Ludlow, labor’s candidate, and Contreras was a bit concerned that Ludlow lacked a veteran political figure in L.A.’s black community to help him along. “Well, there’s Diane,” he quickly added, praising the area’s Congress member, Diane Watson, for her strong support of Ludlow. “She’s his godmother.”
But if Contreras was concerned about Ludlow’s godfatherlessness, he was otherwise confident about the race. He was putting everything that labor had into the effort. Two years previous, labor had had its first less-than-stellar election since Contreras took the helm at the County Fed back in 1996. Stretched to its limits by its campaign for unsuccessful mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the Fed had seen some of its council candidates lose races that in other years they might, with the Fed’s assistance, have pulled off. Jim Hahn had become mayor over the Fed’s opposition, and with labor champion Jackie Goldberg leaving the council for the state Assembly, progressive forces in City Hall were at a relative standstill.
For Contreras, then, this spring’s council elections were critical, both to demonstrate labor’s clout and to impart new momentum to L.A.’s civic left, which in recent years had won a living-wage ordinance and an affordable-housing trust fund but which now was plainly in need of a boost. The first boost came in the March primary, when Villaraigosa ousted Eastside council incumbent Nick Pacheco by an astonishing 17 percent margin — a testimony both to labor’s election-day chops and to Villaraigosa’s deep and broad appeal among district voters. That left the Ludlow-Williams race for the May 20 runoff, and though Ludlow was a dynamic candidate and Williams one who got caught in the web of his own lies, neither one was widely known to district voters. In the end, it came down to the campaign that labor would wage for Ludlow, which was why Contreras was feeling confident.
“We’re looking at a 25 percent turnout,” he began, “about 20,000 voters — it’ll take 10,000 to win.” With that, he rose, went over to a white drawing board, drew an oblong (the 10th District) with a black marking pen, and began outlining labor’s campaign on Ludlow’s behalf. “There are 12,000 Latino voters in the eastern end of the district; we think Martin can get 3,000 votes there. Twenty-five workers out of Local 11 [of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees] are on leave working full time there; there should be 100 weekend walkers and eight pieces of mail.” On the west end of the district north of the 10 freeway he drew another circle, which includes most of the district’s white voters, “Eleven thousand of them; they’re heavily Jewish; Nate never did well here. Martin’s campaign is working there; he should get 4,000 votes. In the district’s African-American community — the area mainly south of the 10 — there are 28,000 voters, and we’re doing our first all-out operation there. We have 35 full-time workers from four unions; there will be eight pieces of mail, and ACORN [a community-based low-income activist group] is working there, too. Martin should get 5,000 votes there. [Consultant] Parke [Skelton] is doing our campaign in the Latino community; [consultant] Richie [Ross] is doing it in the African-American, Jewish and Asian communities. Add the 3,000 votes to the 4,000 and the 5,000, and Martin should get 12,000 votes.”
Which, three weeks to the day after Contreras had scribbled all this on his board, is precisely what Ludlow got. As predicted, turnout was 25 percent, and all constituencies performed as Contreras said they would (though Ludlow may have come in a little under Contreras’ target in the Latino community and a little over in the African-American).
Which is to say, Miguel Contreras’ role in Los Angeles politics is not simply that of a labor leader. If anything, Contreras’ command of city politics is comparable to that of Chicago’s old Mayor Daley or the O’Connells in Albany, legendary urban-machine leaders who had an uncanny feel for their cities and who knew which buttons to push to get results on Election Day (and other days, too). In some ways, Contreras’ command is a good deal more impressive than theirs since, unlike the Daleys of yore, he cannot vote the dead to get the election totals to come out right.
Contreras’ predictions aren’t always so flawless, of course — he was surprised by the scale of Villaraigosa’s blowout, and he’s made his share of miscalculations. But I can think of no one in city politics today — and I don’t mean just in Los Angeles, I mean anywhere in the United States — who commands quite the network of dedicated precinct walkers, financial resources and skilled consultants that Contreras does, year in, year out. In mobilizing the votes of union members, of nonunion working-class Latinos and now their African-American counterparts in at least one part of black L.A., Contreras has turned the Fed into a real force in (by my count) at least nine of the city’s 15 council districts (not to mention in two dozen state legislative districts around L.A. as well). That’s the source of labor’s clout at City Hall, and if some of that clout dissipated after the 2001 election, it’s back — and how — this spring.