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The Architect 

Miguel Contreras, 1952 – 2005

Thursday, May 12 2005

Page 3 of 4

(It helped at such moments that Miguel was warm, funny, and blessed with a buoyant confidence that he could eventually win over just about anybody. He could also call on a dead-pan wit: One day last fall, seeing me for the first time since I’d shaved off a beard I’d had for three decades, he looked me up and down and announced, “You look two years younger.”)

For all his deal-making, however, Miguel had a long-range strategic vision for labor in Los Angeles that informed virtually everything he did. He’d been planning a local ballot measure, for instance, to create a business tax that would defray all the costs of community college students. The campaign would enable labor to win the allegiance of young working-class Angelenos, he reasoned, and it would force labor’s fair-weather elected friends to support the movement more fully – or risk the consequences.

He’d been concerned, too, about the potential rift between the African-American and Latino communities that had been so apparent in the mayor’s race four years ago. He saw labor as a potential bridge between the two communities, which was one reason why he’d worked so hard on behalf of the heavily black MTA bus drivers union – not affiliated with the Fed – during its strike several years ago.

Contreras also fostered and backed the campaigns of younger African-American candidates – Assembly Member Karen Bass and City Councilman Martin Ludlow in particular – whose primary orientation was to labor and progressive causes rather than the more insular nationalism to which some African-American electeds have pandered in recent years. Contreras was not surprised when Bass and Ludlow became the first black electeds to back Villaraigosa in this year’s mayoral race: That was, in a broad sense, part of his design.

Ludlow had been Contreras’ political director at the Fed before he ran for the council; Miguel was particularly good at promoting his protégés. Ludlow’s predecessor as Fed political director had been Fabien Nunez, whose election to the state assembly Contreras had helped engineer. Even then, when Nunez was still a candidate, Contreras told me that Nunez could and would become Speaker early on in his tenure; that liberals would need a champion after Senate leader John Burton was termed out and that Nunez would be up to the job.

Miguel was so vibrant and omnipresent for anyone who covered L.A. politics that it’s hard to have one definitive image of him. If I do, I suppose it was the day that I arrived at his office and he diagrammed for me, with black marker on a white board, how Ludlow would win his hotly contested council seat in the very polyglot, mid-city district that had been represented by Nate Holden. In the Latino northeast quadrant, Contreras said, the Latino activists from the Hotel Workers were walking. Over here, in the more Jewish neighborhoods, Ludlow was spending all his time going door-to-door; the guy was a great advertisement for himself. Over in this corner, there was an operation funded by unions that didn’t care much about Ludlow but that wanted to ingratiate themselves to newly elected councilman Villaraigosa, who’d asked them to deliver for Ludlow. And so it went, neighborhood by neighborhood, until Contreras wound up by predicting how many votes the leading candidates would receive. On election day, he was accurate within a couple of hundred votes for each of them.

It was a performance of which no one else I’ve known – labor leaders, electeds, consultants – would be capable. Maybe old Mayor Daley talked about Chicago this way, but old Mayor Daley could influence outcomes by voting the dead, an option not available to Contreras. It was also a performance in which Contreras plainly took delight – a recounting of how all those hours planning mobilizations and conceiving and pulling off deals were going to result in the election of new generation of progressive leaders.

I was impressed by the performance then; I am more impressed by it, in the continuum of Miguel’s entire career, now. What he was engaged in that day, as he was every day he led the city’s labor movement, was remaking the politics of Los Angeles. In this, he will likely be linked with Villaraigosa, particularly if, as the polls suggest, Villaraigosa is elected mayor on May 17th. The irony is that while the Fed backed Hahn in the current race, it was the Fed’s work of the past nine years – all the voter registration and labor mobilization, the showcasing of issues like the living wage, and the extraordinary campaign labor waged for Villaraigosa four years ago – that helped the create the city that stands ready today to make Villaraigosa mayor.

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