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Not So Fast 

Herb Wesson’s cakewalk turns into a challenge

Thursday, Aug 4 2005
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Former State Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson got on fairly well with the current governor, so he seemed to want to make it clear to representatives of several Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals Saturday just whose side he was on. Wesson told them the race to fill the empty 10th District City Council seat — the race in which he is the hands-down front-runner — is bigger than just him. “I say to each and every one of you,” Wesson declared, “this election is about good versus evil. It’s about us versus Arnold Schwarzenegger. We will run a ‘no’ on everything the governor supports.”The assembled SEIU members cheered, but the real news may be that Wesson could face a strong challenge in the November 8 special election to fill the seat vacated by Martin Ludlow, who left to become leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.Unlike the ex-speaker, who launched his campaign in June with a City Hall news conference featuring a who’s who of Los Angeles elected officials, community activist and planner Denise Fairchild slipped in quietly, filing to run for the seat without fanfare.“I’m a problem solver,” Fairchild told the union workers. “I’m in the community. I roll up my sleeves. Give me a shot.”She has a shot, but it could prove hard for her to keep up. Wesson’s campaign is chaired by fellow former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, and he won the quick endorsement of every Democratic statewide elected official. He had broad backing from the SEIU representatives, who are to take their recommendation to the County Fed — where Ludlow now reigns, and where he once directed the labor group’s political efforts.If that’s not enough, Wesson was redirected to the council race at the urging of several labor and political leaders, including Ludlow, who wanted to steer him away from a face-off against Mark Ridley-Thomas for a state Senate seat next year. Plus, Ludlow once worked on Wesson’s staff.Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, also a former Assembly speaker and a friend of Wesson’s from their Sacramento days, is expected to support Wesson as well. But it’s not a lock. Villaraigosa picked Fairchild to be on his mayoral transition team.Fairchild’s bid could spur a debate. Her campaign is being handled by Parke Skelton and Steve Barkan, the consultants who piloted Villaraigosa to victory in the mayor’s race. They generally pick the more progressive candidates to represent, and could help Fairchild stake out ground that competes with Wesson’s labor ties.“A number of individuals in the progressive community, and my neighbors, called on me to run,” Fairchild told the Weekly. “I guess I’m still a neophyte. There’s no question I weigh the pros and cons of this every day, and the cons are clear. It’s tough going against a career politician. It’s tough overcoming a sense of inevitability.”Fairchild ran for City Council once before — in 1987, another special election to fill a vacated seat. That time it was David Cunningham who resigned from the council, to join an investment banking firm.At the time, Fairchild was serving as an appointee of then-Mayor Tom Bradley to an environmental commission. She stepped down in protest of Bradley’s support for a trash-incineration project planned for South Los Angeles on land the city had taken by eminent domain. The LANCER incineration project was later scrapped, and the land is now the subject of a dispute among the city, one of the former owners, and the South-Central Farmers, who have been growing crops on the plot for several years.Fairchild failed to make the runoff and endorsed Nate Holden, who went on to serve 16 years on the City Council, until Ludlow replaced him in 2003.Fairchild ran a community development finance program and later trained organizers in the nuts and bolts of funding, financing and running successful retail and housing development operations. She started and heads the Community Development Technologies Center and works with Los Angeles Trade Technical College to offer a two-year degree in community development.Ten other candidates have filed to run for the 10th District City Council seat, but none, other than Fairchild, has yet established the name identity or political skills to make a serious run against Wesson. Only Wesson and Fairchild were invited to speak to the SEIU locals last week.Fairchild said she worried that the Koreatown and mid–Los Angeles district would suffer from a lack of continuity if Ludlow, who completed only half his term, is succeeded by Wesson — who has not ruled out a bid for Yvonne Burke’s county supervisor seat when Burke retires in 2008.“What happens if I don’t run?” Fairchild said. “There is no race. There is no campaign. What happens if Herb moves on and we have another unfinished term?”But Fairchild, too, acknowledges harboring an alternative plan — to run for Mark Ridley-Thomas’ Assembly seat, which opens next year because of term limits. She called Ridley-Thomas her political mentor, but also said several progressive women in the Legislature have urged her to join their ranks.“I’m not making a decision on that at this moment,” Fairchild said. She added that she’s pretty good at raising money at $500 a pop — the per-donor limit in City Council races — but that the $3,200 limit for Assembly races is another matter.At the SEIU meeting, both Fairchild and Wesson were received warmly, but many union members appeared more comfortable with Wesson and were pleased with his challenge to Schwarzenegger, who called a statewide election for the same time as the Los Angeles council races. The governor is sponsoring two measures that labor leaders see as especially pernicious. One would make it easier for individual employees to withhold money the union spends for political purposes. The other would lengthen a public school teacher’s probation period.The same ballot is to include six other statewide measures, including one that would require parental notification for minors seeking abortions, and a school construction bond. The SEIU Locals also heard from leading candidates for the 14th District council race to succeed Villaraigosa. Seventeen people have filed, but school board member José Huizar and former Councilman Nick Pacheco lead the pack and were the only two who spoke before the unions. Huizar touted the endorsement by Villaraigosa, which became official several days later.“We have a new mayor who is providing the energy we need,” Huizar said, adding that his close relationship with Villaraigosa would benefit the people of the northeast Los Angeles district.Pacheco said he proved during his four-year stint on the council that he knew how to get things done. Huizar’s endorsements and fund-raising prowess would do him little good, he said.“This isn’t an election that can be bought,” Pacheco said. “I’m the right match [for the district]. I can hit the ground running. I know where all the pots of money are being saved and raised.”An initial canvass put Pacheco slightly ahead, but SEIU Local 99 — which represents school-bus drivers, cafeteria workers, special-education instructors and other school workers not represented by the teachers’ union — leans strongly in favor of Huizar. Leaders of the County Fed, which will make an endorsement decision after Labor Day, have discussed a dual endorsement in that race, according to a union official.

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