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
THE FAREWELL ORATORY of Martin Ludlow, the former Los Angeles City Councilman who reached the peak of the county’s labor union hierarchy only to be toppled by an ethics investigation, was in many ways a public relations triumph.
Ludlow — dogged by a multi-agency probe of his 2003 council campaign and the union money that funded it — delivered a thundering speech in which he apologized, claimed responsibility and spoke of his pending redemption, all without stating what his transgressions actually were.
The performance was hailed by a Greek chorus of union leaders who stood behind their leader, clapping and chanting, “Si se puede.” Always a gifted public speaker, Ludlow bade goodbye as executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and offered his support to his longtime political ally, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“He is my hermano grande. I love him dearly,” Ludlow declared. “And Mayor Villaraigosa will be just fine.”
Well, that’s good to know. But this event wasn’t about the mayor. Or was it? Few believe that Ludlow would have scored the County Fed job if Villaraigosa thought it was a terrible idea. And no one knows which politicians, if any, are under scrutiny in the probe of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents 30,000 public school workers and has helped dozens of politicians over the years.
Since that stirring resignation speech, the tale of Ludlow has produced another, less upbeat storyline — one that is at odds with the unified front shown at AFL-CIO headquarters. Ludlow’s allies in labor and elsewhere portrayed him as a departing visionary who would one day rise again. But for many who experienced him at City Hall, Ludlow was simply another disappointing politician who never quite lived up to his billing.
The gulf between those two views, and the debate over the Ludlow legacy, exposed one of the less flattering aspects of Los Angeles local government — the divide between the publicly spoken message and the privately held truth.
Publicly, Ludlow’s allies in the unions and elsewhere described his downfall as part of a campaign to destroy a movement that crushed Gov. Arnold Schwarzen-egger’s slate of ballot measures last year. Privately, more than a few council members, legislative aides and even mayoral staffers told a different story, saying Ludlow’s two-year stint on the council was lackluster at best, disastrous at worst. In their view, Ludlow carved a destructive, if well-intentioned, path — winning a council seat that rarely engaged him, abruptly taking a job after only two years in office that left his district without representation for seven months, contributing to the legal woes of one union and, now, leaving the region’s most powerful labor organization scrambling for a new leader.
Perhaps the only person to go public with his dismay was communications consultant David Hamlin, who lives in the 10th District — the heart of Los Angeles — and worked for Ludlow’s opponent during the 2003 election. Hamlin flatly argued that Ludlow handled his campaign in a way that had a corrosive effect on the election.
If Ludlow received $50,000 in prohibited union funds during the campaign, Hamlin argued, he then had the power to spend $50,000 for other, much-needed campaign expenses.
“My suspicion is that the race would have been a whole lot tighter” without the unreported union funds, he said. “It might well have gone the other way if there had not been these under-the-table resources available.”
To many of his peers at City Hall, Ludlow had shown little interest in the drudgery that comes with representing the 10th District, from responding to constituent phone calls to addressing the avalanche of mundane requests like removal of an illegally dumped couch. Staff turnover in his office was not uncommon. Just scheduling a meeting was an uphill climb. On some days, callers had trouble getting a live person to pick up the phone.
When labor leader Miguel Contreras died in May 2005, Ludlow jumped in as the heir apparent, fueling rumors that he was trying to stay one step ahead of a federal corruption probe. After all, Ludlow took the job just three months after the Los Angeles Times reported that he was being investigated over his involvement in contracting decisions at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Then there were the whispers that Ludlow was somehow connected to the problems at SEIU Local 99.
“For him to make that move — it’s the height of arrogance, as though he was thinking, ‘I’ll just move to a more powerful position,’?” said one high-level city official, who would not be identified.
Ludlow attorney Stephen Kaufman would not discuss his client’s legal situation, nor would he comment on the dynamics of the 2003 campaign, the investigation or Ludlow’s career path. But Ludlow allies countered that the former councilman is being singled out for standard-issue misdeeds — failing to report at least $53,000 in support from SEIU Local 99, which came in the form of workers, phone-banking and other assistance, according to unnamed sources cited by the Los Angeles Times.
Minutes after Ludlow announced his resignation, state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez — also a Villaraigosa ally — circulated a statement questioning whether Ludlow was a target of “overzealous prosecutors.” One of Villaraigosa’s commission appointees went further, saying Ludlow’s resignation had “swirled the beehive” of labor leaders.