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Many of the labor movement’s top representatives did not know, or ask, whether Contreras had been in his car or stopped off between downtown Los Angeles and LAX, possibly to pick up his wife. Cedillo, the state senator, searched for the location where Contreras collapsed but was never sure he found it. “Because it was such a tragedy, I don’t think anybody wanted to go any farther,” said Freeman, the head of SEIU Local 434B.
The one woman who still wanted to know more was state Senator Gloria Romero. She allegedly went to the head of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City — Pat McOsker — seeking answers in the days after Contreras’ death. McOsker would not provide any, according to sources familiar with the conversation. “Later on, I heard that Gloria Romero was trying to figure out what happened,” added Natalie Rayes, Hahn’s former deputy chief of staff. “I heard from people that she contacted some of the fire department folks to figure out what happened.” McOsker denied that he had been contacted by Romero, saying that he had no idea where the death occurred and never looked into the circumstances. “I just knew that my friend Miguel died suddenly, and that it was heartbreaking,” he said.
Romero, who declined to comment, also contacted the county coroner’s office, according to an official for that agency.
Labor leaders were also stunned by Contreras' death because only the night before, he had presided over his annual Cinco de Mayo party at the La Fonda restaurant, not far from the federation’s headquarters. The union boss held the event each year to honor the hard work of community-minded labor figures. Unlike previous years, the party was a room divided, with some who favored Hahn and others backing Villaraigosa.
Hahn had managed to secure the endorsement of Contreras’ Federation of Labor, with union members arguing that they should reward someone who had worked on their behalf at City Hall. But many still felt an allegiance to Villaraigosa, who had been the organization’s favorite in 2001 and lost after a nasty race against Hahn.
And most of them knew that Contreras himself wanted to see Villaraigosa win, with a few wondering if his enthusiasm for Villaraigosa could have inspired some mayhem with campaign mailers. Weeks before the 2005 election, a few union leaders aligned with the Hahn camp concluded that the federation had dropped every voter with a Spanish-language surname from the group’s pro-Hahn campaign mailings in three heavily Latino City Council districts: 1, 7 and 14 — districts represented by Ed Reyes, Alex Padilla and Antonio Villaraigosa, respectively. At least two had confronted Contreras directly. But Contreras, the master of behind-the-scenes movement, said he would look into the matter.
by the time of his death, the federation’s top executive had been at the helm for nearly a decade, helping the federation rebound from the disastrous 1994 election — when Proposition 187 passed and Democrat Kathleen Brown went down in flames as a gubernatorial candidate — and reach the heights of 1998, when Democrats swept every statewide office. By 2005, the federation was truly a player — as was Contreras himself, serving on the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners and the state’s Board of Corrections. Less than three hours before his death, Contreras called Hahn campaign strategist Kam Kuwata, saying he and Rick Icaza — head of the grocery workers’ union, then embroiled in an ugly job action — had some information to relay to Senator Dianne Feinstein.
If Contreras were still alive, L.A.’s political scene might be very different today. In the months before his death, Contreras had been looking at ways of changing the makeup of county government, by targeting some of the elected county supervisors who had so angered the various employee unions. Contreras conducted a poll to see if Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn could unseat Supervisor Don Knabe for a seat in the South Bay. And he even eyed possible challengers to Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Instead, Contreras’ death allowed the ascension of Martin Ludlow, who took over the top post at the Federation of Labor only to be indicted in a campaign fund-raising scandal half a year later. Ludlow, who pleaded guilty last year, became the star witness in the prosecution’s campaign-finance case against Janett Humphries, the head of SEIU Local 99. Maria Elena Durazo, Contreras’ widow and Ludlow’s replacement, is still finding her footing in her first year on the job. When the federation singled out four Democrats for a massive show of support in the June primary, only one achieved victory.
Contreras’ death left its mark on Los Angeles in another way, shifting the center of gravity between City Hall and the County Fed. In previous years, Villaraigosa — like so many other Democrats — might have needed to consult Contreras on pivotal issues, from labor relations to development projects. Now, Villaraigosa wields the type of influence once held by Contreras. Contreras was the person whose ring had to be kissed; now, Villaraigosa is slowly becoming his replacement.
One key battle that might have gone down differently if Contreras were still around is the legislative fight over control of Los Angeles Unified School District. In labor circles, some privately imagine the late union boss intervening last year, as Villaraigosa attempted his school takeover, to ensure that a face-saving deal was brokered much sooner. Others questioned whether Contreras might have stepped in to ensure that the city’s Democratic mayor speak more aggressively on behalf of Phil Angelides, the foundering candidate running against Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.