By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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As he cruises towardan apparent easy victory this month in his bid to return to the Los Angeles City Council, which he left in 1998 to pursue statewide power in Sacramento, Richard Alarc贸n’s peripatetic career is a game of musical chairs driven by the special-interest influences that dominate legislative life in the term-limits era.
Alarc贸n led unsuccessful efforts to block Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s highly effective workers’ compensation reform, which has slashed costs for small businesses, nonprofits and other companies pushed near to collapse during the recent workers’ comp crisis. Before that, Alarc贸n led a successful fight, vociferously opposed by California schools, to convince then-governor Gray Davis to sign his law banning money-saving private contracting in schools.
Critics say Alarc贸n’s move, on behalf of the huge, 240,000-member California School Employees Association representing non-educators, costs the schools $300 million per year.
California School Transportation Association Director Ron Kinney says Alarc贸n’s law now forces schools to pay much higher wages to low-skilled non-classroom workers, like drivers. Says Kinney, “He had a lot of support from CSEA [California School Employees Association] and SEIU [Service Employees International Union]... We’ve lived with consequences since.”
A flamboyant lefty, former teacher and one-time Valley representative for the late mayor Tom Bradley, Alarc贸n has never achieved his ambitions, unsuccessfully seeking the highest offices in the state Senate, the state Assembly and the city of Los Angeles, each time falling short yet always moving forward, not unlike the shark that requires constant motion to survive.
Most famously, in one of his many more or less sideways moves, Alarc贸n in 1998 left a powerful post on the City Council for a seat in the state Senate. He narrowly won, in part thanks to a nasty campaign in which Alarc贸n’s camp branded his rival, former Assembly Democratic Leader Richard Katz, a racist. Which, as it happens, Katz is not.
Alarc贸n’s dual goal has been to climb the ladder personally and use the power of government to promote the power of unions, without whom he would have far less financial backing.
Once in the Senate, Alarc贸n swiftly became the majority whip, a leadership slot a few rungs below the top. While he was arguably in Sacramento to represent the varied needs of Los Angeles, his real role was as a tribune of organized labor. A Project Vote Smart nonpartisan analysis shows more than 40 percent of his current campaign funds come from labor.
Alarc贸n was one of the legislators always pushing the soon-to-be-doomed Davis ill-advisedly away from the center in which statewide elections are won.
In one key move,as chairman of the Senate’s Labor Committee, Alarc贸n pushed through the bill that forces non-instructional jobs such as drivers and gardeners in the public schools to either be unionized or compensated at higher union levels. It directly benefited the powerful, huge, cash-rich California School Employees Association, which bitterly opposed schools’ strategy of saving money for the classroom — by hiring inexpensive non-union gardeners and drivers.
Today, the estimated $300 million per year diverted away from the classroom thanks to Alarc贸n equals about one-third of what Californians pay into schools when they buy Lottery tickets. Governor Davis, who fancied himself a school reformer, had qualms about Alarc贸n’s bill but, having attended every CSEA convention for the previous quarter century, Davis signed it.
Soon after Davis signed that bill, he began to fight his recall from office and worked hard to convince top Democrats not to run on the ballot to replace him. Yet Alarc贸n repaid Davis for his help on diverting school funds into non-educator jobs by helping push through a unanimous endorsement of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante — by the state Legislature’s Latino Caucus — to run on the ballot replacing Davis. The move by the Latino Caucus helped open the floodgates to a series of such endorsements, which seriously hurt Davis’ recall fight.
When the new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, moved in 2004 to reform the out-of-control workers’ compensation system, Alarc贸n, mindful of his union and trial-lawyer supporters, opposed the move — although it overwhelmingly passed in a bipartisan Senate vote of 33-3, and in a bipartisan Assembly vote of 77-3. When the reform proved a success — slashing workers’ comp insurance costs and pouring some $13 billion a year back into the economy — Alarc贸n tried to impose controversial rate regulations on the workers’ comp insurers, arguing that they would pocket the huge savings.
On the surface, Alarc贸n’s claim seemed logical. But in truth, 80 percent of California employers either self-insure their own workers — meaning there’s no outside profit to pocket — or are covered by a nonprofit state workers’ comp fund that cannot pocket any profits. Among the 20 percent of insurers Alarc贸n was confusedly trying to target, many had fled California’s workers’ comp disaster — and refused to return.
Alarc贸n’s move failed, and later, Schwarzenegger’s 2006 Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, who attacked the governor on virtually every basis, barely mentioned workers’ comp. Even state labor federation president Tom Rankin, while bemoaning some aspects of the reform, noted that “Injured workers will be able to receive immediate medical treatment rather than experience delays that perpetuate suffering.”