By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Back in 1992, political observers say, the strident Watson lost the race because she came across as radical to voters in south L.A. and nearby areas, where residents were badly rattled by riots that had ravaged their streets following the acquittal of four cops accused of attacking Rodney King.
“Diane was heavily endorsed by a lot of African Americans,” says Jewett Walker, a political consultant who worked on Bernard Parks’ unsuccessful 2005 mayoral run. “But a couple things doomed her. She came across as militant. She scared the bejesus out of Culver City and all the conservative areas. Even blacks in Carson were like, ‘We ain’t buying that.’”
The decisive vote this time around will almost certainly be cast by Latinos, and how they break is a matter of political meteorology. Latinos rank crime among their top concerns, favoring the former chief of police. But Latinos closely vote according to the direction outlined by unions — whose strength has grown in L.A.
“Labor has become the big dog here,” says Joe Hicks, with the nonprofit Community Advocates. “Since , labor has gained far more influence. It has more money and more power.”
Dermot Givens was one of Parks’ campaign managers during his mayoral run, and he has worked with Ridley-Thomas on black-voter registration. He advised the winning candidates — Karen Bass and Mike Davis — in two recent elections for the state Assembly. Both Bass and Davis got big bucks from labor unions.
“I don’t see it being a runoff,” Givens says, predicting a win for Ridley-Thomas. “If the unions can get their vote out, I don’t see it being close. I’m either right or totally wrong.”
But there are exceptions to the union-domination trend. Walker’s client, Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, handily beat labor’s candidate in 2002. Walker says, “The candidates who win here are labor candidates. But you can’t win, even with labor’s backing, if nobody knows who you are.”
In a pricey push to make the lesser-known Ridley-Thomas a familiar name, the L.A. County Federation of Labor and other union groups have raised a staggering sum for a race many voters are finding ho-hum: $2.5 million to put Ridley-Thomas in office, with another $1.5 million supposedly on the way.
The stratospheric cash being transferred from labor-union treasuries into ad campaigns, mailers — even professional paid, bilingual “walkers” to knock on doors for Ridley-Thomas — dwarfs the money either candidate has raised via more traditional means.
Convinced that Parks will think twice about raises for county workers and look to trim county spending, the L.A. County Federation of Labor has two campaign offices staffed around the clock with phone bankers. The riches spent on Ridley-Thomas are causing something of a stir. Commentator Hutchinson asks suspiciously, “Who’s paying the piper? Labor doesn’t shell out $4 million for no reason. They want something, and we know what it is. They’re buying a seat on the Board of Supervisors.”
In 1989, the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit think tank, estimated that if county supervisors were to spend 10 minutes speaking with every one of their constituents, it would take 60 years. “This is an election where people really don’t know the candidates, so they’ll tend to look for other cues,” says Tracy Westen, the center’s CEO and a political scientist. “People will vote on issues or personalities or endorsements — basically shortcuts. Labor unions are really powerful at that.”
If the parallels to Burke vs. Watson continue, though, losing won’t be that bad. After losing to Burke, Diane Watson became the U.S. ambassador to Micronesia — a helluva lot cooler than working at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.
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