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Wendy Greuel's Inside Game 

The controller's union ties could be her biggest advantage in the race for L.A. mayor — or her biggest liability

Thursday, Feb 14 2013
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Brian D'Arcy has a lot riding on the race for L.A. mayor, which may be why he's staying out of sight. The last time he campaigned openly for something — a solar initiative — it failed, which is sort of amazing, given that solar energy polls at 80 percent. But that's Brian D'Arcy. He can make sunshine controversial.

As head of the IBEW Local 18 for two decades now, D'Arcy represents about 90 percent of the workers at the city's Department of Water and Power. DWP workers are notoriously well-compensated, and their boss is notoriously wired. D'Arcy earns $250,000 a year, according to IBEW tax returns — more than the mayor makes. (Add in benefits, and his compensation climbs to a whopping $324,000.)

D'Arcy led the union through a successful strike in 1993, and since then has been accumulating power and leverage with threats to do it again. He doles out six-figure contributions to his favored candidates. In 2005, he helped to elect Antonio Villaraigosa, who signed a lavish IBEW wage increase as one of his first acts in office.

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Yet as the candidates for mayor crisscross the city, the boss of all bosses is lying low. He's not holding press conferences, not returning calls, not trying to bully reporters or impress them with his acid wit. This time around, the stakes are too high.

For one thing, Local 18 has a contract coming up in 2014. The next mayor will be on the other side of the bargaining table.

"Brian wants what he's always wanted — the highest of wages and the best working conditions for his members," says lobbyist Harvey Englander. "I don't think there's any ulterior motive."

But higher wages mean higher utility rates, which are not popular. Wage increases at DWP also put pressure on the city budget, because non-utility unions demand the same salaries as DWP workers. That demand, in fact, led to a costly 2007 contract with municipal workers, which nearly bankrupted the city when the recession hit in 2008.

Beyond the next contract lies the reality that the next mayor will have to transition the DWP to cleaner sources of energy. That transition could go in IBEW's favor or not, depending on a few key decisions: where power sources are located, for one, and whether to contract with private firms.

The top two mayoral contenders, City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel, look the same on paper. Both voted for IBEW pay hikes. Their solar plans are identical down to the megawatt. Both have pledged that DWP will continue to own its power projects, instead of contracting out, which means that IBEW workers will continue to have jobs.

But in D'Arcy's eyes, there's no comparison. Greuel can be trusted. Garcetti cannot. D'Arcy's union has already put $250,000 behind Greuel's campaign, with more to come, maybe as much as $2 million.

Greuel has to hope it helps more than it hurts. Since the solar measure was defeated in 2009, D'Arcy has racked up an unblemished record of failure in council elections. Chris Essel. Forescee Hogan-Rowles. Pat McOsker. Thanks to him, all were tagged as City Hall insiders, and all lost.

Greuel is campaigning as a no-nonsense fiscal hawk. But the more IBEW and other unions, such as the Police Protective League, spend to get her elected, the harder it becomes for Greuel to make that case.

D'Arcy's support is by far the most controversial thing about the determinedly uncontroversial Greuel. It's no wonder her opponents have made it one of their key lines of attack.

If she loses the mayor's race, the D'Arcy factor may be largely to blame.

It's 7:45 a.m. at Wendy Greuel's two-story home on a cul-de-sac in Studio City, the start of another long day. There's a plastic playhouse in the front yard, along with a green "Wendy" sign.

The lead story in this morning's L.A. Times is about her — "Mayoral Circle Closes Around Greuel." It details all the Villaraigosa insiders backing her campaign and includes a memorable quote from candidate Kevin James, who says that Greuel will represent "Antonio Villaraigosa's third term."

In the car, Greuel, 51, glances at the headline. She's already read the story online but is surprised at the placement. She rarely speaks ill of anyone, but she is capable of the occasional tart observation. Most are off the record, but this one isn't: "That was a nothing story," she says.

Of the five candidates in the race, only two can plausibly claim to be outsiders: Kevin James, the Republican talk-radio host, and Emanuel Pleitez, the former Goldman Sachs employee who grew up in El Sereno, have scant institutional support.

The rest are all City Hall veterans, though they are compelled to distance themselves from it.

Jan Perry argues that she is no friend to the labor unions that control City Hall, but the three-term councilwoman is in lockstep with the business community. Garcetti's claim to be an outsider, meanwhile, rests to an increasing degree on the fact that most of the big endorsements are going to Greuel. She has the cops, the firefighters, the Assembly speaker and, of course, Brian D'Arcy. But Garcetti is no outsider. His father was district attorney. He has been on the council for a dozen years and was council president for six, which in some ways made him more powerful than the mayor.

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