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A Voice of Dissent

Elsewhere on this site, the Weekly endorses Denise Robb for the 4th District City Council seat left vacant by John Ferraro’s death. Nothing against Denise Robb, mind you, but I disagree.

(Well, come to think of it, one thing against Denise Robb, who is an articulate and personable progressive activist par excellence. When she ran, unsuccessfully, for the City Charter Reform Commission a few years back, she answered a questionnaire that the Weekly sent out to candidates, indicating in one response that she considered the city-manager form of government a serious option for Los Angeles. This was indeed a popular form of municipal small-town government that anti-populist goo-goos (upper-crust good-government types) inflicted on their cities in the 1920s, to take the politics out of politics. The assumption behind it was that government was fundamentally a matter of administration, not choosing between divergent interests. At most, it is appropriate to homogeneous small towns. That Robb thought this loony notion was appropriate for L.A. in the late ’90s doesn’t mean she’s an elitist — she’s anything but. It does mean she lacks the grounding in and understanding of a range of urban and governmental issues that a progressive council member needs.)

The candidate I strongly prefer in this race is Elizabeth Garfield, a labor lawyer and the former president of the L.A. Community College Board of Trustees. I should acknowledge that I’ve known Beth Garfield for a number of years, but there are oodles of people I’ve known for years that I wouldn’t support for dogcatcher. Garfield, by contrast, has had a stellar career serving exactly the people city government should serve but seldom does: working-class Angelenos. She would be a uniquely valuable — actually, a necessary — addition to the City Council.

Since going to college at Stanford (where she was student-body president) and law school at Michigan (the one and only thing she has in common with Richard Riordan), Garfield has spent her entire career organizing or representing workers. In the ’80s, she was legal director, and then a staff director, for county employees — in particular, representing the nurses at county hospitals, leading a campaign to maintain staffing and patient-care standards in the face of cost-cutting administrators. In her own legal practice since the late ’80s, she’s represented many, if not most, of L.A.’s best unions at crucial periods: the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees after it dumped its corrupt old leaders for Maria Elena Durazo (Garfield’s law firm was hired to operate free legal-services centers for the hotel workers); the 74,000 home-care workers in their struggle to get the county to pay them a living wage (which would bring the living wage to about seven times the number of workers currently covered by the city ordinance); and just about every union at the harbor. To have seen Garfield stand up to the mayor and the ship owners on behalf of a handful of tugboat operators several years back — she both negotiated for them and was their spokesperson — was to see one tough, savvy champion of working people’s interests.

Which is why her election is so critically important. “Since Jackie Goldberg left the council,” says County Federation of Labor political director Martin Ludlow, “we don’t have a real fighter for the labor movement there. We need somebody who doesn’t need a whole lot of time to be brought up to speed on the vast range of issues that affect working people in this city. That’s Beth. What separated her out from the field was that she not only knew our issues but was a step or two ahead of us on some of them — on how to position the labor movement, for instance, so it’s not seen as just another special interest, when in fact it speaks for the working-class majority in this city.”

That’s not to say the new council doesn’t have members strongly supportive of labor and its issues — Eric Garcetti, for one. But it lacks someone with Goldberg’s depth of knowledge of those issues and her ability to get them enacted. Garfield has amply demonstrated she has that ability. As president of the community-college board, Garfield brought together a hitherto dysfunctional group, persuaded her colleagues to devolve what had been centralized authority to the individual college presidents and hired some first-rate administrators — improving the colleges sufficiently to turn declining into increasing enrollment and to persuade 67 percent of Angelenos to pass a billion-dollar bond measure to rebuild those campuses. In contradistinction to the other candidates in the field, Garfield has the dynamism and smarts to get difficult but necessary measures enacted. “There are a lot of good people in the race,” says Jon Barton, the new district director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, “but only Beth can lead.”

And not just on labor issues: She’s a strong advocate of community-based policing, having studied particularly Lee Baca’s model program in West Hollywood; she’ll be death on billboards. Beth Garfield will be a terrific addition to the City Council, and I strongly recommend a vote for her.


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