Bad Bet?

WHEN I WROTE IN THESE PAGES a couple of weeks ago that California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez was on the verge of selling out his longtime union allies and was ready to green-light the largest gambling expansion in recent history to the benefit of a few wealthy tribes, I got dealt a scathing e-mail from his deputy chief of staff. Steve Maviglio blasted me as just a “little presumptive” for predicting that his boss would make the deal and chided me by saying a real journalist should check that “something is true before going to print.”

And so it came to pass this past week that my presumption was, indeed, true. Núñez massaged the deal exactly as predicted and, after months of stalling, the Democratic-dominated Assembly has now rubber-stamped expansion deals that will award an additional 17,000 more slot machines (and perhaps an extra casino or two) to four Southern California gaming tribes already rolling in dough.

To make the deal, Núñez let the virulently antilabor tribes escape a demand that would have made it easier for unions to organize low-wage casino workers. (How low wage? Well, figure it this way. While the average gambling tribe member gets about $20,000 a month just for waking up in the morning, the average worker in one of the casinos that generates that bonanza makes about $20,000 a year — usually without health benefits.)

Let’s also be clear that Pete Wilson, of all people, had in the past granted the sort of employer-neutrality position the unions were asking for. Arnold Schwarzenegger as well — until last year when the Governator flip-flopped and sided with such anti-union tribes as the Morongo, Pechanga and Agua Caliente. And wealthy tribes operating in the same region, like the Pala, after pledging neutrality have signed union contracts and raised wages, and still continue minting money unabated — so what’s the problem? Except naked greed. “Now Fabian has also made his choice,” a top California labor official said after sputtering a streak of profanities that would make Deadwood’s Al Swearengen blush to characterize the speaker. “He decided that he’s gonna go with the big tribes and not with the workers. Duly noted.”

Such a move is hardly big news for most any pol. But Fabian Núñez owes his entire political existence, his entire career, to the support of organized labor. “This guy was a nobody until we plucked him out of nowhere and set him up as political director of the County Federation of Labor,” said another union muckety-muck who said he was so pissed off he didn’t trust himself to speak on the record. ”Who in the hell does Fabian think has gotten him elected each time? It’s been us, man!”

Núñez’s grand plan doesn’t take much to decipher. He (and just about everyone else in Sacramento) wants to get an easing of term limits onto next February’s primary ballot so he can remain in office. With Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa likely to run for governor in 2010, Núñez would love to stick it out as top dog in the Assembly and then pad into Antonio’s City Hall chair when it opens up. With term-limits expansion already as risky as a field bet on the craps table, Núñez wanted to appease the tribes so they wouldn’t plop millions into the coming campaign to oppose the extension.

“But Fabian may be in for a big, bad beat,” said a third labor lobbyist. “Come the February election, he just might find a referendum on the ballot overturning the gambling agreements, as well as opposing his term-limit expansion.” Already, Jack Gribbon, the fit-to-be-tied political director of the hotel workers union, which has been battling the Indian casinos, said the next move might very well be to get such a measure on the ballot.

“I can tell you we are considering it seriously, very seriously. Make that very, very seriously,” he told the Weekly.

When interviewed, some labor leaders warned Núñez to closely study the outcome of last week’s special election in the Long Beach–based 37th congressional district. The Morongo tribe poured in almost a half million dollars to bolster pro-casino Democrat Jenny Oropeza, who wound up losing the plurality to fellow Democrat Laura Richardson, who, yes, had been backed by labor. The whole dustup was a testing ground for what might become a full-blown political war between labor and the tribes. “I hope Fabian caught the drift of that one,” said a well-known labor activist. “He keeps playing his cards like this and by next April it’s going to be ‘Fabian who?’ He may have just gambled away his big political dreams. Or maybe he’ll wind up getting a big job with a pharmaceutical company. That’s where he belongs nowadays.”


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