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Big Labor Can't Elect a Mayor in L.A.

Eric Garcetti beat Wendy Greuel in part because of labor's missteps.
Eric Garcetti beat Wendy Greuel in part because of labor's missteps.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

In hindsight, it seems clear that Wendy Greuel lost the race for L.A. mayor in the second week of March. Greuel had been the front-runner in the primary, which made her the target of attacks from all sides leading up to the March 5 vote. She limped into the runoff in second place, but she wasn't fatally wounded.

But on March 12, Greuel got the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. It turned out to be more a curse than a blessing. Secretly recorded audio of her meeting with the heads of the region's unions quickly surfaced. On it, Greuel said things like, "I'm gonna stand with labor, not stand up to labor." She compared her liberal rival, Eric Garcetti, to union buster Scott Walker.

The meeting led to a week of stories in the L.A. Times about Greuel's apparent willingness to reopen negotiations with city workers and roll back pension reforms. The Chamber of Commerce called her on the carpet and she reversed course.

Then, suddenly, Greuel was in a deep hole — down 10 points in the polls and needing to spend all her cash immediately just to climb back to a tie. That left her penniless in May, when Garcetti blew her out of the water with $2 million of negative ads that went unrebutted.

Garcetti's victory has been portrayed as a setback for labor. In fact, it is a setback for two labor leaders — Brian D'Arcy and Maria Elena Durazo — and for their respective reputations as political power brokers.

D'Arcy, the head of the Department of Water and Power union, spent more than $4 million on Greuel, oblivious to the possibility that he could become a target of Garcetti's attacks.

Almost as important, it was Durazo who decided to hold off on endorsing Greuel until March 12. That hurt Greuel in two ways. First, it gave the Federation of Labor only two months to organize a campaign to turn out voters. Second, it had the effect of portraying Greuel as a pawn of labor at precisely the moment when voters were beginning to tune in for the runoff.

Durazo heads an organization that claims to represent 800,000 workers, and which can strike fear into the hearts of mere politicians. News accounts frequently describe it as "the powerful L.A. County Federation of Labor." But in mayoral races, that reputation is overdue for a correction.

The fact is, the L.A. County Federation of Labor has not backed the winning candidate in a seriously contested mayor's race in at least the last 60 years. The Fed managed to endorse Antonio Villaraigosa when he lost to James Hahn in 2001, and Hahn when he lost to Villaraigosa in 2005. It backed Mike Woo in 1993, when he lost to Richard Riordan.

When Sam Yorty won three terms in office in 1961, '65 and '69, labor backed his opponent every time. In 1973, when the winds of history were blowing toward Tom Bradley, labor supported Jesse Unruh, who didn't make it out of the primary. (It did manage to get behind Bradley for the runoff, but by that point he didn't need union support. It also played little role in Bradley's re-election romps.)

Greuel's defeat is the latest chapter in a tale of futility stretching back to the 1940s.

Even measured by that poor historical standard, Durazo's handling of this race was especially maladroit. Her husband, Miguel Contreras, ran the Fed until his death in 2005. In 2001 and 2005, Contreras lined up his member unions in the primary, making it clear early on who he supported and giving himself enough time to organize a campaign.

Durazo did not do that. When the Fed met in December, its largest member union, SEIU, had not had time to settle on a candidate. So it was no surprise that the Fed could not reach consensus on an endorsement in the primary.

Of course, it's not always easy for labor to choose between two Democrats with impeccable pro-labor records; some argue that, in such cases, the Fed should remain neutral. The counterargument is that the Fed must use its clout in order to keep it, and therefore the Fed leader should twist arms to make an endorsement happen.

Durazo did neither. She failed to twist arms in December, leaving it up to individual unions to decide whom to support in the primary and how much to spend. The result was an uncoordinated mess.

D'Arcy, the head of IBEW Local 18, decided to go all in for Greuel. His reasons are at once blindingly obvious and completely baffling. The obvious reason is that the new mayor will negotiate a new contract with DWP workers, and he wanted a friendly face across the table.

But that was no less true in 2005, when D'Arcy spent $108,000 backing Villaraigosa. For Greuel, he spent 20 times as much out of IBEW's coffers and raised another $2 million from Hollywood donors. This cannot be explained in completely rational terms. "It's his ego," one City Hall insider says. "He wants to be a kingmaker. He's intoxicated by his own image. People do foolish things when they're intoxicated."

Some report hearing D'Arcy say that the Greuel campaign was "personal" to him. D'Arcy himself declined to comment, instead giving the Weekly the middle finger last week from his second-floor office window.

As D'Arcy began to spend money attacking Garcetti in the primary, the candidate naturally fought back. In email solicitations, Garcetti told potential donors that he was "up against Super PACs and special interests that are pouring millions into this campaign."

The term "special interest" is an insult in labor circles, and by the time the Federation of Labor met to reconsider its endorsement on March 12, emotions were running high. D'Arcy told the assembled labor leaders that an attack on his union was an attack on all working people. Enough labor leaders agreed that they swung over to Greuel, and she got the Fed endorsement. By hesitating to endorse initially, Durazo had ceded control of events to D'Arcy.

"It's the tail wagging the dog," Ed Rendon, a Teamsters union leader who supported Garcetti, says. "How much should one entity rule the day?"

Durazo's chief concern seems to have been the image of labor. Rather than accept that attacks on labor would be an inevitable part of any campaign fueled by nearly $6 million in labor money, she took offense at critical news coverage and tried to persuade Garcetti to stop "demonizing" working people. It didn't work, and it made her look like a self-righteous person who could not stand the heat of political battle.

The Greuel campaign, meanwhile, was caught flat-footed. Emerging from the March primary, they hoped to distance themselves from labor by turning the conversation to Greuel's pro-business record. But then they got a call from SEIU Local 721 informing the candidate that she was expected at a press conference announcing its endorsement.

Thus the day after the primary, the first image voters saw of Greuel was her standing next to SEIU boss Bob Schoonover and a gaggle of city workers. To an electorate that had just displayed its distrust in City Hall by rejecting a sales-tax hike in resounding fashion, it was the wrong image.

The liberal Garcetti won Republican voters by 22 points on May 21, according to the Loyola Marymount University exit poll. He also narrowly beat Greuel with union households. Forget the mayoralty: D'Arcy and Durazo couldn't even deliver their own members.


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