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Fabian Núñez's Big Break

LOOKS LIKE WHEN CALIFORNIA’S top Democrats, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, rolled over to wealthy tribes and the governor a few weeks ago by approving an unprecedented expansion in gambling, they may have indirectly voted themselves right out of office.

Last Friday, a not-so-crazy coalition of the hotel workers union and the owners of the Hollywood Park racetrack dropped a political neutron bomb by filing a packet of ballot initiatives that, if approved by voters, would overturn the giveaway casino-expansion compacts leveraged by Núñez and signed by Arnold.

If the measures qualify for the February ballot, as expected, this will mean an all-out, high-casualty war: a ballot battle that will cost tens of millions of dollars, split the long-standing labor-Latino alliance, and likely sink any prospects of the term-limit extension Democrats have been dreaming of. That would, in turn, push Speaker Núñez out of his term-limited job next year and, down the road, could even hinder his chances of replacing Tony Rap as mayor in 2010.

For months, Núñez’s former labor allies had warned him and the California state Assembly leadership not to approve the compacts — which will allow four already cash-marinated Southern California tribes to install twice or more the number of slot machines than the largest of Vegas casinos. The unions wanted stronger labor guarantees from the notoriously anti-labor tribes who benefited from the deal. Núñez, for his part, preferred to pander to the tribes, neutralizing any thoughts they might have had of mounting a well-funded fight against his grand plan to pass term-limit expansion and thereby hanging on to his job.

“I couldn’t care less about term limits,” Jack Gribbon, political director of the riled hotel workers union and the guy who filed the initiatives last week, tells the Weekly. “What’s at stake here is much more important than getting another six years for a politician who doesn’t have the backbone to stand up when he should. What’s at stake here is wrestling back state government from the influence of a small cartel of wealthy Southern California tribes.”

Here’s the really bad news for Núñez: He’s going to face not just the hotel workers, but also the deep pockets of the racetrack-owning Bay Meadows Land Co., which is ready to pony up millions to overturn tribal agreements they consider to be unfair competition. An alliance of more labor-friendly tribes who feel slighted by the new agreements are also expected to join in with their own bundles of campaign cash. And there’s a good chance that other powerful labor unions will sign on in solidarity with the hotel workers. “For sure we’re going to get other unions to support us,” says Gribbon, “because this is about the fundamental right to organize.” It’s anybody’s guess how much will be spent on both sides in this coming fight. A conservative estimate might be $30 million. Maybe twice or three times that amount.

So, nice work, Mr. Speaker. You seem to have single-handedly split your own Democratic coalition right down the middle. A nifty job for a guy who got his start in politics thanks to total union support.

Which brings us back to the issue of term-limit easement. Núñez and his hired gun, Gale Kaufman, have been feverishly searching for ways to sell the electorate on liberalizing current limits that, if not altered, would end the Speaker’s tenure next year along with that of Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata. Signature gathering for that initiative has also just begun, but the electorate, which pretty much reserves for the Legislature the same sentiments it has for horse dung, has shown — shall we say — little enthusiasm for the idea.

Núñez’s sellout of labor on the gaming compacts and the resulting referenda to overturn them, I think, pretty much kills off any anemic chance the term-limit deal might have had. In the simplest terms, the coming pyrotechnic fight over the gaming initiatives is sure to blind voters to the ennui of the term-limits debate (oops, I almost fell asleep just writing that sentence). On a more complex political level, in order to win the term-limit battle, Núñez would need precisely the coalition he has now unwittingly forged against him. Someone please write in and tell us who exactly is left in the alliance to extend the limits — other than Núñez and Perata themselves? “It’s something that’s been said many times in the past but still holds true,” says Gribbon. “The labor movement has permanent issues, not permanent friends.”

Okay, you might write that threat off as standard political bluster. But the last three mayors of Los Angeles — including Republican Dick Riordan — have been successful in building governing coalitions because they have won support of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Which just happens to be dominated by, yes, the hotel workers. It’s an untidy little fact that may come back to haunt Núñez if he runs for mayor three years from now as expected. That’s provided he survives his current debacle.


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