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Primary Concerns

So much for settling down to a long winter‘s nap. Since the Legislature in its wisdom has moved the primary from June to March, California voters have less than eight weeks to make up their minds on any number of crucial questions -- not least, who they think should be the presidential nominees. And by every indication I’ve seen, California voters have steadfastly refused to commence their contemplation. Presidential debates are popping up every other day now, but the frequency of debates seems in inverse proportion to the size of their viewership. An informal Powerlines poll of political people around L.A. failed to turn up a single one who actually had watched even part of a debate.

Sometime before the March 7 primary, of course, Californians will focus, in their fashion, on Bradley, Gore, McCain, Dubya, maybe Trump, maybe Nader, and the rest of the presidential and quasi-presidential gang. But the March ballot is also filled with down-ticket races that will be unusually important in shaping the future politics of both the city and the state. In L.A. County today, Democratic primaries are in most instances the decisive contests in legislative races, with all of the county save its easternmost extremes either solidly or marginally Democratic. Thanks to the miracle of term limits, there are open and highly competitive Democratic primaries all over town. And a few of them actually provide an opportunity to build the kind of class-based progressive politics the city so desperately needs.

For starters, there‘s the challenge that State Senator Hilda Solis is mounting against longtime Congressman Marty Martinez out in the Monterey Park--Alhambra--El Monte district on the Eastside. For Democrats who’ve been complaining about the rightward drift of their party, for anyone who‘s concerned about lackluster congressional representation, this is the race for you.

Marty Martinez is one of those temporary solutions who’s turned into a permanent problem. Back in 1980, then-Assemblyman Howard Berman, embroiled in a battle for the speakership, recruited Martinez to run for the Assembly. Martinez won, and, in the reapportionment two years later, when Congressman Phil Burton saw the chance to create a new Democratic-Latino congressional district on the Eastside, Martinez was elevated to congressman.

In the subsequent two decades, Martinez has become the least impressive of his two distinguished patrons‘ proteges. (Indeed, Berman’s not supporting Martinez in this year‘s primary.) There are no significant Martinez achievements to point to, and he’s grown so out of touch with his district that 45 local elected officials have publicly endorsed Solis.

On two crucial issues, globalization and gun control, Martinez -- not to put too fine a point on it -- is a disgrace.

Late in 1997, congressional Democrats were confronted with the controversy over the administration‘s “fast-track” proposal. The Clinton White House was seeking the authority to negotiate all future trade treaties in such a way that Congress could only vote them up or down, without the ability to amend them. Labor and its allies insisted that this kind of blanket authority would be acceptable only if there was a guarantee of worker rights and environmental standards in all such agreements. Since no guarantee was forthcoming, and since their experience with NAFTA had shown that, absent such guarantees, those considerations would be ignored, they asked congressional Democrats to oppose fast-track.

In the end, only 42 of the 205 House Democrats supported the White House. Though many California Democrats had voted for NAFTA four years previous, this time all but a few opposed fast-track -- and hardly any from working-class districts, where free trade according to the NAFTA model has helped depress wages. Three of the four Latino members from L.A. -- Xavier Becerra, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Esteban Torres -- went from pro-NAFTA positions to anti-fast-track. Marty Martinez, who’d opposed NAFTA in ‘93, went the other way.

As Martinez explained it to me at the time, this wasn’t quite the result of an ideological reappraisal. In essence, he swapped his support for the administration in return for the administration‘s approval of the 710 freeway extension. As the fast-track vote approached, Martinez began complaining long and loud to White House officials that they’d been holding up their blessing of the project -- a priority in Alhambra, where the 710 currently ends, but a nightmare in El Sereno and South Pasadena, where hundreds of homes will have to be leveled if the freeway ever goes through. After speaking to Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and Clinton himself, Martinez announced that he‘d support the White House in its fast-track quest. Five days later, the Federal Highway Administration announced its approval of the 710 extension (which environmental and neighborhood groups have tied up in the courts).

If Martinez left environmentalists fuming, he left labor furious. Though labor was mounting its most serious lobbying effort in years, he neglected to tell any union rep that he was suddenly going south on an issue with huge implications for his working-class constituents. “We were under the impression that he’d committed to stay with the unions,” said L.A. County Federation of Labor leader Miguel Contreras at the time. “It shocked everybody because he was with us initially.”

 

On gun-control questions, too, Martinez has marched to his own drumfire. An NRA-member who boasts that he owns a dozen handguns, Martinez consistently opposed the Brady Bill. Last June, when the Columbine shootings forced the Republican congressional leaders to let a bill restricting sales at gun shows come to the floor, he voted for the Dingell Amendment, which undercut the bill by limiting the time for background checks on prospective buyers. Of the 28 House Democrats from California -- for that matter, of the 39 House Democrats from Pacific Coast states -- only Martinez voted for Dingell.

Still, Martinez was an incumbent. And incumbents are hardly ever challenged by serious candidates from their own party -- and almost never challenged by fellow office-holders from their own party.

But here‘s Hilda Solis.

It’s not that Solis doesn‘t have a history of getting out in front of causes. As a state legislator, she authored the bill raising the state minimum wage and, when Pete Wilson vetoed it, put $50,000 of her own campaign funds into the (ultimately successful) 1996 initiative campaign to raise the wage. In the Assembly, and then in the state Senate, she’s authored 16 bills on domestic violence. A couple of weekends ago, she chaired hearings on the plight of local janitors denied health benefits and cheated out of wages by contractors to some major realty interests.

But it‘s one thing to be out there on issues, and another to go up against the club commandments -- especially Rule One, “Thou Shalt Not Oust a Fellow Member.” Still, Solis was facing term limits in 2002 on her tenure in the Senate, and 97 percent of the residents in Martinez’s congressional district also resided in her own Senate district. Once you got past Club Rule One, the choice was surprisingly easy.

As it should be for liberals across L.A., Solis has made important contributions to virtually every single progressive cause. She‘s the author of the Environmental Justice Bill, signed last year by Governor Gray Davis, which gives the state’s office of Planning and Research the authority to review new developments in communities already home to a disproportionate number of polluting projects. She‘s been a leading advocate of extending state heath coverage to working-poor families; she’s the author of the bill that created the San Gabriel River and Mountain Conservancy. In contradistinction to Martinez, she‘s a staunch proponent of gun control and a consistent champion of abortion rights.

It’s one thing to win the support of individual progressives, however, and quite another to win the support of progressive organizations. Not surprisingly, Solis has won the backing of the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters, and of Emily‘s List, which raises funds for liberal feminist candidates. More surprisingly, she’s won the backing of the County Federation of Labor. Almost invariably, labor sticks, however grudgingly, with incumbents who vote its way most of the time: If it doesn‘t -- if it fails to produce a carrot for backing the union position some of the time -- then office holders may just back those positions even less frequently than they do.

But for labor, the choice between Solis and Martinez was so clear that the County Fed actually changed its endorsement bylaws, which had last been amended in 1962. “We need to raise the bar on the type of people we support,” says Fed political director Fabian Nunez. This Friday, the Fed, which has already made its candidate endorsements, will decide which handful of races it will pour its resources into -- and it’s a good bet that Solis‘ challenge to Martinez will be one of them.

It’s also a good bet that City Council member Jackie Goldberg‘s candidacy for the 45th Assembly District seat will be another.

Goldberg, certainly, is no stranger to progressive L.A., but she’s embroiled in a tough campaign, and it‘s worth reviewing her achievements. More than any other local elected official, Jackie Goldberg has brought the plight of the working poor to the position of prominence it holds today in L.A.’s political discourse. And more than any other local elected official, Goldberg has offered solutions that address that plight.

In 1997, Goldberg authored -- and, astonishingly, steered to unanimous passage -- the city‘s living-wage ordinance, which required city contractors to pay their employees several dollars an hour over the minimum and provide them with health benefits (or pay them even more if they didn’t provide those benefits). Though she‘s often attacked by her critics as a divisive figure, Goldberg’s ability to persuade and cajole her colleagues in the cause of cobbling together a legislative majority is legendary. “On really important issues,” says Living Wage Coalition coordinator Madeleine Janis-Aparicio, a Goldberg ally, “she can get to eight votes [a council majority] more than anyone else on the council.” Issues she‘s gotten to eight on include the establishment of domestic-partner benefits for employees of city contractors, the prohibition of the cheap handguns known as “Saturday-night specials,” and the establishment of a slum-housing task force. Goldberg has also established a city living-wage-compliance operation, says Janis-Aparicio, of a kind “that exists nowhere else in the country.”

 

In her role as council member from Hollywood, Goldberg has also set the standard for socially responsible development. At the Hollywood-Highland retail, hotel and theatrical development being built by Trizec-Hahn, and at the Cinerama Dome development a mile away, Goldberg has won assurances that the workers in the establishments now going up will make a living wage with benefits. In a city where businesses routinely have received government assistance without any requirement that they pay decent wages, Goldberg has crafted a way to create better-income jobs.

And like most elected officials around L.A., Goldberg will soon be term-limited out of her own job: Her council tenure runs out next year. The Assembly member from the district in which she lives -- Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa -- is also termed out of his seat this year. With his support, Goldberg is running to succeed him.

Goldberg’s opponent in the March primary, Cesar Portillo, legislative director for Michael Weinstein‘s AIDS Healthcare Foundation, also boasts progressive politics, but can’t claim the kind of exceptional leadership record that Goldberg plainly possesses. Weinstein and Goldberg are old rivals -- he ran against her for the council seat she won in 1993 -- and like that race, the Portillo-Goldberg contest has been the cause of some division within the gay and lesbian community. (Portillo‘s gay; Goldberg’s a lesbian.) Unlike that earlier contest, however, the current race is also a contest for the city‘s new majority -- the Latino working class.

The 45th is a majority-Latino district growing steadily more Latino, and for Latino nationalists such as state Senator Richard Polanco, the idea that the district should cease to have Latino representation is historically retrograde, if not plain appalling. Polanco, who heads Sacramento’s Latino caucus, has stated that Portillo‘s election is a top priority -- for himself and, if he has anything to say about it, for the caucus, too.

Polanco and Villaraigosa represent what historically have been the two opposing currents in American ethnic-group politics: Polanco the nationalist, Villaraigosa the coalitionist. In a sense, they’re latter-day versions of what Mervyn Dymally and Tom Bradley were to black L.A. a generation ago. Dymally was concerned chiefly with the election of black political leaders, and aligned himself with centrist, business-oriented Democrats who could help fund his candidates. Bradley was concerned with building a citywide, multiracial progressive coalition, and aligned himself with liberal activists all across town. For years, Bradley-supported candidates duked it out with Dymally candidates for the allegiance of black L.A.

A similar dynamic already exists in L.A.‘s Latino politics today. The difference is that there’s a third player in Latino politics -- the new-model, Latino-led labor movement, aligned with Villaraigosa in that both the speaker and the movement stress the commonalities of class over the particularities of race. Since Contreras took the helm at the County Fed in ‘96, labor has an unparalleled record of mobilizing not only union members but new immigrant voters on behalf of its candidates. With the support of labor and Villaraigosa, progressive Latino candidates such as Assembly members Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero have bested Polanco-backed candidates in a number of races. Last year, though, Nick Pacheco, with Polanco’s backing, defeated the labor-Villaraigosa candidate in a City Council contest.

With the Goldberg-Portillo contest, the contesting appeals of class and ethnicity in Latino L.A. will receive their greatest test. For the County Fed, selling the non-Latino Goldberg to Latino voters will be a considerable challenge -- particularly since Polanco has a record of playing the race card in the most demagogic way imaginable. “With Jackie,” says Fed political director Nunez, “we‘ve taken the politics of race out of the equation of how labor can help influence the new Latino immigrant community. We’re saying, instead, ‘She’s a warrior. She stood with you. No one fights harder for you to have a decent wage, a decent standard of living.‘ And we think this will resonate in the new immigrant community. We will get Latino immigrant workers to vote for non-Latinos. We will build a force for working families that reaches across racial lines.”

 

Certainly, no cause is more urgent in a city where working-class impoverishment is increasingly the norm. And few Angelenos have done more to advance that cause than Jackie Goldberg and Hilda Solis -- which is why their election this March is so important to the future of L.A.

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