The Godfather

“Deron has his godfather, it’s Nate,” L.A. County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras noted as he sat down in his office to talk about what was then the upcoming City Council election to replace Nate Holden. It was Tuesday, April 29, three weeks before the runoff election in L.A.’s 10th Council District between Holden staffer Deron Williams and Martin Ludlow, labor’s candidate, and Contreras was a bit concerned that Ludlow lacked a veteran political figure in L.A.’s black community to help him along. “Well, there’s Diane,” he quickly added, praising the area’s Congress member, Diane Watson, for her strong support of Ludlow. “She’s his godmother.”

But if Contreras was concerned about Ludlow’s godfatherlessness, he was otherwise confident about the race. He was putting everything that labor had into the effort. Two years previous, labor had had its first less-than-stellar election since Contreras took the helm at the County Fed back in 1996. Stretched to its limits by its campaign for unsuccessful mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the Fed had seen some of its council candidates lose races that in other years they might, with the Fed’s assistance, have pulled off. Jim Hahn had become mayor over the Fed’s opposition, and with labor champion Jackie Goldberg leaving the council for the state Assembly, progressive forces in City Hall were at a relative standstill.

For Contreras, then, this spring’s council elections were critical, both to demonstrate labor’s clout and to impart new momentum to L.A.’s civic left, which in recent years had won a living-wage ordinance and an affordable-housing trust fund but which now was plainly in need of a boost. The first boost came in the March primary, when Villaraigosa ousted Eastside council incumbent Nick Pacheco by an astonishing 17 percent margin — a testimony both to labor’s election-day chops and to Villaraigosa’s deep and broad appeal among district voters. That left the Ludlow-Williams race for the May 20 runoff, and though Ludlow was a dynamic candidate and Williams one who got caught in the web of his own lies, neither one was widely known to district voters. In the end, it came down to the campaign that labor would wage for Ludlow, which was why Contreras was feeling confident.

“We’re looking at a 25 percent turnout,” he began, “about 20,000 voters — it’ll take 10,000 to win.” With that, he rose, went over to a white drawing board, drew an oblong (the 10th District) with a black marking pen, and began outlining labor’s campaign on Ludlow’s behalf. “There are 12,000 Latino voters in the eastern end of the district; we think Martin can get 3,000 votes there. Twenty-five workers out of Local 11 [of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees] are on leave working full time there; there should be 100 weekend walkers and eight pieces of mail.” On the west end of the district north of the 10 freeway he drew another circle, which includes most of the district’s white voters, “Eleven thousand of them; they’re heavily Jewish; Nate never did well here. Martin’s campaign is working there; he should get 4,000 votes. In the district’s African-American community — the area mainly south of the 10 — there are 28,000 voters, and we’re doing our first all-out operation there. We have 35 full-time workers from four unions; there will be eight pieces of mail, and ACORN [a community-based low-income activist group] is working there, too. Martin should get 5,000 votes there. [Consultant] Parke [Skelton] is doing our campaign in the Latino community; [consultant] Richie [Ross] is doing it in the African-American, Jewish and Asian communities. Add the 3,000 votes to the 4,000 and the 5,000, and Martin should get 12,000 votes.”

Which, three weeks to the day after Contreras had scribbled all this on his board, is precisely what Ludlow got. As predicted, turnout was 25 percent, and all constituencies performed as Contreras said they would (though Ludlow may have come in a little under Contreras’ target in the Latino community and a little over in the African-American).


Which is to say, Miguel Contreras’ role in Los Angeles politics is not simply that of a labor leader. If anything, Contreras’ command of city politics is comparable to that of Chicago’s old Mayor Daley or the O’Connells in Albany, legendary urban-machine leaders who had an uncanny feel for their cities and who knew which buttons to push to get results on Election Day (and other days, too). In some ways, Contreras’ command is a good deal more impressive than theirs since, unlike the Daleys of yore, he cannot vote the dead to get the election totals to come out right.

Contreras’ predictions aren’t always so flawless, of course — he was surprised by the scale of Villaraigosa’s blowout, and he’s made his share of miscalculations. But I can think of no one in city politics today — and I don’t mean just in Los Angeles, I mean anywhere in the United States — who commands quite the network of dedicated precinct walkers, financial resources and skilled consultants that Contreras does, year in, year out. In mobilizing the votes of union members, of nonunion working-class Latinos and now their African-American counterparts in at least one part of black L.A., Contreras has turned the Fed into a real force in (by my count) at least nine of the city’s 15 council districts (not to mention in two dozen state legislative districts around L.A. as well). That’s the source of labor’s clout at City Hall, and if some of that clout dissipated after the 2001 election, it’s back — and how — this spring.


If labor had a parochial agenda, none of this would matter much. In many cities, unions champion the interests of city workers and lobby for major construction projects that benefit the building trades — legitimate agendas both, but neither one calculated to change the power equations, much less the socioeconomic profiles, of cities. In Los Angeles, what makes Contreras’ tenure notable is that labor has always used its clout to promote organizing the unorganized, increasing the number of living-wage jobs, and other measures to enhance working-class interests.

One indication of how labor’s clout pays off in myriad ways will be on display this Thursday at the board meeting of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The board is scheduled to take up a citywide policy for all establishments in developments that receive CRA assistance, and is likely to enact a living wage, domestic-partner benefits and other worker protections. (Up to now, such understandings have been negotiated project by project, a painfully slow way both to build a city and make it livable.)

The spearhead of the conversion of the CRA board to an agency for social justice has been Madeleine Janis-Aparicio, the brilliant attorney-activist who heads the city’s living-wage movement and whom Jim Hahn appointed to the CRA’s board last year at Contreras’ insistence. When Hahn needed the unions’ help in defeating secession, he agreed to meet a series of Fed demands, and the appointment of Janis-Aparicio — and the shift in policy that that portended — was just one of his commitments.

Hahn is not a mayor who’s overflowing with an agenda of his own, and as a mainstream Democrat he’s responded to some of Janis-Aparicio’s policy suggestions with alacrity. Later this summer, the CRA board will consider a proposal to adopt a community-impact report on all its projects, which will subject such projects to assessments of their social as well as their environmental impact. Such reports would look at the effects of a development on jobs created, the affordable-housing needs created, and the impact on neighborhood services and amenities. To a certain degree, they would substitute a legal process for what is now the thoroughly messy and anarchic process of obtaining community support for a major project. The movement behind this project — it’s called the Growth With Justice Coalition — grows out of all the fights to place social conditions on some of the city’s major projects in recent years, from Hollywood & Highland to Staples Center.

With Villaraigosa and Ludlow joining the City Council on July 1, the Growth With Justice forces, most especially including labor, hope that such innovative policies may someday be enacted not just for projects receiving CRA assistance but citywide as well. How exactly the new council will shape up is still unclear; Contreras was fond of telling his fellow unionists as they prepared for the elections that with Villaraigosa and Ludlow in council chambers progressives could at least be sure that their motions would be made and seconded. “Okay, they’ll be seconded,” one somewhat more skeptical liberal said after Ludlow’s election, “but I don’t know where the third and fourth votes are.”

Actually, the identity of those votes is fairly clear: They belong to council members Eric Garcetti and Ed Reyes. How far the rest of the council would want to proceed toward ambitious extensions of the living wage, or toward requirements that developers build a certain number of affordable housing units in return for building market-rate housing, remains to be seen. But then, no one would have predicted that the council would unanimously have a living-wage ordinance in 1997, either.

Contreras is plainly eager to test the council’s — and the mayor’s — limits. This winter, the Fed will convene a first-ever L.A. Union Convention to formulate a far-reaching agenda for the city. “The living wage is just the beginning,” Contreras says. “We’re talking about affordable housing, health care, land use, the right to organize — and not Mom-and-apple-pie stuff — this will be controversial. We want a public fight with those parts of corporate L.A. that aren’t interested in justice in this city, and we want local elected officials to take a stand on these proposals, so we can hold them accountable. We’re not here to be labor statesmen. We’re here to be warriors.”


Even if Contreras is just talking — and he’s not — his words are both wondrous and strange, for the simple reason that liberals don’t talk like this anymore. Not like this, with confidence, without apology, with a sense that they can push the envelope and get real results. In the nation’s capital, where I live now, this is how the neoconservatives talk, with their cocky insistence that they can convert America into an empire or bring the New Deal’s handiwork toppling down. They have the vision and the power, and they drive the agenda here, with liberals reduced to pointing out the dangers and looniness of their designs.

In L.A. — and of all of the nation’s major political jurisdictions, only in L.A. — the situation is substantially reversed. Here, the business community is scattered and leaderless, and it’s the progressive civic left — the living-wage and affordable-housing activists — who are proposing the directions for a new Los Angeles. Behind them is the power of a labor movement that can win elections more reliably than anyone else in town. And in Contreras, they, like Martin Ludlow, have found their godfather.

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