The message to Los Angeles politicians last week, when City Council incumbent Bernard Parks was nearly forced into a runoff against little-known challenger Forescee Hogan-Rowles in a fight to represent Council District 8, is that unions will go to great lengths, and spend $1 million or more, to oust politicians who fail to support their agenda.
Interviews with elected politicians and their aides found the prevailing view that the race in South Los Angeles was a show of muscle against local, state and national political candidates who deviate from the union platform in L.A.
The unions were motivated partly by a visceral dislike for Parks. He is seen as “insulting” and “assaultive” by labor leaders and key friends of labor — especially by Los Angeles County Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Ridley-Thomas beat Parks in the race for a choice open seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2008, buttressed by a staggering $8.5 million in campaign help from Durazo's County Fed.
Last week, hammered by $1.2 million in union campaign money, Parks' once-strong support in his longtime Council District 8 plummeted to 50.8 percent against a political newcomer who says she could fill the gaping city budget deficit without cutting workers.
Hogan-Rowles won 44 percent, and a third candidate got the remainder. Had she wooed just 140 additional votes away from Parks, he would have dropped below 50 percent and faced Hogan-Rowles' cash-rich labor backers in a runoff. (He still might, with late ballots being counted.)
Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of UCLA's School of Public Affairs, says L.A. union leaders “are essentially asserting that it is their power … that ought to win the day.” Hogan-Rowles “was not a known quantity challenging Parks, an incumbent who is more or less well-regarded.”
Parks' votes in favor of layoffs and furloughs for city workers largely mirrored the votes by other City Council incumbents who won handily last week, yet none of the others were targeted by Durazo for ouster.
But Parks differs from most of his council colleagues in that he openly criticizes the unions' budget positions and questions government workers' salary, pension and healthcare costs.
“This is about a flex of power,” Gilliam says. “That's their strategy.”
Parks says members of the L.A. City Council privately express trepidation about crossing unions such as the County Federation, SEIU Local 721 and the L.A. Police Protective League.
L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who in 1991 beat labor-backed candidate Art Torres in her first race for supervisor, tells L.A. Weekly that “almost everybody” elected to office in L.A., despite their outward trappings of power, is afraid of labor leaders, who have begun to insist on “absolute” loyalty.
When Molina was asked to name elected L.A. officials who have privately expressed their fear, she replied: “Do you want that in alphabetical order?”
Molina, who has won every race since 1991, says Democrats who behave in an independent, fiscally cautious manner and fail to show “blind loyalty” to government-employee unions should expect intense challenges.
Molina cites one incident in which she said no to upping the retirement benefits Los Angeles County pays to its law enforcement officers. The increases were not enacted. After her opposition, Molina alleges that key labor leaders contacted a few of Molina's “best friends” to suggest they run against her. They said no, Molina says.
Molina and her longtime colleague Zev Yaroslavsky will be forced off the powerful board by term limits in 2014. “I'm sure they're scouting for just the right candidate to replace me,” Molina says.
With those two seats opening, Durazo and other labor honchos hope to gain majority control of the Board of Supervisors, one of the most powerful government jurisdictions in California. Many people say key union ally and former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl tops labor's list to replace Yaroslavsky, who, in contrast to Kuehl, has gained a reputation as a fiscal watchdog in office.
But Hogan-Rowles was a curious choice for labor. She has a spotty background, as the Weekly has previously reported: She often failed to attend her meetings as a DWP commissioner, was forced off the DWP's Retirement Board by the Mayor's Office because of concern over a potential conflict of interest, and attracted the ire of former DWP chief David Freeman, who said she gained little understanding of DWP's issues while on the board.
“They've shown the model for the future,” Parks tells the Weekly of the unions. “They pick a candidate [and] put millions of dollars in to buy [him or her] a seat. Then the candidate is beholden to them. It sends an insidious message to other council members: 'This could happen to you if you don't support us.' Until elected officials stand up and say there's no place for that conduct, they'll keep expanding and expanding.”
Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU Local 721, and Paul Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, give different versions of what the unions intended. Schoonover says targeting Parks was a demonstration of the unions' effectiveness when they work together, not a “warning shot.” But Weber says he did not coordinate with the County Fed and never “heard about” unions working together against Parks.
Both agree that their near-success may have repercussions for other L.A. pols.
Durazo, IBEW Local 18 leader Brian D'Arcy and Weber are almost certainly looking to replace union ally and City Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the Harbor District if she beats California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and others running to replace Jane Harman, who resigned from Congress.
And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer who faces a recession-slammed budget strained by labor contracts, is termed out of office in 2013.
Ridley-Thomas insists Durazo and the other union chiefs who went after Parks are not following a “script” that they'll reprise in other races. “It's not prescriptive at all” of what labor might do, Ridley-Thomas says.
He says Parks' loss of support was caused by his being “militantly” conservative on fiscal issues and out of touch with voters, and receiving a large police chief's pension while also earning his City Council salary.
Ridley-Thomas insists Parks wasn't used as an object lesson, saying, “Many people vote against labor and don't draw the wrath. … Parks draws fire.”
He also claims to be unaware of any organized plan to place union-friendly candidates in upcoming contested political seats.
Kathay Feng, of California Common Cause, says constitutionally upheld “independent expenditures” by corporations, unions and other cash-rich special interest groups are the new game. The anti-Parks push drew huge amounts of cash from DWP's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, its affiliated IBEW 11, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the County Federation and SEIU Local 721. (Parks received more modest “independent expenditure” help from pro-business groups.)
“A lot of politicians watch very carefully who is putting in large amounts of money,” Feng says. “When it comes to those interests, they're careful about their votes; they know they could be next in line either to receive money, or to be punished.”
But the strategy could backfire.
UCLA's Gilliam says that despite the “cheerleading” Hogan-Rowles got from Ridley-Thomas, and the $1.2 million spent on her by the unions, he senses in the unions' strategy an “aroma of desperation.”
“I think they're scared,” he says. “They see a narrative in which the average private-sector American says, 'I'm suffering, I have no retirement benefits and these people have these crazy retirement benefits that I'm paying for.' ”
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