Brian D'Arcy is the worst political strategist in Los Angeles. D'Arcy is the head of IBEW Local 18, the once-formidable union that represents 90 percent of the employees at the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Those employees are taking it on the chin this week, thanks largely to D'Arcy's political ineptitude.
The DWP building; Credit: L.A. Weekly Flickr pool
You can draw a straight line from this contract — which freezes DWP wages in place for three years — to D'Arcy's decision to spend $4 million backing Wendy Greuel's losing campaign for mayor. You simply could not have one without the other. It deserves to be remembered as an epic political blunder, and it's not over yet. In fact, things are probably going to get worse for D'Arcy before they get better.
Everyone who knows D'Arcy says he's very smart, especially on energy issues, and there's no reason to doubt that. But being smart in one area can lead to overconfidence in other areas.
Perhaps that's what's going on here.
How else to make sense of D'Arcy's decision to try to torpedo Eric Garcetti, who had no particular animus against his union at the start of the campaign? Garcetti had voted twice for lavish IBEW pay hikes, and was embarrassingly eager to suck up to D'Arcy during a solar initiative just four years ago. When he launched his mayoral campaign last year, the DWP barely registered as an issue. His kick-off speech was all about jobs.
Even after D'Arcy announced his effort to support Greuel in January, Garcetti held off on criticizing the union. He did talk about the corrosive effect of outside money in campaigns, which was a comfortable argument for a progressive politician to make. But he did not make the more risky move (for a union-supporting progressive) of going after DWP salaries, benefits and work rules.
That was left up to two more conservative candidates — Kevin James and Jan Perry — launched a blistering attack on “special interests.” It was only as that attack started to resonate that Garcetti began to echo it, but even then only in the most tentative way.
Garcetti did not really start to go after D'Arcy's union until the runoff, when he started talking about taking on the downtown “power brokers.” As he picked up steam, he started to cast himself as a reformer.
In retrospect, D'Arcy clearly would have done a lot better for his members if he had simply kept his head down. This is something even D'Arcy now seems to understand. “In my mind, if I had it to do over again, we still would have supported Greuel,” he told Rick Orlov of the Daily News. “Although, maybe not as much as we did.”
Had D'Arcy spent, say, $100,000 instead of $4 million, it's safe to say that DWP salaries would not have been an issue in the campaign. Several other unions spent that amount on both sides, without becoming targets of attack. And without the DWP issue, Greuel might well have won. As it was, Garcetti turned DWP salaries into his closing argument and cruised to an 8-point victory.
The IBEW still has to ratify this contract, but given D'Arcy's firm control over the union that should not be a problem. That does not mean members will be happy about it. We're accustomed to talking about the five stages of grief, but in this case the process should be simplified down to two: spin and revenge.
In the first stage, expect to hear that this contract is actually pretty good for the union because it protects the pension system and health benefits. Or that this whole thing was actually D'Arcy's idea. Don't buy the hype. This is a kick in the teeth, and Garcetti was justified in doing a little end zone dance at his press conference on Thursday.
The second stage will likely be about blaming Garcetti for “demonizing” working people. And perhaps the union will start to think about who they can prop up to run against him in 2017. The fact, though, is that Garcetti didn't start this fight — D'Arcy did. And now that Garcetti is winning it, Garcetti is probably happy to keep having it.
Garcetti has said this contract is just the first step in an ongoing process of reforming the DWP's work rules and inefficiencies. “Real reform can't wait,” Garcetti said on Thursday. Who is going to come to D'Arcy's defense? The city council might — Council President Herb Wesson made a valiant attempt on Thursday to portray the IBEW as a “forward-thinking union.” But the IBEW is not that much more popular with the council as a whole than it is with the mayor's office. They have to answer to voters, too.
And the voters are not on the side of the IBEW. That's a tough reality for any labor group to swallow, but that's the clear message from a string of IBEW defeats. The fact is that by attempting to throw his clout around, D'Arcy has diminished it greatly.