As he cruises toward an apparent easy victory this month in his bid to return to the Los Angeles City Council, which he left in 1998 to pursue statewide power in Sacramento, Richard Alarcón’s peripatetic career is a game of musical chairs driven by the special-interest influences that dominate legislative life in the term-limits era.
Alarcón led unsuccessful efforts to block Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s highly effective workers’ compensation reform, which has slashed costs for small businesses, nonprofits and other companies pushed near to collapse during the recent workers’ comp crisis. Before that, Alarcón led a successful fight, vociferously opposed by California schools, to convince then-governor Gray Davis to sign his law banning money-saving private contracting in schools.
Critics say Alarcón’s move, on behalf of the huge, 240,000-member California School Employees Association representing non-educators, costs the schools $300 million per year.
California School Transportation Association Director Ron Kinney says Alarcón’s law now forces schools to pay much higher wages to low-skilled non-classroom workers, like drivers. Says Kinney, “He had a lot of support from CSEA [California School Employees Association] and SEIU [Service Employees International Union]… We’ve lived with consequences since.”
A flamboyant lefty, former teacher and one-time Valley representative for the late mayor Tom Bradley, Alarcón has never achieved his ambitions, unsuccessfully seeking the highest offices in the state Senate, the state Assembly and the city of Los Angeles, each time falling short yet always moving forward, not unlike the shark that requires constant motion to survive.
Most famously, in one of his many more or less sideways moves, Alarcón in 1998 left a powerful post on the City Council for a seat in the state Senate. He narrowly won, in part thanks to a nasty campaign in which Alarcón’s camp branded his rival, former Assembly Democratic Leader Richard Katz, a racist. Which, as it happens, Katz is not.
Alarcón’s dual goal has been to climb the ladder personally and use the power of government to promote the power of unions, without whom he would have far less financial backing.
Once in the Senate, Alarcón swiftly became the majority whip, a leadership slot a few rungs below the top. While he was arguably in Sacramento to represent the varied needs of Los Angeles, his real role was as a tribune of organized labor. A Project Vote Smart nonpartisan analysis shows more than 40 percent of his current campaign funds come from labor.
Alarcón was one of the legislators always pushing the soon-to-be-doomed Davis ill-advisedly away from the center in which statewide elections are won.
In one key move, as chairman of the Senate’s Labor Committee, Alarcón pushed through the bill that forces non-instructional jobs such as drivers and gardeners in the public schools to either be unionized or compensated at higher union levels. It directly benefited the powerful, huge, cash-rich California School Employees Association, which bitterly opposed schools’ strategy of saving money for the classroom — by hiring inexpensive non-union gardeners and drivers.
Today, the estimated $300 million per year diverted away from the classroom thanks to Alarcón equals about one-third of what Californians pay into schools when they buy Lottery tickets. Governor Davis, who fancied himself a school reformer, had qualms about Alarcón’s bill but, having attended every CSEA convention for the previous quarter century, Davis signed it.
Soon after Davis signed that bill, he began to fight his recall from office and worked hard to convince top Democrats not to run on the ballot to replace him. Yet Alarcón repaid Davis for his help on diverting school funds into non-educator jobs by helping push through a unanimous endorsement of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante — by the state Legislature’s Latino Caucus — to run on the ballot replacing Davis. The move by the Latino Caucus helped open the floodgates to a series of such endorsements, which seriously hurt Davis’ recall fight.
When the new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, moved in 2004 to reform the out-of-control workers’ compensation system, Alarcón, mindful of his union and trial-lawyer supporters, opposed the move — although it overwhelmingly passed in a bipartisan Senate vote of 33-3, and in a bipartisan Assembly vote of 77-3. When the reform proved a success — slashing workers’ comp insurance costs and pouring some $13 billion a year back into the economy — Alarcón tried to impose controversial rate regulations on the workers’ comp insurers, arguing that they would pocket the huge savings.
On the surface, Alarcón’s claim seemed logical. But in truth, 80 percent of California employers either self-insure their own workers — meaning there’s no outside profit to pocket — or are covered by a nonprofit state workers’ comp fund that cannot pocket any profits. Among the 20 percent of insurers Alarcón was confusedly trying to target, many had fled California’s workers’ comp disaster — and refused to return.
Alarcón’s move failed, and later, Schwarzenegger’s 2006 Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, who attacked the governor on virtually every basis, barely mentioned workers’ comp. Even state labor federation president Tom Rankin, while bemoaning some aspects of the reform, noted that “Injured workers will be able to receive immediate medical treatment rather than experience delays that perpetuate suffering.”
While falling far short of undermining Schwarzenegger on workers’ comp reform, Alarcón in 2004 did succeed in protecting his law halting the schools’ use of money-saving workers in non-educator jobs.
Schwarzenegger and Bakersfield Republican Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, backed by education groups including the California School Boards Association, sponsored a repeal of Alarcón’s law. As the school association’s director Scott Plotkin put it, “This bill was enacted over the objections of most school districts, county offices of education and community college districts.”
The authors of the repeal bill said a reversal of Alarcón’s law would save school districts “$300 million every year without a single layoff or service cutback.” A California School Transportation Association sampling of districts statewide that were still using cheaper drivers and other workers — because the private contracts were set before the Alarcón ban kicked in — revealed that those schools are saving “approximately $1 million per 20,000 students’ enrollment.”
Transportation association director Kinney says of Alarcón’s law, “Schools used to have a choice. Now they have no choice. Schools have to get money elsewhere or eliminate service.”
Kinney’s group estimates the extra cost to public schools for transportation alone is $252 million each year. A 2000 study by the Los Angeles Unified School District found that if the district were allowed to contract out all its transportation jobs, it would recoup $1 million in annual savings per 14,500 students.
Tiny districts say the same: The 14,000-student Hesperia Unified School District saved $900,000 annually by hiring less expensive non-classroom employees, while 15,000-student Folsom Cordova Unified School District saved $700,000 annually. And the Community College League of California says its annual costs due to Alarcón’s legislation are around $30 million — for transportation, landscaping, maintenance and food-service jobs.
With very, very little press attention, Alarcón and his labor allies prevailed easily on the schools issue. Meanwhile, Alarcón’s latest dream — of moving further up in the Senate — was not going to happen, because Oakland Democrat Don Perata was firmly ensconced as Senate leader.
While Alarcón had indulged in the politics of grandiose gesture — establishing a Senate Select Committee to End Poverty in California (with apologies to Upton Sinclair) with himself as its chair, and winning a “Local Hero” award from The Nation magazine — the state Senate was a dead end for him.
So in 2005, he ran for mayor of Los Angeles. It went badly. In the first round, Alarcón finished a very distant fifth, with less than 2 percent of the vote. While Antonio Villaraigosa and Mayor James Hahn advanced to the runoff, Alarcón was left trailing far behind the also-rans — former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and former Los Angeles police Chief Bernard Parks.
Perhaps worse than the grim results was his series of odd TV commercials. In one, he stood Sam Spade–like in a trench coat at a purported crime scene. In another, he dissed special interests while riding in a Lincoln Town Car. After his trouncing, Alarcón had better success opposing Schwarzenegger’s ill-fated 2005 special-election agenda. But even there, he got in some trouble, earning sharp criticism for using taxpayer resources to fight Proposition 75 — an initiative that would have made it harder for public-employee unions to dominate many campaigns through the use of members’ dues.
Prop. 75 would have required that government unions get specific permission from union workers to deduct money from their paychecks for political use. Alarcón used the Senate Labor Committee he chaired to sponsor a “hearing” on Prop. 75, which swiftly turned into an anti-75 event. Asked Alarcón, “Is this Prop. 75 nothing but a sham under the guise of workers’ protection, but in fact an effort to whittle away the protections that the workers have by virtue of the advocacy that these organizations provide?”
“I don’t support this measure,” added Alarcón. “I’m vehemently opposed to it not only for the substance of the issue, which I believe undermines workers’ rights, but also I’m opposed to the proposition and initiative abuses that have taken place in the last decade or longer.” He went on to urge Californians “to say no to all of the measures on the ballot in November, including this one.”
Noted one Prop. 75 critic, Pacific Research Institute’s Lance Izumi, “California law prohibits the use of public funds or resources to advocate the passage or defeat of a ballot initiative. At his hearing on Proposition 75, Alarcón totally disregarded that.”
Prop. 75 was, at best, one-way campaign reform — it included no accompanying provision requiring that corporations get shareholder permission to use corporate money on politics. But Alarcón’s blatant use of his committee and government resources to promote the interests of his union patrons was widely seen as over the line.
Termed out of the Senate, Alarcón in 2006 easily won a seat in the Assembly — and quickly became a focus of intrigue. While Alarcón today is running for City Council District 7 on March 6, with the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the Sierra Club and a host of others, it hasn’t always been that way.
He ran against Villaraigosa for mayor, of course, and wasn’t exactly tight with Núñez, Villaraigosa’s ally. Then, with Núñez’s time as speaker running down due to term limits, Alarcón pondered a run at his powerful post. Rumors swirled in Sacramento that veteran political consultant Richie Ross was pushing Alarcón for Núñez’s job — leaving Núñez strategist Steve Maviglio notably unamused.
“The speaker, as you know,” Maviglio said, “had, and has, every intention of serving out his full term in the speakership. He wasn’t going to be pushed aside.”
With Alarcón’s dreams of the speakership dashed, his interest in returning to Los Angeles City Hall begins to make sense. The new, higher City Council salary of $171,648 a year — as distinguished from the mere $113,098 for members of the Assembly — bandied about by some as Alarcón’s reason, probably isn’t his key motivation. More likely, it’s his addiction to moving from political job to political job — and his probable latest desire, to be City Council president.
The truth is that, even as he was elected to the state Assembly last November, and while still serving in the state Senate, Alarcón was running for City Council. By the end of 2006, the Panorama City–based Alarcón had raised $94,144 for the northeast San Fernando Valley council seat and pushed a major candidate out. His main remaining opponent, Monica Rodriguez, had raised $44,874.
Although elected to the Assembly four months ago, he has done little. He didn’t bother to attend the Assembly Democrats’ recent policy retreat. Probably the only noteworthy move in this stage of his career is his bill to create a state cabinet-level “secretary for poverty.” (Shouldn’t it actually be a secretary against poverty?) No serious Sacramento-watchers believe that his plan, to create a post overseeing all state programs pertaining to anything at all poverty-related, will ever see the light of day.
When California voters adopted term limits in 1990, sold on the quaint notion of a return to citizen politicians, they undoubtedly never contemplated someone like Richard Alarcón, who in the past year has served as both state senator and assemblyman and sought election to the Assembly, to the Assembly speakership, and to the City Council.
Yet it took more than the now familiar game of political musical chairs brought on by term limits to come to this pass. It also took a Sacramento legislative system dominated by voting-district gerrymandering and special-interest finance — in which politicians catering to the hyperpartisan edges flourish — to create the Alarcón spectacle. One can only wonder what’s next, with Alarcón’s probable re-election to the Los Angeles City Council.
For more on Richard Alarcón, read David Zahniser's article, “Revolving Door”Pot of GoldWhat Council members reap
Proposition R was approved by Los Angeles voters to soften term limits for the Los Angeles City Council, whose members placed the measure on the ballot last year after a hurried and controversial vote. But the money pot the council created for itself via Prop. R went virtually unreported by the media:
• All current and former City Council members, if they win a third term (giving them 12 years on the council), will reap about $700,000 in additional salary. The council, already the highest-paid big-city council in the nation at a stunning $171,168 per year, receives a sizable raise each time California Superior Court judges get raises.
• A handful of City Council members — those who have not previously worked for government — will, during a third term, pass a 10-year employment threshold. Passing the 10-year mark qualifies them for lifelong health-care subsidies of about 50 percent already being reaped by the rest of the City Council, according to the city’s Personnel Department, amounting to about $1.25 million to $2.5 million per council member by age 82.
• Any council member who wins a third term — including any former council member, such as Richard Alarcón — will, based on a conservative estimate, reap $300,000 in additional pension, for a total pension of more than $1 million, according to city officials. Because of expected salary raises, which are likely to boost City Council pay past $200,000 in a few years, the pension pot will also grow.
• With a sizable fortune in extra pay and benefits awaiting them, many current and former City Council members are expected to begin eyeing another run for City Hall.
1. Council annual salaries, at $171,168 the nation’s highest — nearly double that of the New York City Council’s — will soon rise beyond $200,000 due to automatic raises based on judges’ pay.
2. Automatic “cost of living” raises are likely to push the current $900 monthly maximum health subsidy to $2,000 to $3,000 per month (as council members age).
3. This retirement pot, based on living to age 80, is expected to rise well beyond $1 million as further council pay raises kick in. Most of them also have government pensions from previous positions.
—Sources: City of L.A. Personnel Department and L.A. City Employees’ Retirement System