No good deed goes unpunished. Just ask City Councilman
and mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa. I saw him the other night at the second
mayoral debate, and he was still pretty steamed over the way his biggest former
political allies had royally screwed him.
Just the week before, the County Federation of Labor — the umbrella
for L.A.’s union movement — gave its endorsement not to Villaraigosa but to
Jimmy Hahn. This is the same County Fed that threw in a pot of money and 2,500
field workers to back Villaraigosa’s first mayoral run in 2001. “An old
labor saying reminds us that labor rewards our friends,” said County Fed
boss Miguel Contreras in justifying the rollover for Hahn.
And Villaraigosa? He’s what to labor? A potted plant? While Jimmy
Hahn was building his political career off the name of his father, Villaraigosa
spent his younger years working as an organizer for three different unions.
As a California Assemblyman, Villaraigosa got a 100 percent pro-labor rating.
Indeed, his run at the mayor’s chair four years ago was torpedoed in part by
a $200,000 smear campaign financed by the Morongo tribe precisely because Villaraigosa
had sided with the union trying to organize the Indian casinos. Now that same
union has turned its back on Villaraigosa and joined in the endorsement of Hahn.
Thanks for taking it in the shorts for us, Tony. Now, don’t wiggle as we step
over your body.
The County Fed’s abandonment of Villaraigosa really should
come as no surprise. Four years ago, after Villaraigosa’s near-miss campaign,
the votes were barely counted when Contreras signaled that he was ready to make
a deal with Hahn. When asked, the morning after the election, if he was “bitter”
by the way Hahn played the race card to defeat his candidate Villaraigosa, Contreras
told the L.A. Times: “No . . . for me, there were no tears last
night. This is a game of hardball, and we know how to play it.”
No kidding. Soon Contreras and Hahn were best buddies, with the
new mayor agreeing to comply with a modest labor wish list. Contreras ally Madeline-Janis
Aparicio, who had led the city’s earlier Living Wage campaign, was appointed
by Hahn to the Community Redevelopment Agency. With his eye on a couple of thousand
union construction jobs, Contreras went to bat for Hahn’s $11 billion LAX expansion.
Hahn returned the favor by supporting embattled supermarket and hotel workers.
Which brings us back to last week and the decision by the powerful
County Fed to cast its lot with a wishy-washy, near-invisible mayor whose City
Hall is under two separate criminal investigations for Davis-like pay-to-play
propensities. Progressive apologists for Contreras argue that he really had
no choice. That with an incumbent Democrat mayor who has gleefully granted the
wage increases demanded by city workers and has thrown in the requisite slabs
of contracting pork, Big Labor was more or less obligated to keep things harmonious.
Poppycock. Villaraigosa might, indeed, be much more of a corporate-backed
establishment candidate than some of his more fervent supporters wish to acknowledge.
But he’s undeniably a much more pro-labor candidate as well. And a more liberal
candidate. And apparently a more ethical one.
Further, Villaraigosa, with the help of labor, had tried to build
a bona fide new politics coalition to govern Los Angeles — one that better reflected
the city’s shifting demographic and economic character. This is in sharp contrast
to Hahn’s old-guard patronage model of piecing together an electoral alliance
that at times reflected the oily ethos of George Bush’s so-called “coalition
of the willing.”
Indeed, the brighter bulbs within the American labor movement
have been arguing for a solid decade now that the fate of the union movement,
and of progressive politics itself, rested on the ability of labor to lead
new urban liberal coalitions that would supplant the sort of insider machine
that Hahn prefers.
Los Angeles was, supposedly, the national showcase for this new
strategy. Our city was ground zero of that fabled Latino-labor alliance that
would push the Democrats to where they should be and that — on the local level
— would displace the Old Boys network with a cross-city, cross-racial progressive
coalition. And, oh yes, Antonio Villaraigosa was the point man. Or he was supposed
to be. In that same morning-after-the-2001-election interview, Contreras said,
“There are two ways of seeing this election: Either Villaraigosa was going
to be the first Latino mayor in the modern era . . . or Hahn was going to be
the last Anglo mayor.”
Or Contreras was going to help re-elect Hahn, he forgot to add.
Well, one silver lining in all this. I suppose we can now officially
close the books on the fairy tale of an ascendant Latino-labor alliance. With
five Democrats dominating the mayor’s race, there isn’t a single “practical”
or “pragmatic” argument available to defend the County Fed’s lay-down
for Hahn other than sheer, rank opportunism. No danger of splitting ranks, of
spoiling, of playing into the hands of the Right, of inadvertently electing
some Evil Republican. We’re looking instead at a cold, hard lack of principle
and guts. More annoying, Contreras’ helping hand to Hahn comes just when the
mayor is most vulnerable. Two of the three legs on which Hahn limped into office
are buckling: the Valley vote and the black vote. The County Fed to the rescue!
And to hell with any corruption indictments that might soon be raining down.
Those who genuinely care about labor, about some sort of new politics
for L.A., ought to be roasting Contreras this season, not apologizing or spinning
for him. A decade’s worth of lip service to a new politics tossed into the trash
for some old-fashioned union patronage at LAX. Hurrah.