IN THE BEGINNING, MARTIN LUDLOW was the answer to Miguel Contreras’ prayer. The huge influx of Latino immigrants into Los Angeles had placed real stresses on black-Latino relations in L.A., and on the relations between the African-American community and labor, a movement reflective, in both its leaders and its members, of the increasingly Latino character of the local work force.

The new asymmetry extended to the political community as well. As more and more districts turned Latino, a whole new generation of Latino activists — Antonio Villaraigosa, Gil Cedillo, Fabian Nuñez and dozens more — won elections with the assistance of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, which Contreras headed. Black politics, by contrast, was still dominated by a small number of leaders who’d emerged in the ’60s — Maxine Waters, Yvonne Burke, Diane Watson — and by younger electeds who couldn’t escape their seniors’ shadows and had little involvement in the city’s newer social movements, labor most particularly.

After the 2001 mayor’s race, when Antonio Villaraigosa’s labor-backed bid for mayor failed due to the black community’s support for Jim Hahn, Contreras realized that the gap between the African-American community and the rest of the labor-liberal alliance had become an impediment to citywide progressive politics. He began looking for younger black activists who could bridge that gap. He found two: Karen Bass, who, with the Fed’s help, won a state Assembly seat in 2004, and Martin Ludlow, who, also with the Fed’s help, won a City Council seat in 2003.

Ludlow’s career seemed to hold almost limitless promise. The son of an activist clergyman father and an organizer mother, Ludlow spent the ’90s working for a series of unions and community organizations in L.A. At various times, he was Contreras’ political director at the County Fed, and Villaraigosa’s Los Angeles field representative when the future mayor was speaker of the Assembly. A rousing speaker and an adept political tactician, overflowing with energy, Ludlow conveyed the impression that he was destined for a stellar political career.

His time came in 2003, when Nate Holden was finally termed out of his 10th council district seat. Holden sought to rally his geriatric legions around Deron Williams, a Holden aide whose loyalty to his boss seemed his chief virtue. Ludlow was the candidate of labor and liberals — one of two in the 2003 elections. The other was Antonio Villaraigosa, running for an Eastside council seat then held by Nick Pacheco.

With two races to focus on, Contreras made a crucial strategic decision. Villaraigosa, he believed, could beat Pacheco outright in the primary if labor made a big enough commitment of members and resources. In the crowded field of the 10th, by contrast, the primary would result in no candidate winning 50 percent of the vote, forcing a later runoff between the top two finishers — sure to be Williams and Ludlow.

“Miguel wanted all of labor’s field campaign to go to Antonio in the primary,” says one source active in that campaign, “and free it up to go to Martin in the runoff.” That made Ludlow, who feared Williams was surging, nervous as the primary neared. So he turned to SEIU Local 99, which had quite a political operation of its own, including a predictive-dialing phone bank that enabled a campaign to reach slews of voters it might not otherwise contact.

According to two sources familiar with the case that the district attorney and federal prosecutors have been building against Ludlow and Janett Humphries, then Local 99’s president, Ludlow felt at a disadvantage without a field campaign of his own. In recent years, unions have done far more for candidates than Local 99 did for Ludlow, but through the vehicle of independent-expenditure campaigns that are not coordinated with the candidate’s own. What Ludlow and Local 99 set up, the sources say, was not an independent-expenditure campaign, but the unacknowledged diversion of union resources and staffers to Ludlow’s own campaign.

Contreras was right: With labor’s help, Villaraigosa dispatched Pacheco in Round One, and, with labor’s help, Ludlow defeated Williams in Round Two. But over the past year, following a falling out between Tom Newbery, Local 99’s top political operative, and Humphries, the plainly illegal arrangement became known to the local’s parent international, the Service Employees International Union, which placed the local under trusteeship and, in the words of one source close to the union, “built the case and handed it over to the prosecutors.”

Which is not to say that SEIU anticipated that the prosecutors would come down on Ludlow like a ton of bricks — threatening him with jail time and, as part of a proposed plea bargain reported in the L.A. Times, levying fines totaling more than $260,000 and banning him from public and union office for more than a decade. Anyone who knows the local political scene really well, within the African-American community and in the larger body politic, can tell you stories of other electeds who’ve used campaign funds in all manner of dubious ways — forcing campaigns to employ their relatives, involving themselves in a variety of scams — none of whom have incurred so much as an overdue-book fine. But none of them had a zealously clean international union documenting their misdeeds, or rival prosecutorial offices not wishing to appear soft on the case.

IN ANY EVENT, LUDLOW OWNED UP to his misdeeds in resigning his post Tuesday, without specifying what they were. “I accept full responsibility for my mistakes,” he said — then continuing, understandably, to take credit for his achievements in the eight months he served as the Fed’s executive secretary-treasurer after Contreras’ sudden death. From my vantage point, Ludlow can count four significant achievements in his short tenure atop L.A. labor: First, he took office just as the national labor movement was splitting in two, and faced a real threat that all the local labor bodies, including his own L.A. Fed, might follow suit. Over the next several months, local labor councils from across the nation effectively compelled the leaders of the national AFL-CIO and the new Change to Win Federation to work out a way that locals from unions on both sides of the divide could keep their local councils together, and Ludlow played a leading role in that fight.

In so doing, he laid the groundwork for his second signal achievement: defeating the governor’s ballot measures in last November’s special election. A number of distinct union operations can take credit for the victory, but Ludlow kept all the L.A. operations humming, and kept them from colliding into one another, too. Turnout in L.A. County was actually 3 points higher than in whiter, wealthier Orange County next door — a reversal of the normal voting pattern, and one in which Ludlow can take some genuine pride.

Third, in recent months he’d put together a stellar new staff at the Fed, including Courtni Pugh, a brilliant young SEIU political operative, as the Fed’s new political director.

And fourth, he’d demonstrated that the house that Contreras built — the strongest house in California labor and politics — would not topple with Contreras’ sudden death. Labor could still deliver in Los Angeles. As it now will under Ludlow’s successor, who it increasingly seems will be Maria Elena Durazo, head of the local hotel workers union and Contreras’ widow. Durazo could have had the job when Contreras died but didn’t want it: The national leader of UNITE HERE, John Wilhelm, was then a possible challenger to AFL-CIO national president John Sweeney, and if Wilhelm had prevailed, Durazo might well have taken his post. Now, by several accounts, she is willing to take her husband’s old job.

A firebrand orator and cool strategist, Durazo transformed her backwater local into one of the most politically active in the city. She helped found the city’s living-wage coalition, waged a hunger strike on behalf of USC food service workers, and worked on parallel tracks with her husband to make the labor movement the tribune for the city’s vast immigrant work force. Her friendship with Villaraigosa goes back three decades, to their days at the People’s College of Law and working for immigrant rights under the tutelage of legendary organizer Bert Corona.

If Villaraigosa viewed Ludlow as a son, he views Durazo as a sister. And a sibling relationship may finally prove healthier for the city than a paternal-filial one. L.A. needs a labor movement that not only helps the mayor in his battles to build a more humane city, but that has priorities distinct from his, that can prod him and say no to him when warranted. Durazo has been working and fighting with Villaraigosa for 30 years. They should make quite the couple.

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