L.A.WEEKLY: You were already an activist when you got a call from labor leader John Sweeney. Tell us about that.
MARTIN LUDLOW: That was ’89, the 25th commemoration of the brutal Ku Klux Klan murders. And we brought 10,000 people into Philadelphia, Mississippi. And then had a bus caravan go to D.C. to lobby for passage of this bill. That was just a great exposure for me. And they kind of used my energy and youthfulness to go into the heads of the major AFL-CIO affiliate and pitch why we needed money to help get this caravan across the country. And I met John Sweeney in his office, and within a week, I got a phone call on — you remember those big banana cell phones? — and I speak to him riding down a highway in Mississippi. And I get this message from what sounded like the Circus Employees International, and so I’m thinking, wow, that’s cool — trapeze artists and elephant trainers. I’m in for it.
Well, anyway, it turned out to be the Service Employees International Union, and I took the job as the Western region political director for SEIU. I supported John Sweeney for a couple of years, raising political money from rank-and-file members throughout western United States public-sector workers.
I decided to come back to L.A. and not fly around the country every day. And became the union representative at King-Drew Medical Center. This was the fall that the U.S. Army started bringing their surgeons and trained their surgeons on war-simulated wounds. King-Drew was the only hospital they could find where they could get that kind of training with wounds from an AK47, which was amazingly prevalent in the L.A. gang homicides.
From there I took a leave a couple of years into that to become the field director on the Christopher Commission police-reform campaign. Then went back to Cal State L.A., finished my degree in criminal justice. I spent about five years as the deputy director of the L.A. Conservation Corps. That was a phenomenal five years for me, ’cause I really did get into working with highly activist young people.
If you ever get a chance, visit the L.A. Conservation Corps. There’s an esprit de corps about the Corps that is very much about getting young people involved in service. It’s kind of calisthenics in the morning and then go out in work crews doing urban-based environmental work. But it’s also much more — about not dealing with you as a gang member, and dealing with you as a human being. We take crews out to the mountains. For the first 15 days of the Corps, you have Crips and Bloods on the same crew using pickaxes and all kinds of stuff to clear mountain trails. And in 15 years, not even so much as a pushing match. But what was really great for me was that I could do that work by day and political work at night.
In addition to working on many campaigns, you helped Mark Ridley-Thomas organize his local Empowerment Congress?
Then, as you know, seven years later and several thousand people later, it’s in the city-charter reform as the neighborhood councils.
You also were a top staffer and campaign aide for Antonio Villaraigosa before and during his run for mayor.
I thought we had a great run, and obviously we just fell short because of a crack-cocaine commercial. Following that I became political director of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and stayed there for a year.
Why are you running for office after helping so many other people get into office?
I left out 15 campaigns in South L.A. that I’ve had a part in. And it was usually, for me, a choice between terrible and mediocre candidates. And I’m tired of that. I think it’s really time to offer something that’s aggressive, that’s refreshing, that’s energetic, that I think is a coalition-building sort of a mindset. Quite frankly, with the exception of maybe one or two, we have pragmatic politicians in South L.A. We don’t have idealistic politicians. And I am an idealist and I’m proud of it. I think you gotta be a dreamer. You gotta be a visionary and think of what the possibilities could be, and if you don’t quite get there, by God, imagine what you can get done just by falling somewhat short of this best-case scenario.
You’re an African-American politician in a district that is becoming increasingly Latino.
I think we need, for the future of the African-American community, aggressive African-American leaders that are willing to talk about the demographics and what that means. We really need, for example, to address issues of acknowledging our own gay and lesbian population, beginning to fight for sort of a new era of social justice.
And you’ve said this includes security guards.
For every one public-sector firefighter or police officer that ran up the World Trade Center, 10 private security guards went up. The difference between the two of them? One of them is making minimum wage and has no health benefits or pension. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent of the security guards in downtown L.A., protecting those high-rises, come from South Los Angeles. Imagine what it would mean to the economy if we could boost those wages, provide a health plan and benefits.
What is an example of a challenge that a visionary leader should be tackling?
Trying to reduce sprawl, trying to build infrastructure. To redesign and rethink L.A.’s development strategy from one that has created sprawl to one that could and should be transit-oriented development, where we begin looking at retail on the first floor, housing on the second floor. Taking advantage of the Prop. 108 funds to construct new schools, using the playgrounds for students during the day and parks for the public in the evening. And building all of that around hubs of mass transportation. That is going to be a very tough thing to do, but we’ve gotta do it.
Except for a strip in Koreatown, [departing incumbent] Nate Holden’s economic development has been almost all fast food.
Nate Holden opposed the school at the Ambassador site. How about you?
I support it completely. I think it could be a great thing. The reality is, if people are living around these high-rises, there ought to be schools around those high-rises, because people live there. As Antonio used to say, and we used to preach it a lot, a sign of a successful neighborhood is a successful school. I would trade a liquor store for a library. I’d trade a Taco Bell for a youth center.
But what about the issue of commerce and development?
People do want to come back and shop in our neighborhoods. I’m an idealist. I want to see a renaissance in the Crenshaw corridor. It takes real leadership to make it happen. Similar to what I’ve seen in downtown Cleveland, downtown Baltimore. There are incredible opportunities to bring the best and the brightest in the world to look at the Crenshaw corridor as a place with sidewalk cafés, grass and vegetation in median strips, old-fashioned lighting, park benches, vest-pocket parks. I look at Majestic Pontiac and wonder why that’s not a state-of-the-art YMCA. It’s been 30 years since the last YMCA was built in South L.A. I think there’s ways to be creative about Prop. 181, Prop. 12 and 13 funds, Prop. 42 funds, the Housing Trust Fund. Partner that with some creative bond program and I think you can finance it. And I also think the private sector needs to be pushed a step up.
There is no market in this world like the Southern California market. The private sector is not going anywhere. And I think what we’ve gotta do is get to the heart of how we boost the economy and save those in the middle class from falling into poverty and lift those who are in poverty into the middle class.
Where do we need to go in terms of law enforcement?
Well, many of the progressives on my campaign have kind of swallowed hard when I’ve talked about supporting an increase in the number of police in L.A. We have one of the lowest per capita number of officers of any big city in the country. You need to get the officers out of the cars. They gotta start walking the neighborhood sidewalk. I’m telling you, when I talk to voters on the phone every day and I’m knocking on the doors every day, I don’t find one person that’s saying kick the cops out, get them out of here. They’re not saying that. They’re saying they’d like to see more. They’d like to see more of a presence, and they’d like to get to know them. That’s the only way: protecting and respecting a community. It’s gotta be both.
There also has to be a little more stability. The attrition rate in LAPD has been off the charts.
And I think the biggest recommendation that has not been fulfilled yet from the Christopher Commission police reform is that we have not made the inspector general independent. We have not given the inspector general any frickin’ staff. He has no budget and he doesn’t have subpoena power. If you don’t do that, you basically made this person a super assistant that’s running into the chief’s office asking for permission to get files to look into. We gotta get this inspector general real teeth.
At one point, you said you objected when one of the other candidates tried to win points with the crowd by saying he isn’t a politician.
Being an elected official is honorable work. Building child-care centers is honorable. Building housing is honorable. Working to fight and eliminate poverty is honorable. And that’s what we ought to be doing, you know?
Nobody on the council comes with a background like mine, whose background has been union organizing, and I think that’s an important thing. I work until the job is done, and I think that that’s an important dynamic.