We are, I know, electing a mayor of Los Angeles, but the real architect of the new Los Angeles died with terrible suddenness on Friday night, leaving behind a city that he more than anyone transformed into the only major American metropolis where working people have some real political power.
When Miguel Contreras became the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in 1996, the city was just beginning to climb back from the worst recession since the Thirties, and politically, it was adrift between regimes. The 20-year tenure of Mayor Tom Bradley had ended three years earlier with the election of Richard Riordan – an election in which labor was a marginal player at best. A whole new population, an entire new working class, had descended on L.A. from Mexico and Central America, but they did not figure in L.A.’s civic life, in its politics, at all.
Today, they figure, and then some – and not as a nationalist force but as the keystone of a new-model labor movement that is at the center of the city’s new, governing regime. Talk about building a new world on the ashes of the old! Los Angeles was both the whitest and most anti-union big American city outside the South for much of the 20th century. That it should become the most dynamic union city in the nation, chiefly through labor’s mobilization of the Latino immigrant workforce, is the most astonishing and significant civic transformation in recent American history – in part because in moving to the left, Los Angeles dragged California leftwards, too.
And if there was one central figure in this transformation, it was Miguel Contreras. The son of immigrant farm workers, Contreras went to work for Cesar Chavez’s union while still a teenager. In the Eighties, he became an organizer, and then an all-purpose trouble-shooter, for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), in which capacity he was detailed to Los Angeles. When Jim Wood became head of the L.A. County Fed in the mid-90s, he made Miguel his political director, and in 1996, Contreras succeeded to the top spot when Wood died – tragically young, like Miguel – from lung cancer.
It was a time of transition throughout the labor movement. In Washington, John Sweeney had just ousted Lane Kirkland as the president of the national AFL-CIO. In California, Art Pulaski had just succeeded John Henning, who’d headed the state AFL-CIO for a quarter-century. And in L.A., Contreras took over a labor movement clearly in decline. Almost every one of the great unionized auto, tire and aerospace factories that had employed hundreds of thousands of Angelenos since World War II had been shuttered over the previous 20 years. Construction was increasingly handled by non-union crews. Unionized employees in such service occupations as janitorial work had been let go, to be replaced by low-wage immigrant workers. The city had a Republican mayor and the state had a Republican Assembly and a governor, Pete Wilson, who’d won re-election by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment. The only silver lining to be glimpsed in 1996 was the possibility of a Latino backlash against Wilson and the Republicans for their support for the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 two years previous. The conventional wisdom, th4ough, was that it would be years, if not decades, before Latinos would vote in sufficient numbers to reverse the state’s nativist and conservative drift.
That was a piece of wisdom that Contreras was soon to blow to smithereens. In the 1996 state legislative elections, Democrats swept back to power in the Assembly by winning a range of districts around L.A. County – in Long Beach, the South Bay, Burbank and Pasadena – that had been Republican for decades, as a result of voter registration and union mobilization efforts coordinated by the County Fed and the Service Employees International Union. The following year, in a special election to fill an Assembly vacancy in an immigrant-heavy district near downtown, the old guard Latino establishment, headed by State Sen. Richard Polanco, backed a centrist candidate widely favored to win. The Fed, however, backed Contreras’ friend and former labor leader Gil Cedillo, and devised a special campaign targeted not just at union members but also new immigrant voters in the district. Cedillo scored a decisive upset, winning the backing of voters that hardly any political pros expected to turn out. The Fed had found a formula for bringing a new constituency to the polls – and with that, a new political power was born.
Part of Contreras’ secret was the oldest political weapon in the book: shoe leather. Under his leadership, the Fed developed a get-out-the-vote program in which a number of the city’s more activist locals took part – and none more heavily than the two unions most dominated by immigrant workers, SEIU’s janitors local, and HERE’s hotel workers local, headed by Contreras’ wife, Maria Elena Durazo. In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, nobody walked during L.A. elections; politics in Los Angeles had been reduced to raising money to fund TV and radio ads and mailings. Unions participated in campaigns largely by writing checks to candidates, and the most powerful locals were often building trades unions that were close to such behind-the-scenes power brokers as Riordan consigliere Bill Wardlaw.
Contreras changed all that. Hundreds, then thousands of union activists mobilized to walk swing districts during election season, targeting not just their fellow members but the newly naturalized immigrant working class as well. Within Democratic primaries (of which, through the miracle of term limits, there were scads), the Fed backed and elected a new generation of pro-labor progressives – Cedillo, Antonio Villaraigosa, Jackie Goldberg, Hilda Solis. In outlying areas formerly represented by Republicans, Democrats such as Alan Lowenthal, Jenny Oropeza, Adam Schiff and Jane Harman won by virtue of labor support. So effective was the labor operation that immigrant Latino voters backed such Fed-endorsed candidates as Goldberg (a lesbian Jew) and the African-American Jerome Horton over their mainstream Latino opponents.
The net effect of all this was that Los Angeles County moved decisively leftward, so that by the 2000 election, its level of support for the Democratic presidential and senatorial candidates was identical to that of the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of demographic factors went into the transformation of California from the homeland of Nixon and Reagan to the bluest of states, but demography was measurably sped up by the political shift in L.A. County that Contreras put on fast-forward.
Politics wasn’t an end in itself for Contreras. The political clout that labor amassed in L.A. was a floating asset that workers involved in bargaining or organizing could and did call upon. The organization of 74,000 home care workers in L.A. by SEIU – the largest single organizing victory of any kind since the ‘30s – was in large part the result of the election victories of 1998, which, by making Gray Davis governor, led to statutory changes enabling those workers to organize.
During the epochal 2000 janitors strike, virtually every elected official in town marched with, spoke for, or sat alongside the janitors at the bargaining table. That was only partly because the janitors occupied the moral high ground. It was also a consequence of labor’s smashing successes in the Democratic primaries that immediately preceded the strike – most particularly, the successful campaign to unseat longtime lump-like Democratic Congressman Marty Martinez with pro-labor firebrand Hilda Solis. There were limits to this kind of clout, of course: There was little Contreras could do to turn the tables during the disastrous strike/lockout of supermarket workers a couple of years back. He did, however, lead the subsequent campaign that persuaded Inglewood voters to keep Wal-Mart out of their city.
Under Contreras’ leadership, labor’s political power was also used to push the envelope on public policy. The enactment and extension of living wage and worker retention ordinances in cities throughout the county were the result of hard-fought, strategically savvy campaigns, but underpinning all of them was the power of the Fed. I recall one particular, and not all that earthshaking, campaign to win more job security for the unionized food servers at USC. After an impasse of many months, Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the living wage coalition drafted a proposed city ordinance that would have threatened USC’s municipal community development funding unless it agreed to the workers’ demands. There was, again, a kind of Dickensian purity to the workers’ struggle, but Dickensian purity hasn’t always prevailed at the L.A. City Council. In this instance, however, despite intense lobbying from USC – the civic institution that perhaps most epitomized the old L.A. establishment – the Council voted unanimously for the ordinance, forcing the university to meet the union’s demands. More than anything else, the vote reflected the new civic political reality – that in at least nine of the city’s 15 council districts, labor could make or break a candidate.
Like all labor leaders, of course, Contreras cut his deals with power when he had to. In 1997, with incumbent Mayor Riordan facing only symbolic opposition from Tom Hayden, the Fed backed Riordan. This year, though Contreras tried to engineer a dual-endorsement of Mayor Jim Hahn and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, Hahn’s ability to deliver for labor, and for specific unions, proved too great for Contreras to convince his fellow labor leaders that they should go both ways.
Miguel, be it very clear, loved deal-making, though not as an end in itself. The intrigues of politics and some of the trappings of power delighted him; he reveled in his ability to put together improbable coalitions or pull off daring endorsements. He would skate on the edge sometimes: I recall one instance in which he heavily favored one candidate in a field of good candidates, but kept coming up a couple of votes short when the Fed’s political committee was considering its endorsement. Finally, he asked a friend to withhold his negative votes on the next ballot; the endorsement just had to go through, he said, because he’d already had the campaign literature printed. Suffice it to say, he got his way.
(It helped at such moments that Miguel was warm, funny, and blessed with a buoyant confidence that he could eventually win over just about anybody. He could also call on a dead-pan wit: One day last fall, seeing me for the first time since I’d shaved off a beard I’d had for three decades, he looked me up and down and announced, “You look two years younger.”)
For all his deal-making, however, Miguel had a long-range strategic vision for labor in Los Angeles that informed virtually everything he did. He’d been planning a local ballot measure, for instance, to create a business tax that would defray all the costs of community college students. The campaign would enable labor to win the allegiance of young working-class Angelenos, he reasoned, and it would force labor’s fair-weather elected friends to support the movement more fully – or risk the consequences.
He’d been concerned, too, about the potential rift between the African-American and Latino communities that had been so apparent in the mayor’s race four years ago. He saw labor as a potential bridge between the two communities, which was one reason why he’d worked so hard on behalf of the heavily black MTA bus drivers union – not affiliated with the Fed – during its strike several years ago.
Contreras also fostered and backed the campaigns of younger African-American candidates – Assembly Member Karen Bass and City Councilman Martin Ludlow in particular – whose primary orientation was to labor and progressive causes rather than the more insular nationalism to which some African-American electeds have pandered in recent years. Contreras was not surprised when Bass and Ludlow became the first black electeds to back Villaraigosa in this year’s mayoral race: That was, in a broad sense, part of his design.
Ludlow had been Contreras’ political director at the Fed before he ran for the council; Miguel was particularly good at promoting his protégés. Ludlow’s predecessor as Fed political director had been Fabien Nunez, whose election to the state assembly Contreras had helped engineer. Even then, when Nunez was still a candidate, Contreras told me that Nunez could and would become Speaker early on in his tenure; that liberals would need a champion after Senate leader John Burton was termed out and that Nunez would be up to the job.
Miguel was so vibrant and omnipresent for anyone who covered L.A. politics that it’s hard to have one definitive image of him. If I do, I suppose it was the day that I arrived at his office and he diagrammed for me, with black marker on a white board, how Ludlow would win his hotly contested council seat in the very polyglot, mid-city district that had been represented by Nate Holden. In the Latino northeast quadrant, Contreras said, the Latino activists from the Hotel Workers were walking. Over here, in the more Jewish neighborhoods, Ludlow was spending all his time going door-to-door; the guy was a great advertisement for himself. Over in this corner, there was an operation funded by unions that didn’t care much about Ludlow but that wanted to ingratiate themselves to newly elected councilman Villaraigosa, who’d asked them to deliver for Ludlow. And so it went, neighborhood by neighborhood, until Contreras wound up by predicting how many votes the leading candidates would receive. On election day, he was accurate within a couple of hundred votes for each of them.
It was a performance of which no one else I’ve known – labor leaders, electeds, consultants – would be capable. Maybe old Mayor Daley talked about Chicago this way, but old Mayor Daley could influence outcomes by voting the dead, an option not available to Contreras. It was also a performance in which Contreras plainly took delight – a recounting of how all those hours planning mobilizations and conceiving and pulling off deals were going to result in the election of new generation of progressive leaders.
I was impressed by the performance then; I am more impressed by it, in the continuum of Miguel’s entire career, now. What he was engaged in that day, as he was every day he led the city’s labor movement, was remaking the politics of Los Angeles. In this, he will likely be linked with Villaraigosa, particularly if, as the polls suggest, Villaraigosa is elected mayor on May 17th. The irony is that while the Fed backed Hahn in the current race, it was the Fed’s work of the past nine years – all the voter registration and labor mobilization, the showcasing of issues like the living wage, and the extraordinary campaign labor waged for Villaraigosa four years ago – that helped the create the city that stands ready today to make Villaraigosa mayor.
In recent weeks, Contreras was under a great deal of pressure from some locals – the Laborers and the Home Care workers in particular – to do more for Hahn. But as Miguel noted, labor had done too good on job on Villaraigosa’s behalf four years ago; there weren’t many labor activists inclined to walk or phone on the mayor’s behalf. Besides, at this juncture, putting more money into the Hahn campaign was looking increasingly like a sucker bet. And finally, Miguel surely believed that Villaraigosa would make the most dynamic, progressive mayor in the nation, and doubtless looked forward to their collaboration.
It’s not at all apparent who in the L.A. labor movement can take Miguel’s place. His combination of long-term vision, strategic breadth and subtlety, and animal political smarts was inimitable; certainly, no other labor council leader in any city I know of could match it.
Should Villaraigosa be elected mayor next week, he may have more occasion to miss Contreras, professionally, than anyone else in town. A Villaraigosa-Contreras combo would have brought together a progressive mayor with an organized progressive base, something no other American city can really claim. That base is still there, of course, but the man who shaped it into a coherent force is abruptly gone.
Whatever the course of a Villaraigosa administration, the very election in Los Angeles of a liberal Latino labor activist as mayor would signal a civic transformation that is almost mind-boggling. For that, the ebullient, funny, and absolutely brilliant leader of L.A. labor for the past decade deserves the lion’s share of credit. But the hard part is just beginning. For a city in the midst of so profound a reinvention to succeed, it needs above all a Miguel Contreras. Dammit, amigo, what a great and historic life you led, and what terrible time for you to die.