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It was a moment Miguel Contreras had been planning for years.

On Monday evening, the head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor looked out over a hall packed with his legions — the janitors and hotel housekeepers, the studio techs, the teachers, the clergy who bless and march with strikers, the panoply of activists who’ve made L.A. the most dynamic union town in the nation — and announced that the Fed had just endorsed former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor.

“We have a chance to make history,” Contreras told them, “by electing the first union mayor in the history of Los Angeles!”

In one sense, history had already been made. By anointing Villaraigosa, the Fed had chosen a leader for the Latino-labor alliance that has emerged over the past half-decade as the most significant new political force L.A. has seen since the Bradley coalition emerged at the end of the ’60s. More broadly, should Villaraigosa win, he would immediately become the nation’s pre-eminent voice for the great wave of immigrants that has transformed most of America’s largest cities over the past 20 years.

But was Contreras right in asserting that a Mayor Villaraigosa would be L.A.’s first union mayor? Wasn’t Tom Bradley a union mayor? Wouldn’t James Hahn be a union mayor in the Bradley mold?

In fact, when Contreras speaks of a union mayor, he is referring to something quite different from the quiet benevolence of the Bradley mayoralty. What’s changed since Bradley’s two decades in office is chiefly the unions themselves. Bradley, after all, did pretty much everything the unions of his day asked of him: He appointed their leaders to important city commissions, made sure that union workers were employed on construction projects and gave the go-ahead to a slew of those projects.

Since Contreras took the helm at the county Fed in 1996, however, the demands that unions are placing on government are of a different order of magnitude. At a time when the federal government has proved itself unable to help workers organize or significantly raise the minimum wage, L.A. labor has learned to leverage its clout in local government to win a living wage for thousands of city-contract workers and to compel a range of employers who’ve needed the city’s assistance to allow their employees to unionize. Elected officials have successfully intervened to help organizing drives at hotels in Hollywood and Santa Monica and the shops at LAX; they’ve rewritten city ordinances to assist food-service workers in keeping their jobs at USC. In the Contreras era, local lawmaking has on occasion become a continuation of organizing by other means.

And by that standard, Villaraigosa would most certainly be L.A.’s first union mayor. As he told the cheering activists packed into that downtown hall, he went to work for the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott when he was 15 years old, and through his years as a union organizer and legislator, he’s never really stopped working for la causa. It is precisely the expectation that a Mayor Villaraigosa would turn L.A. into this century’s first laboratory of democracy (Louis Brandeis’ term for the progressive cities and states of the early 1900s) that makes his campaign so important not just to Contreras but to those national union leaders — including Service Employees International Union (SEIU) president Andy Stern and Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees president John Wilhelm — most committed to, and expert at, organizing. Not to mention, to the thousands of low-paid workers who make L.A. the nation’s capital of poverty-wage work.

While some of L.A.’s SEIU locals were among Villaraigosa’s most avid supporters (the high-five that janitors’ local president Mike Garcia exchanged with Villaraigosa just after the endorsement vote spoke volumes about what this meant to the janitors), others were more comfortable with the idea of a traditional kind of mayor. If Villaraigosa posed the option of a movement-building mayor, James Hahn was more the mayor as friendly deal maker: safe, conventional, as comfortable and snooze-inducing as a Barcalounger. Hahn and his allies, including Representative Maxine Waters and county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, furiously lobbied SEIU’s public-sector (and heavily African-American) unions to vote against the Villaraigosa endorsement when it came before the Fed’s political committee on Monday. In the end, the key vote was that of SEIU Local 660, the county employees union, whose president, Alejandro Stephens, in the assessment of one of his colleagues, has “a deal cutter’s affinity for Hahn,” but who finally felt compelled to elevate movement building over deal cutting. Local 660 cast four of its seven votes for Villaraigosa — enough to provide the two-thirds vote required for a Fed endorsement.

Though the Fed has amassed an astonishing string of electoral victories in the past five years, the mayor’s race presents much the toughest challenge it has faced. It’s not that most early polls have shown Hahn or Joel Wachs in the lead, or that Hahn and Steve Soboroff have raised over half a million more dollars than Villaraigosa. Factor in the $800,000 to $1 million that Contreras estimates the Fed will spend on the former speaker’s behalf, and the Hahn-Soboroff fund-raising edge all but vanishes.

The challenge for the Fed, rather, is one of scope. Since 1996, by my count, the Fed has involved itself fully in 21 hotly contested races — for Congress, state Legislature and City Council — and won 20 of them. In each of these contests, the Fed has targeted union members and new immigrants; it has mailed to them, and its own members have knocked on their doors and phoned them. These have all been district races, however, and even though state Senate districts comprise upward of 800,000 people, that’s still significantly smaller than a city that’s pushing 4 million. There are 175,000 union members who are registered voters in the city of L.A. — far more than the Fed has ever targeted before (and more than enough to make a clear difference in a primary where roughly 100,000 votes should suffice to put a candidate into the runoff). The mail and phone programs will surely reach them all, many times, but the member-to-member program that has proved so successful in past campaigns will be stretched to the limit. Fortunately for Villaraigosa, the locals that have produced the most volunteers in past elections — the janitors, the hotel workers — are the ones most passionately committed to his cause. This time out, though, the Fed will have to entrust the mobilization of new immigrant voters who aren’t union members to other groups; its own plate is full.

The fact, mentioned above, that Maxine Waters was lobbying unions on Jim Hahn’s behalf illustrates another challenge that Villaraigosa faces. For on the issues that Waters has always cared about most — economic justice and police reform — Villaraigosa would seem to be her ideal candidate.

Indeed, just last week, Villaraigosa demonstrated that on the perennial question of achieving civilian control of the cops, he is much the gutsiest candidate in the field. On the day that Mayor Riordan sacked Gerald Chaleff as head of the Police Commission for the sin of having argued for a strong monitor to oversee the LAPD’s consent decree with the Justice Department, Villaraigosa was the only candidate to blast the mayor, condemning his action as “a retreat on the issue of police reform.” By contrast, Hahn reacted to Riordan’s mischief merely by noting, “I think the mayor has every right to do what he thinks is best.”

On issues of police reform, however, Los Angeles has a history of rewarding not timidity but boldness. Tom Bradley first made a citywide name for himself as the only member of the City Council to criticize Chief William Parker in the aftermath of the Watts Riot, just as Mike Woo emerged from the pack in the ’93 mayor’s race by being the only council member to criticize Daryl Gates in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating. By staking their claim to the police-reform vote, both Bradley and Woo won the overwhelming support of black L.A., and the preponderant support of nonblack liberals. As a veteran civil libertarian and the first candidate to back the consent decree, Villaraigosa has a claim on nonblack liberals that is strong and growing, but, as Waters’ efforts for Hahn make clear, his claim on black L.A. is shakier. Chiefly because the Rampart scandal did not involve white-on-black police violence, the African-American community is not in this election the militant base for police reform that it was in times past.

The coalition that brought Tom Bradley to power in 1973, and provided the model for America’s urban-liberal coalitions for 20 years, belongs now to history. What Miguel Contreras has been building for the past five years is the model for the next generation of American liberalism, and now, with labor’s endorsement of Antonio Villaraigosa, that future is one step closer.

LA Weekly