Under the glitzy chandeliers of the Beverly Hills Hilton, hundreds of civic leaders and union members sipped wine, mugged for photos with television stars and chanted "Sí, se puede!" with a beaming row of hotel workers.
It was another triumphant night for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy — known to many as LAANE — a political powerhouse with a vanilla name, an unglamorous Westlake office and a City Hall scorecard to envy.
Among the guests at its annual awards dinner: Newly seated County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, L.A. City Council members Nury Martinez, Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfield, and L.A. City Atty. Mike Feuer. There were truck drivers and executives, longtime allies and former foes.
"Any group that can raise wages for tens of thousands of hotel workers and truck drivers and airport workers is doing something right," "Modern Family" actor Ed O'Neill told the crowd.
After years at the helm of successful campaigns to boost wages for hotel and airport workers, mandate cleaner trucks at the port and even change how L.A. hauls its trash, the nonprofit is setting its sights on a $15 citywide minimum wage. If it prevails, it will mark the most expansive victory yet for an alternately loved and loathed force at City Hall. To backers, LAANE is a force for economic and environmental justice. For critics, it's driving an agenda that benefits labor unions.
LAANE is "perhaps the most important organization working on economic justice issues in the city," said Amy Wakeland, wife of Mayor Eric Garcetti and a former LAANE advisory board member. She told the Beverly Hilton crowd she had gotten "deeply involved with LAANE" because its organizers fought hard, used their heads and got results.
Since its 1993 founding, its pioneering strategies have been imitated across the country, including prodding government contractors to pay a "living wage" and imposing pay and local hiring requirements on major developments such as L.A. Live downtown.
"This is not an anti-business operation," said former L.A. City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose onetime aide, Roxana Tynan, now leads LAANE. "But it says, 'Businesses, if you want to feed at the public trough, there has to be a return. And that return has to be for the public."
With an annual budget exceeding $4 million and 46 employees, LAANE has developed a reputation for doing its homework and lining up allies, be they environmental activists or San Fernando Valley rabbis, who can help sway decision-makers.
"They go into battle totally understanding the players and strategies," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. Historically, the political system "was always biased to those who understood how the game was played — and that was typically business."
Its foes say LAANE's close association with organized labor explains its success.
"LAANE is the white hat front for the labor agenda," said Ruben Gonzalez, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce vice president. "They say it's about raising people up, when it's really about pushing union organizing, even if job loss is the result."
The Central City Assn., which advocates for downtown business, argued that LAANE's winning campaign to overhaul L.A.'s commercial trash collection was really meant to ease unionization of garbage workers. The nonprofit countered that the new system, which divides L.A. into exclusive zones that haulers bid to serve, was the best way to reduce pollution and hold haulers accountable.
LAANE founder Madeline Janis, an attorney who once represented developers, said that if the organization was "a front group for traditional labor," it wouldn't bother with campaigns for cleaner air or energy efficiency. The group cemented alliances between unions and environmental groups, which had often been at odds with labor. Adrian Martinez, staff attorney for Earthjustice, said he rejected "the notion that environmental groups get duped into carrying the unions' water."
The commercial trash collection overhaul "was an environmental issue at its core," Martinez said. But in the face of powerful opponents, Martinez said, "the progressive community has to work together."
LAANE leaders stress that last year, less than a fifth of its funding came directly from unions. Still, the group is clearly a union ally. Former county labor federation chief Maria Elena Durazo is its co-founder and board chair, and nearly half of its board members work for unions.
When LAANE deputy director James Elmendorf encouraged lawmakers to increase wages for hotel workers, union officials were often at his side, emails and officials' calendars show. Elmendorf and a hotel union attorney also worked closely with city lawyers on the hotel wage ordinance, suggesting language, emails show.
Critics also argue that LAANE has flouted city ethics rules. Several of its employees are registered City Hall lobbyists but until recently didn't list anyone they lobbied on city forms.
Recent filings for the organization also report no payments to those lobbyists, nor do they include any matters it was trying to influence. The reports covered periods when LAANE had major campaigns underway at City Hall, including the trash overhaul and boosting wages at hotels.
"They didn't say they were lobbying on what they were clearly lobbying on," said campaign attorney Jim Sutton, who assisted a hotel industry group seeking records about LAANE. "This is Lobbying Forms 101."
The amount spent on lobbying is important because federal tax rules say such activity cannot be a "substantial part" of the activities of 501c3 nonprofits such as LAANE. Federal filings indicate that lobbying accounted for less than 4% of LAANE spending in recent years — well below recommended maximums.
LAANE representatives said the group accidentally omitted which agencies they lobbied from some forms that had since been corrected, but they were unable to promptly address other questions.
Despite Chamber of Commerce opposition, LAANE routinely turns out business leaders to support its campaigns. At the Beverly Hilton, the group honored mall mogul Peter Lowy, touting that unionized workers with good wages built and cleaned his Westfield shopping centers.
LAANE has also converted opponents to allies: It was part of a coalition accused of engaging in "greenmail" after union officials and activists lodged an environmental complaint against Kinkisharyo, a Japanese firm that had refused to allow a "card check" process that could ease unionization at a Lancaster facility.
But at the Beverly Hilton event, Tynan warmly welcomed Kinkisharyo representatives, seated at Table 1. Just a few weeks earlier, the company agreed to settle its differences with the labor coalition. The deal allowed card check and made the environmental challenge moot.
Months earlier, Kinkisharyo general manager Donald Boss couldn't imagine such a scene. Now, "it's a partnership moving forward," said Boss, smiling. Asked to describe LAANE's approach, he paused before answering: "Aggressive."
The group has forged close ties at City Hall: The LAANE project director who led the waste hauling campaign, Greg Good, is now the mayor's infrastructure director. Valley Councilwoman Nury Martinez was on LAANE's board from 2007 to 2013, and Councilman Mike Bonin previously served on the group's advisory board.
And LAANE deputy director Patricia Castellanos was named by Garcetti to serve on the Harbor Commission, which is investigating complaints of unfair treatment lodged by port truck drivers — a group of workers for which LAANE advocates job protections.
"They have their tentacles everywhere," Gonzalez complained.
Backers say LAANE associates are in demand for their proven skills. At City Hall, "we don't have enough people who say, 'Why don't you do this — here's the rationale, and I'm willing to knock on doors,'" Bonin said.
LAANE has had setbacks, including failing to stop a Wal-Mart from opening on the edge of Chinatown. And although it won a major campaign to mandate newer, less polluting trucks at the port, another goal of barring trucking companies from hiring drivers as independent contractors was struck down in court.
Still, LAANE estimates it has improved the lot of more than 120,000 workers over two decades. One is Becky Garcia, who recalled earning $6 hourly at an airport gift shop. City rules championed by LAANE now guarantee wages and health benefits worth nearly $16 hourly. Garcia said she has been able to pay off bills and help her mother.
"I don't have to scratch like I used to," Garcia said.