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Obama gets major labor endorsement

Durazo, L.A. County federation head, cites hopeful's background as part of her motivation.

By Robin Abcarian

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

January 16, 2008

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The head of the politically powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor said Tuesday that she is endorsing Barack Obama for president.

The endorsement by Maria Elena Durazo is a coup for Obama that could help the Illinois senator in his uphill struggle against Hillary Rodham Clinton to win substantial support among Latino voters in Southern California. Obama has won the backing of other Los Angeles-area Latino leaders, but this is probably his biggest such endorsement yet, given the broad reach of the county labor federation.

As executive secretary-treasurer of the federation, Durazo heads an organization of more than 800,000 union members, the biggest regional labor group in California. It includes janitors, teachers, construction and hotel workers as well as supermarket and government employees.

Durazo said her endorsement, to be formally announced today, was a personal one. She is taking a leave of absence from her job to campaign for Obama through Feb. 5, when more than 20 states, including California, will conduct primaries or caucuses.

"My passion is the labor movement, and I believe very strongly that Sen. Obama is very clear about his support for workers who want to organize, workers who want to lift themselves out of poverty, and also protect good middle-class jobs," Durazo said in a phone interview before taking an evening flight to Nevada, where she will work for Obama through the state's Saturday caucuses.

"On a personal level, he really embodies the slogan we use a lot, Cesar Chavez's ', se puede.' (Yes, we can.") He has proved it by the way he inspires voters, the way he mobilizes."

Jaime A. Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, said California's Latino voters back Clinton by a wide margin, but Durazo's endorsement "might well turn" the opinions of some undecided voters.

"She's a powerful player -- there's no question about that. It will move some people, it will cause some other people to think and rethink," he said. Still, the Durazo endorsement by itself, Regalado said, is "not enough to sway" a large number of Latino voters.

But Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, emphasized Durazo's key role in local politics. He said Durazo "symbolizes the new power in Los Angeles and in California -- the marriage of Latinos and labor."

"And when you have those numbers, that organization and those volunteers, it makes an impact," Guerra said. "There is no person in all of California who could get more people out to the street to go do something, either to march or get the vote out."

Although Durazo's frequent political ally Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a national co-chair of Clinton's campaign, she said her decision did not represent a serious break between the two, just a difference of opinion.

Durazo and her late husband, Miguel Contreras, who headed the county labor federation until his death in 2005, have had close ties with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the third major contender for the Democratic nomination. Edwards helped the federation in 2006 during a national campaign to unionize hotel workers. "He was very active on that campaign and that was very important to us, so it is difficult to make this choice," Durazo said.

Among the factors that influenced Durazo were the Obama endorsements last week by her national home union, Unite Here, along with its big culinary workers affiliate in Nevada. Durazo said she also was motivated by Obama's background as the son of an immigrant father and a U.S.-born mother who raised him as a single parent.

"He wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth; he was raised in humble surroundings and that will carry over when he has to make tough decisions," Durazo said.

Durazo said she also was "excited" by the prospect of Obama's becoming the nation's first African American president. When she discussed her endorsement with her son Michael, a senior at Cathedral High School in Los Angeles, he urged her to choose Obama.

"He said, 'In the end, Mom, it's the chance of a lifetime.' For him to say that means a lot. It's true."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.