Controller Wendy Greuel pulled off a surprising coup last week when she secured the endorsement of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor despite an acknowledgment by many labor leaders that they feel closer philosophically to her opponent, Councilman Eric Garcetti.
The endorsement was in many ways, though, more about Garcetti than about Greuel. Organized labor has been unhappy with Garcetti in part because he supported revisions to the city's pension rules that curbed benefits and raised the retirement age for new employees.
And the pension issue was just one of the factors contributing to the Greuel endorsement. In private conversations last week, labor leaders and others told me of several instances where they felt Garcetti let them down.
One example was the proposed construction of the Argyle Hotel in Hollywood. The union that represents hotel workers urged Garcetti to withhold support for the project until the developer agreed to rules that would make it easier to organize its workers and secure a living wage for them. They believed they had Garcetti's commitment, but when the developer threatened to back out if he had to meet those conditions, members of the area's building trades unions pleaded with Garcetti to withdraw them so as not to threaten construction jobs. Garcetti agreed, which infuriated hotel workers.
Last week, at the federation vote, the hotel workers union supported endorsing Greuel. That union is a powerful force in the city, and the former head of the Los Angeles local, Maria Elena Durazo, now heads the federation.
"This was a case of two labor unions having different perspectives," Garcetti told me last week. "The building trades told me: 'We've got people living out of their cars.'"
To make matters worse for Garcetti, those same construction unions turned on him during the endorsement vote. That had to sting, but it may have been less about politics than relationships: The leaders of the building trades often work closely with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and that union, which represents employees of the Department of Water and Power, has lavishly backed Greuel.
There is also a sense, shared by some union leaders, that Garcetti has gone to great lengths to distance himself from labor in his run for citywide office, and labor leaders say they find that insulting. He's attacked the IBEW's independent expenditure campaign on Greuel's behalf, and he has equivocated on some matters important to United Teachers Los Angeles, including school board races and the so-called parent trigger, a device to reconstitute failing schools that the union opposes.
Individually, none of those moves cost Garcetti the federation's endorsement. Together, however, they have convinced some labor leaders that he's not a reliable ally.
The shifting alliances have has created a strange dynamic in the mayor's race that has put Greuel, a former Republican, positioning herself on labor to the left of Garcetti, long one of the most liberal politicians in the city. Support for working people, specifically their right to organize and secure benefits for themselves, represents "a core value of mine," he told me, and no one with whom I spoke really questions that.
For Greuel, meanwhile, the federation endorsement carries both advantage and risk. Up to this point, her campaign has shown little ability to reach Latino voters — in addition to his history of supporting labor, Garcetti has Mexican-American grandparents on his father's side and speaks fluent Spanish. The endorsement of the federation gives Greuel instant credibility in communities where Garcetti has been dominant. The federation's ground game, moreover, is legendary, and its ability to turn out voters is especially important in elections where relatively few people cast ballots. This mayor's race figures to be one of those.
That said, there's a tension in Greuel's coalition, and the endorsement underscores it. She'd like to pick up Republican voters — those who favored Kevin James in the first round of the election — but they are the ones most likely to be turned off by her support from the liberal, Democratic labor movement. While former Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, joined Greuel's campaign as an advisor last week, James has so far withheld any endorsement and has expressed discomfort with Greuel's IBEW support. One important question, though: Are there enough Republicans left in this campaign for Greuel to continue pursuing them, or is she better off risking their anger in return for the support of labor?
When we spoke last week, Greuel deflected questions about the strategic choices before her and instead focused on her broad appeal: "I have business and labor supporting me. That's the big deal," she said. That may be, and the federation's endorsement certainly does open new opportunities for Greuel, but some of those in her tent may not like the company they're being asked to keep.