Miguel Contreras: No Election Night Tears

Greg Goldin is a Los Angeles writer

Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, has brought a different focus to the Los Angeles labor movement. Under Contreras, the County Fed has committed itself both to organizing a vast underclass of Latin American immigrant workers and to unprecedented political campaigning in elections. Presiding over a divided federation, he threw the considerable muscle of the city's labor movement behind Antonio Villaraigosa, a politician Contreras believed could lead a Latino-Labor coalition that would eventually realign city, state, even national politics. Despite 2,500 union volunteers, a substantial commitment of union funds and 82% of the Latino vote, Contreras couldn't put his man in office. The day after Villaraigosa lost the election, Contreras reflected on the loss and the future of labor in Los Angeles.

Question: What was at stake for labor in this election?

Answer: Well, at the end of the day, we knew it was probably going to be win-win for working families. It was going to be a different mayor from what we've had for the last eight years. That the next mayor was going to be more open to addressing issues like housing and a living wage. The crusade, if you want to call it that, was about a first-ever Latino-labor union mayor. But we ended up with a labor-friendly mayor.

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Q: So what was the difference?

A: Antonio would understand our issues more on a gut level, since he's been in the trenches of giving workers the right to organize and really using the union movement to create a solid middle-class in Los Angeles. For example, the bus strike, which both Antonio and Jim supported, was about maintaining middle-class jobs. And on the other side of the economic spectrum was the janitors who were striking to get an increase of a dollar an hour--and again, both Jim and Antonio were out there. We were trying to raise the standard of living for one group and to maintain it for another. And I think the difference is that Antonio better understood that.

*Q: From his guts, as you say.

A: As a natural instinct.

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Q: And Hahn?

A: He has to be educated and convinced. Nine times out of 10 he's going to end up with us, but it's not his background.

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Q: Labor has posted a string of recent electoral victories. In this election, you put your forces on the streets in a serious way, but you didn't win. What happened?

A: The part of the campaign we had no control over really affected the outcome. The [letter sent by Villaraigosa on behalf of convicted cocaine trafficker Carlos] Vignali, Hahn's negative campaign and Antonio's refusal to sling mud back--that was the campaign's call. It wasn't our call. Our call was to get out the vote. We concentrated on the Latino vote and labor vote, and I think by anybody's measurement we were very successful. Antonio might feel good about himself today for taking the high road, but he ain't the mayor of Los Angeles.

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Q: Should he have taken the low road? How should he have responded?

A: Some people would say you do what you need to do to win.

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Q: You say your call was to get out the vote, yet exit polling shows that nearly half of the union vote went to Hahn.

A: We don't know what those numbers are. When the County data become available, we'll come up with an accurate number of our members who voted for Villaraigosa.

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Q: Hahn's seemingly contradictory appeal was to suburban white voters and urban black voters. Many of those black voters are union members. Is there a division between black unionists and Latino unionists?

A: It's a tough coalition to bring together to win an election.

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Q: The question of San Fernando Valley secession looms large. Isn't Hahn going to have a very tough time balancing what is perceived as white flight against the Kenneth Hahn legacy of serving black Los Angeles?

A: Yes. And that's why in may ways it was Mayor Richard Riordan who had more of a bully pulpit on the secession issue than Hahn will have. Because his strength was always the Valley, and he made no bones about it. People in the Valley felt comfortable with him. Jim is new to the Valley. The question is: Can he gain the confidence of the Valley, so when he does talk to them about secession, they'll listen to his point of view?

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Q: Do you feel bitter or angry over the way in which Hahn played the race card and used scare tactics?

A: No, I think that's where I disagree with some of the Villaraigosa insiders. They might feel bitter, but, for me, there were no tears last night. This is a game of hardball, and we know how to play it, and he knows how to play it. And we didn't win. But that doesn't mean the world ends for us.

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Q: So, you don't see Villaraigosa's loss as a setback for the growth of Latino political power?

A: No. I would think that we're clearly building. One year ago, Antonio was 5% in the polls. He was written off. He wasn't even going to make the runoff. He not only made the runoff, he came in first place in the primary. And he came within seven points of being the mayor of the city of Los Angeles. That means elected officials here--from city councilmen to governors to members of Congress to the mayor--are going to have to listen to an agenda that includes working families and Latinos. We might not have achieved victory yesterday, but we know it's coming.

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Q: So it's somewhat analogous to Tom Bradley's 1969 defeat, which led to his triumph four years later?

A: There are two ways of seeing this election: Either Villaraigosa was going to be the first Latino mayor in the modern era in Los Angeles or Hahn was going to be the last Anglo mayor. And if the voting trends continue, that might happen.

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Q: Could Villaraigosa have captured the Steve Soboroff and Joel Wachs voters?

A: No. He had everything going for him. He had a moderate governor, Gray Davis, endorsing him; he had a Republican mayor endorsing him; he had some Republican leaders in Sacramento endorsing him. The cover of being a moderate, or of being able to work with conservatives, didn't cut it in the final analysis. And I think people used that crack cocaine-ad as cover. It became an excuse to say, "O.K., even though Mayor Riordan likes him, crack cocaine is why I'm going to vote for the other guy."

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Q: And if there hadn't been that ad, what would have been the real reason for not choosing Villaraigosa?

A: Well, some of it has to do with not being comfortable with a Latino mayor. And not just in the conservative Anglo parts of the Valley. And it would be wrong to say, oh, it was the white vote that did in Villaraigosa because he was Mexican. I think that would be wrong. I think it prevails throughout the city. I think there was a backlash with some of the black vote. Not all of it was remembering Hahn's father. A lot of it was, well, do we choose a Mexican or an Anglo? We want to work with Hahn to help figure this out. We don't need to govern this city based on subliminal racism.

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Q: Will Hahn's decision to sling mud make it harder for him to govern now?

A: Well, I think he has to reach out and try to bridge the communities, the ones that feel disenfranchised, the one that feel that the tactics were a little extreme. And I think that he has the ability to do that. After all, we elected a Mayor James Hahn, not a Mayor Pete Wilson.

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Q: When you meet with Mayor-elect Hahn, what will you tell him?

A: To look at the agreements that have been negotiated at [the massive entertainment and retail complex currently being built at Hollywood and Highland boulevards by] TrizecHahn and at the Staples agreement that we just signed here for the community and for the unions. Those should set the standard for bringing new development into Los Angeles. Also, to work with us to establish the Playa Vista project, to work with us on the expansion of the Los Angeles Airport, to work with us on the renovations at L.A. harbor, to work with us on new downtown hotel developments and other projects in the city.

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Q: How does pushing for those big-ticket public-private construction projects address the plight of perhaps hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers in Southern California? They're never going to get those jobs. They toil in sweatshops, plastics factories, furniture and cabinet-making shops.

A: That's absolutely true.

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Q: How did your drive to elect Villaraigosa fit into this equation?

A: Why did we try to achieve Mayor Villaraigosa in Los Angeles? The work force that needs to be organized in Los Angeles is a Latino work force in low-end service jobs and manufacturing. So what better than a mayor who speaks their language and understands their culture and looks like them and is pro-labor. Clearly it was in our favor to elect a mayor like that, to send a message to these workers that unions are the tool they need to assimilate into the mainstream and to start living their share of the American Dream.

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