State senator gets labor backing

Times Staff Writer

Leaders of Los Angeles County’s organized labor announced Tuesday that they will throw their political heft behind state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas in the race for county supervisor, publicly kick-starting what promises to be the most intensely contested county board election in 16 years.

The endorsement by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor provides the liberal Ridley-Thomas a valuable boost in his campaign against the more conservative Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, viewed by many as an early -- if slight -- front-runner in the race to succeed retiring Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke.

Parks picked up an important ally Tuesday, when Supervisor Gloria Molina said she is supporting him, in large part because of his fiscal conservatism.


Nonetheless, the federation’s financial support and its army of campaign volunteers have been key in several elections in recent years. And with the liberal-leaning majority on the five-member Board of Supervisors hanging in the balance, union officials have vowed to make Ridley-Thomas’ election their top priority of 2008.

“We know that the heart and soul of thousands of workers marching through the streets, walking home-to-home in precincts, calling on the phones, taking our issues to the voters -- that is what will count in this election,” Maria Elena Durazo, the federation’s executive secretary-treasurer, said on the steps of the county’s downtown administration building.

Durazo described Ridley-Thomas as a friend of labor and criticized Parks for opposing last year’s City Council vote on a living-wage law.

“We cannot afford to have someone who is going to lean more often than not in the opposite direction of what our needs are in the community,” she said.

So far, the two elected officials are the only major candidates in the race, but the filing period does not close until March 7. If no one wins a majority of votes in the June 3 balloting, there will be a runoff in November.

Besides backing from Molina -- generally part of the board’s liberal majority and its only Latina -- Parks already had secured endorsements from some of the district’s best-known political leaders. They include Councilman Herb Wesson, a former Assembly speaker who once served as Burke’s chief deputy, and Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose father, Kenneth, held the seat for 40 years.

On Tuesday, Molina said she shares Parks’ views on law enforcement issues and his approach to employee pay and other labor issues.

“He’s not a slam-dunk. We don’t need that,” she said. “While we’re supporters of collective bargaining . . . at the same time, we are management. We’ve got a budget to make.”

Whoever wins the 2nd Supervisorial District election will probably shake up the Board of Supervisors, which has not had a new member in more than a decade. Supervisors oversee a $22-billion budget and are responsible for some of the region’s most important government services, including foster care, welfare, jails and healthcare for the indigent.

For labor, much is at stake in securing a friend on the board that oversees the vast county bureaucracy. The county is the region’s largest employer, with roughly 100,000 employees. Over the next two years, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, probation officers, home healthcare workers and other groups will negotiate new contracts that require supervisors’ approval.

For the candidates, the support of labor means important resources to help campaign in a district of more than 2 million residents. Political experts said the size of the district means the two candidates, both African Americans in an increasingly Latino district, must appeal beyond their traditional constituencies to win.

The federation, which represents more than 800,000 workers, has been key to several political successes, including the dramatic 2000 primary victory of now-U.S. Rep Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) over 18-year incumbent Matthew G. Martinez.

Durazo said the federation plans to spend at least $1 million to reach more than 100,000 members who live in the district. She said the union has not yet decided whether to spend money targeting non-union voters.

Several political observers said they believe Parks will begin with an edge, citing his strong name recognition as an active council member and former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. A union source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a labor poll taken in August found district voters split 38% to 31% in favor of Parks. The poll had an error margin of 4%, the source said.

But experts said full labor support and resources could prove crucial as Ridley-Thomas tries to gain ground in what is likely to be a fiercely waged campaign.

“The supervisors’ districts are bigger than most American cities, so it really takes an army to door-knock and register voters,” said Peter Dreier, professor of politics at Occidental College. “The only army in town is the L.A. County Federation of Labor and its affiliated members.”

The election has strong echoes of the bitter 1992 campaign between Burke and Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) for the then-open seat. At that time, labor favored Watson, but Burke parlayed her support -- and cash -- from business interests to win a narrow victory.

“Labor is made up of individuals,” Burke said Tuesday, “and the individuals respect labor, but they also vote according to their own experiences.”

Burke said she will decide whom to back early next year.

Burke’s district includes a broad and diverse swath of Los Angeles that runs from Marina del Rey to the Long Beach Freeway and from Carson to parts of West Los Angeles.

In Ridley-Thomas and Parks, voters will have a choice between two starkly different but popular candidates.

Ridley-Thomas, 53, is viewed as a liberal Democrat who cut his political teeth as a civil-rights activist, running the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before joining the City Council and then the state Legislature.

Parks, 64, ran for the City Council in 2003 after then-Mayor James K. Hahn declined to give him a second term as chief. Parks rapidly ascended to the powerful post of Budget Committee chairman and, although a Democrat, is known as a pro-business, fiscal conservative.

Political consultant Kerman Maddox said the election is likely to become “rough and tumble” as the two candidates try to emphasize their differences.

“It’s going to be a phenomenal race,” said Maddox, who worked on Parks’ first council campaign and has worked alongside Ridley-Thomas on a recent Assembly election. “Everyone is talking about it. And no one can pick a winner.”