Mayor's inner circle gives, takes

Times Staff Writer

It is a creature of political life, the unofficial "kitchen cabinet" whose members offer advice and wield hidden influence by virtue of their proximity to power.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the circle that has gathered around him are no exception.

During his 21 months in office, Villaraigosa has drawn on a network of largely liberal friends and benefactors -- including an influential labor leader, Sacramento politicians, a childhood acquaintance, a San Fernando Valley businessman who led a failed secession movement and a big name in state and local politics who fell from public grace before he was rehabilitated.

Whatever their backgrounds, each of these insiders has something to offer the mayor -- whether information, access to campaign contributions or political relationships for the future. And they each get something in return, if only the cachet of being a power broker to a mayor with ambitions to be governor or more.

"Having the mayor's ear speaks volumes about your ability to reach a primary source of power," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "That can be a huge point of leverage."

At the center of this group of 13 advisors is Maria Elena Durazo, chief of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who wants better pay for city workers and a "living wage" for hotel employees near Los Angeles International Airport.

Also in the circle is Durazo's frequent adversary, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman David W. Fleming, one of Villaraigosa's newer allies who is eager to better organize the business community.

Villaraigosa also maintains close relationships with state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who was the mayor's unsuccessful choice last year to run the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

For political guidance, the mayor turns to two longtime mentors, former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who left public life after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2001 but has gradually emerged as a behind-the-scenes advisor.

These two, along with public affairs consultant Kerman Maddox, serve as Villaraigosa's ambassadors to the African American community.

Villaraigosa likes to hear as well from more obscure but equally influential people, including campaign manager Ace Smith, Democratic fundraiser Ari Swiller, labor attorney and childhood friend Jesus Quinonez, and entrepreneur Keith Brackpool, one of the mayor's favorite people to meet for a late-night glass of wine.

Brackpool, Swiller, Quinonez, Maddox and engineer Nick Patsaouras met with the mayor's staff in 2005 to vet dozens of candidates for commissions overseeing the city's most important public agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Department of Water and Power.

Villaraigosa tapped Patsaouras, one of his most trusted fiscal watchdogs, for the board overseeing the DWP, the nation's largest municipal utility. He also put him on a separate panel charged with guarding against cost overruns on construction of a new police headquarters downtown.

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Most influential advisor

Of all Villaraigosa's friends and associates, none is as influential as Durazo. She is the widow of labor giant Miguel Contreras.

Durazo met Villaraigosa during their college years (he attended UCLA, she was at St. Mary's College in Northern California) at meetings to support immigrant rights.

Their friendship grew as they raised families in Los Angeles, attending birthday parties for each other's children. During this period, Durazo recalls meeting regularly with other activists, including Quinonez, the labor attorney, for "community kitchen" dinners in their homes. Villaraigosa, then a single father, would arrive with two young daughters in a beat-up, bright orange Volkswagen.

Three decades later, Villaraigosa and Durazo are like brother and sister who share a common philosophy: Workers should benefit when business prospers.

That outlook was on display in recent months as Villaraigosa supported Durazo's efforts to win passage of a city law requiring hotels near LAX to pay their workers a "living wage" of $10.64 an hour -- even though the hotels have no contracts with City Hall.

Villaraigosa brokered compromises with business leaders -- led by Fleming -- that would guarantee the pay increase but stop the effort from expanding citywide. Several hotels have sued to block the wage law.

When he announced an agreement at a news conference in January, Villaraigosa threw his arm around Durazo and referred to her as "my comadre," a term of affection reserved for a dear friend.

Despite their friendship, Durazo says Villaraigosa doesn't support labor on every issue -- pointing to his refusal last summer to meet demands by the Engineers and Architects Assn., a city employees union, for a large pay raise. "Labor has someone who cares about workers, but it doesn't mean that he's going to [honor] every specific negotiation demand," Durazo said of the mayor, a former teachers union organizer.

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Capitol cheerleader

If Durazo is like a sister to Villaraigosa, then Nunez is like a younger brother.

The Assembly speaker is Villaraigosa's most enthusiastic cheerleader in Sacramento -- lobbying lawmakers last summer for an unpopular bill to give the mayor substantial control over the Los Angeles Unified School District. Nunez later negotiated billions of dollars in public works bonds for the Los Angeles area at Villaraigosa's behest.

A simple truth undergirds their relationship: What is good for Villaraigosa, 54, is often good for Nunez, 40, who represents part of downtown and the Eastside, and is a potential successor when the mayor leaves office.

"We've been able to prove that we can govern for everybody," Nunez said. "Even the business community need not be afraid of people like us because we see the value of having a strong economy. We've got to have an intelligent balance between the interests of labor and the interests of business."

Villaraigosa has reached for that middle ground by cultivating relationships with business leaders such as Fleming, the chamber of commerce chairman who accompanied the mayor on an East Asia trade mission last fall.

A lawyer with Latham & Watkins and a onetime Valley secession leader, Fleming sees the mayor as an ally.

"He's the kind of guy who wants to sit down and explore new ideas and see whether they can work," said Fleming, one of the mayor's appointees to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. "And that's what you really want of somebody who is in elective office."

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Crossed paths

Many of Villaraigosa's advisors themselves have intersecting pasts.

Nunez once worked as political director for Durazo's labor federation.

Katz -- like Villaraigosa -- once worked as a consultant for Brackpool, a water speculator.

Alatorre was a key lieutenant to Willie Brown before Villaraigosa arrived in 1994 and eventually ascended to speaker himself.

Brown and Alatorre have proved especially important to the mayor because of their longtime friendships with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), another ally of Brown's in the Assembly and now a leading voice in the African American community.

"I think I have been of assistance in exposing Antonio to Maxine and Maxine to Antonio for their mutual benefit and for the mutual benefit of the people of Los Angeles," Brown said.

Maddox, who worked for Waters in the Assembly, also remains an important conduit to the African American community.

Villaraigosa turned to Maddox recently to gauge reaction to a proposed $2.7-million lawsuit settlement for a black firefighter whose spaghetti dinner had been laced with dog food by colleagues.

Maddox told the mayor that opinion was mixed: Black-owned newspapers were divided over the case, and some black firefighters he knew were not as upset as community activists.

Maddox has benefited from his proximity to Villaraigosa. Last year, one of the mayor's campaign committees paid $25,000 to Maddox's public affairs consulting firm, Dakota Communications, to drum up support among African American ministers for Villaraigosa's school takeover legislation.

Maddox, who is a leader in the First AME Church in South Los Angeles, said his firm was the logical choice. "Whether I had a personal relationship with him or not, we probably would have been hired because I can't think of anybody else who has the relationships that we have with religious leaders or community folks," Maddox said.

Villaraigosa insisted that none of his friends or associates receive preferential treatment, and his senior deputies say the outsiders have minimal influence on the mayor's day-to-day decisions.

Villaraigosa said that governing the city means "trying to do what's right, even if it means that from time to time you say no to friends and to people who you generally agree with."

Villaraigosa's friends say they offer him something that few others can: frank advice as he tries to make good on a growing list of promises, which includes reducing gridlock on the city's streets and pollution at the port and planting 1 million trees.

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An active fundraiser

No one outside the administration is more important to the tree initiative than Swiller, a onetime campaign aide to President Clinton and a former executive with billionaire Ron Burkle's investment firm, Yucaipa Cos., (which also employed Villaraigosa as a consultant after he lost the 2001 mayor's race).

Swiller, one of Villaraigosa's most active fundraisers, is now trying to tap private donors for about half of the tree campaign's $70-million price tag -- and that gives him a significant say about its direction. Swiller was one of the first people to air concerns recently about the project's slow pace and understaffing, prompting Villaraigosa to shuffle the management and name a full-time executive director.

Swiller is a partner in Renewable Resources Group, a private company that promotes the use of alternative energy -- an objective that dovetails with Villaraigosa's goal of increasing the amount of renewable energy sources in the DWP's power mix.

Swiller said he co-founded Renewable Resources in 2003, before Villaraigosa decided to run for mayor a second time. Still, he acknowledged that the city could one day be a customer for his firm, whose website declares that its "expertise is at the nexus of politics, finances + renewable resources."

"I feel comfortable that I was doing this before he was elected. I'm committed to it personally," Swiller said. "I feel deeply that these energy issues are important not only to the city but to the country."

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His man in transit

Another outsider whose opinion matters at City Hall is Katz, the former Assemblyman and Valley secession leader who now serves as one of Villaraigosa's representatives to the MTA board. The former chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee last year helped secure state money for a carpool lane on the San Diego Freeway and other transportation projects important to the mayor. Katz, now a consultant on clean energy, banking, education and entertainment, said none of his clients has business at City Hall.

"There's nothing I get out of [my relationship with the mayor] other than the satisfaction of watching someone I like do well," Katz said.

Katz and Villaraigosa have one other connection: Both have worked for Cadiz Inc., a company run by Brackpool. Cadiz once tried unsuccessfully to sell the Metropolitan Water District on a $150-million water storage plan in the eastern Mojave Desert.

Katz worked on the project, pitching its virtues to environmental organizations and other groups around the state. Villaraigosa also worked for Cadiz after he lost the 2001 mayor's race, trying to establish partnerships between labor and agricultural interests unrelated to the water storage plan, Brackpool said.

After Villaraigosa was elected mayor in 2005, he vigorously lobbied for Katz to become the MWD's general manager. Katz, a former member of the State Water Resources Control Board, narrowly lost.

The effort to install Katz at the MWD was perceived by some as a way to place a Brackpool ally at the influential agency. Brackpool said there was no connection between Katz's nomination and his Mojave water storage plan, noting that the MWD canceled his plan more than three years before Villaraigosa was elected. Katz said that he would have recused himself from any decision on the Cadiz plan.

The British-born Brackpool has been a player in California water politics for years. He served as an advisor on water policy to former Gov. Gray Davis even as he and his companies contributed $320,000 to Davis between 1998 and the 2003 recall.

Cadiz also contributed $65,000 to Villaraigosa while he was speaker of the Assembly. And Brackpool and others connected to his companies have given more than $40,000 to Villaraigosa's campaigns for City Council and mayor from 1999 to 2005. Brackpool said his contributions are motivated by his affection for Villaraigosa.

"He's my friend. It's fun to see your friends do well," said Brackpool, who accompanied Villaraigosa on his East Asia trade mission last year. "Because of our friendship, maybe I can tell him things that other people wouldn't have the courage to tell him," he added, without elaborating.

Others close to Villaraigosa say they too can speak openly because they don't work for the mayor. Kuehl, the state senator, remembers meeting Villaraigosa for coffee in Brentwood last year before he sought legislation to gain control of the Los Angeles public schools. She warned Villaraigosa that the public might blame him for failing to deliver immediate results.

Villaraigosa appreciated Kuehl's straight talk. On more than one occasion, he has offered her a job when term limits force her from office next year. Kuehl said she'd be delighted to call Villaraigosa boss.

"I want to be on the ride when he runs for governor," she said. "I would serve in his Cabinet."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The mayor's kitchen cabinet

When he needs advice from beyond City Hall, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa turns to a group of friends who know the ropes of politics and government.

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The Inner Circle

Maria Elena Durazo

L.A. union leader and close friend for three decades

* Leads a federation representing 800,000 workers, many of them city employees. Helps secure mayor's labor support.

Fabian Nunez

State Assembly Speaker from L.A. who worked in labor like mayor

* Crucial to guiding mayor's school takeover plan through Legislature and winning more money for roads. May want to be mayor himself some day.

Nick Patsaouras

Electrical engineer with long ties to city government

* Appointed by mayor to Department of Water and Power board. Once served on Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. In group that helped mayor pick 200 city commissioners.

Jesus Quinonez

Boyhood friend of mayor

* Burbank labor attorney. Counsel to United Teachers Los Angeles, a key ally in mayor's school takeover plan. Appointed by mayor to Metropolitan Water District board.

Ari Swiller

Democratic campaign aide to President Clinton

* Handles government relations for an L.A. water and energy development company. Once worked for Ralphs grocery billionaire Ron Burkle, who also once employed the mayor.

Keith Brackpool

Financier, entrepreneur

* Heads Cadiz Inc., a land and water resources firm that once employed mayor. Major campaign contributor. Tried to sell Metropolitan Water District on a $150-million plan to store water beneath Mojave Desert.

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A phone call away

Richard Alatorre

Pioneering Latino in L.A. politics

* Was a Willie Brown lieutenant in Assembly before moving to City Council. Admitted dodging taxes by not declaring payments from people trying to buy influence, but remains a political touchstone.

Willie Brown

Legendary former San Francisco mayor and Assembly speaker

* Political kingmaker once known as "Ayatollah of the Legislature." Now a lobbyist and consultant with close ties to Rep. Maxine Waters.

Richard Katz

Former Assemblyman

* Served on State Water Resources Control Board. A leader of Valley secession movement. Appointed by mayor to Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Was mayor's candidate to lead MWD.

Kerman Maddox

Former assistant to late Mayor Tom Bradley

* Commentator, leader in First AME Church in South L.A., former aide to Rep. Maxine Waters. Links mayor to African American community. Key advisor in firefighter's discrimination case.

Sheila Kuehl

Civil-rights attorney and state senator from Santa Monica

* First lesbian elected to Legislature. Chaired Natural Resources and Water Committee until 2006. Now chairs Health Committee.

Ace Smith

San Francisco political consultant

* Campaign manager for mayor and newly elected state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. Son of former San Francisco Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith.

David W. Fleming

San Fernando Valley attorney

* Chairman of L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. Sat on state transportation and city ethics commissions. A Valley secession leader. Appointed by mayor to Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.

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Source: Times reporting

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