Betting on senator as swing vote

Times Staff Writer

Labor unions, whose money already has made this year’s race for Los Angeles County supervisor the most expensive ever, plan to spend millions more over the next eight weeks to elect their favored candidate, Mark Ridley-Thomas.

The spending, more than $4.5 million so far, or roughly $65 for each vote Ridley-Thomas won in the first round of the race against Bernard C. Parks in June, reflects how much labor leaders believe they have at stake in the election, which is for the first open seat on the Board of Supervisors in 12 years. Unions have enjoyed strong influence on Los Angeles city government but have had less clout at the county level.

The effort to change that comes amid a scandal that has forced out the leaders of two of the union locals that have been most active in the campaign, both affiliates of the giant Service Employees International Union. In both cases, the local presidents stepped aside after reports in The Times about possible misuse of union funds.


Labor officials say that the problems in the SEIU will not change their plans for continued spending on Ridley-Thomas’ behalf using an independent expenditure committee. Such committees can sidestep contribution limits as long as they do not coordinate activities with the candidate.

“Basically, nothing that you’ve read in the past few weeks has changed who Bernard Parks is,” said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “He is still the man who opposed so many things important to working people, who opposed rent control, who opposed a living wage, who allowed Wal-Mart in.”

Although Parks supports Wal-Mart in his district, he was not on the council when the chain got permission to open there.

At the same time, union officials privately concede that they are attempting to recalibrate their political strategy to account for diminished confidence in their own leadership.

“I think you can expect them to try to fly under the radar as much as possible, to not make the leadership of the unions a focal point,” said Jaime Regalado, who heads the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Ridley-Thomas, a state senator from Los Angeles, had 45% of the vote in the June primary, compared with 40% for Parks, a city councilman and former police chief, but because no candidate won 50%, a runoff will be held Nov. 4. Both men are Democrats, but labor officials consider Ridley-Thomas a more reliable ally.


The current board includes two Republicans, Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, and three Democrats, Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne B. Burke. Burke’s decision to retire opened the current race.

Because supervisors’ districts are so large, challenges to an incumbent are extremely expensive, and turnover on the board is rare.

The winner of the election will likely be a swing vote on issues central to labor’s agenda as many county employee contracts come due.

More than that, his vote could impose conditions on private employers who want to do business with government.

“Most people think that organized labor is interested in the county Board of Supervisors because the county has so many of our unionized workers,” Durazo said. “That is a very narrow, very conventional point of view. . . .”

That prospect worries business leaders. “Ridley-Thomas is in the unions’ pocket; he’ll do anything the union tells him to do,” said David Fleming, chairman of the Los Angeles County Business Federation. “Clearly, if he gives labor everything they are asking, it is going to cost a lot more money.”

Labor leaders are already seeking employee pay raises, but their proposals also extend to job security, which could limit the county’s ability to contract out healthcare and other services.

Ridley-Thomas said the county “has significant work to do” to improve wages and benefits. But he offers no specific promises for more than 80,000 unionized county workers and 130,000 home healthcare workers who receive a county contribution to their pay.

Parks said he also is open to compensation increases, but indicated he may not be willing to go as far as Ridley-Thomas.

Parks said that during two council terms, “I think I voted against union contracts five times. In their view it has to be all 105 contracts or there is no deal. With other groups, you would be in the Hall of Fame with that kind of voting record, but they want it all.”

Parks’ backers aren’t even close to matching the unions’ support of Ridley-Thomas. Campaign records show that $45,000 has been raised for Parks’ benefit by the Council for Safe Streets and Neighborhoods, a business-led independent committee set up the same way as the union fund.

Almost all the county’s unionized workers will be up for new three-year contracts next year, and, despite the difficult budget scenario predicted by county administrators, many are making requests for big pay hikes.

Among those Ridley-Thomas takes seriously is one for non-county workers who are paid with the help of county funds.

More than 130,000 home healthcare workers are requesting an hourly wage hike from $9 to $11.50 -- a far more ambitious request than ever before. The cost to the county would be $89 million a year after the third year, officials estimate. The home healthcare union is the SEIU affiliate at the center of the current payments scandal.

Labor leaders also have an interest in how supervisors deal with Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital, a South Los Angeles landmark that was downsized to a clinic last year when substandard patient care prompted federal officials to cut financial support. Both candidates want the hospital reopened, possibly with assistance from either a private operator or the University of California’s public medical system.

At issue, however, is whether a reorganized hospital would be required to hire workers organized by county unions. Some supervisors believe rules on discipline negotiated by the unions contributed to the old hospital’s lack of professionalism. Many potential hospital operators do not want such a requirement imposed upon them.

Yaroslavsky said that workers at a reopened King would probably be unionized but that the county is unlikely to require that they be represented by SEIU Local 721, the county’s largest union and one of Ridley-Thomas’ biggest donors.

The president of Local 721, Annelle Grajeda, who was also the head of SEIU’s state council in California, took a leave of absence late last month as the parent union announced that it was investigating payments to her former boyfriend, who was also a union official. The payments were first disclosed by The Times.

Union leaders worry that if Parks is elected, they will lose progress they have made. On the City Council, Parks has opposed many union efforts to place living wage requirements on firms doing business with the city and to press for higher affordable housing concessions from developers.

“He tries to block us every step of the way,” said Madeline Janis, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a labor advocacy group. “Our experience with him . . . is leading to a lot of these frantic feelings we have.”

Parks has tried to oust Janis from her position on the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, saying that she represents unions and not citizens.

“Although she doesn’t identify herself as a lobbyist,” Parks said, “she is one.”

Parks said he would continue his fight at the county level.

“What we are confronted with is that [labor leaders] are willing to buy a seat and then threaten to buy another one and then another one.”




Fundraising race

Bernard Parks has more money in direct contributions than Mark Ridley-Thomas, but a union-led independent committee has given Ridley-Thomas a big advantage overall.


Campaign funds: $800,000

Independent expenditures: $45,000



Campaign funds: $600,000

Independent expenditures: $4.5 million


Sources: Los Angeles County registrar-recorder, Times reporting


Los Angeles Times