To hear a bracingly candid assessment of Los Angeles politics, look no further than Brian D’Arcy, the labor leader whose union represents 8,000 employees at the Department of Water and Power, the nation’s largest municipal utility.
The man who runs the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 is no fan of the city’s neighborhood councils, calling them “dysfunction-palooza.” He is critical of certain environmentalists, saying they place the interests of their corporate backers over the welfare of the city.
And even though he devised the solar energy plan known as Measure B, D’Arcy is a withering critic of other DWP environmental initiatives. He is especially vocal about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s drive to ensure that 20% of the utility’s power comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by 2010.
“ ‘Environmental leadership’ isn’t meeting some artificial deadline by any means necessary,” he said. “Environmental leadership is actually creating economic development while cleaning the air where you live, putting people to work and linking the environment to it. That’s not really what’s going on, if you ask me.”
Measure B , billed heavily as a “green” jobs initiative, went down to defeat at the polls March 3. But it thrust D’Arcy, frequently described as the most powerful man at the DWP, into the spotlight as never before. After years of wielding power behind the scenes, the 58-year-old Silver Lake resident has reluctantly begun attending news conferences, newspaper editorial board interviews and even one heated campaign debate on Measure B in Mar Vista.
Even after the election, D’Arcy continues to speak out, using his dry wit to skewer not only the DWP’s general manager, H. David Nahai, but the utility’s efforts to secure solar power in the Mojave Desert and geothermal energy in the Salton Sea.
The union leader said there is “not a chance” that the DWP would reach the mayor’s 20% goal by the end of 2010. And he has vowed to persuade the DWP’s five-member commission to do what voters would not: approve his solar plan, which would use the utility’s workforce to add 400 megawatts of solar panels across L.A.
“He does not feel that he lost the election,” said S. David Freeman, a harbor commissioner and a Measure B supporter who ran the DWP until 2001. “He put this issue out in the public in a way that it wasn’t before, and the impression that I have is that he intends to continue to push for it.”
Freeman had a largely amicable relationship with D’Arcy during his time at the DWP, holding regular breakfast meetings with him at Langer’s Deli near MacArthur Park. Others have had less-favorable experiences, including Ron Kaye, a Measure B foe who debated D’Arcy in the campaign.
Kaye, a former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, described D’Arcy as a bully who uses labor-strike threats and campaign muscle to intimidate the city’s politicians. “Whatever D’Arcy wants, D’Arcy gets, and that’s because they’re so weak and easily intimidated.” he said. “I give him high ratings for doing his job. I’d give them miserable ratings for not doing theirs.”
Kaye was one of several activists who argued that Measure B had been developed out of the public eye and with little serious scrutiny of its potential cost. D’Arcy, in turn, said he had spent more than a year selling the idea to selected civic leaders -- and accused Kaye of seeking to privatize the DWP.
D’Arcy said the DWP has shrouded its other renewable energy plans in far more secrecy than his own solar initiative. He predicted that utility officials would strike deals for overpriced renewable power from private companies. And he criticized them for refusing to identify the renewable energy companies with whom they are negotiating.
“They claim it hurts their bargaining position” to reveal the names, D’Arcy said. “But truthfully, when they go in to negotiate anything, they usually come out with their underwear on the outside of their pants.”
Nahai said the DWP would fight for the best possible deal when negotiating with renewable energy companies -- and make each proposal public once it is submitted to the DWP commission for a discussion and vote. “We have every confidence that we’ll meet the 20% milestone, and we hope to do so with his cooperation and support,” he said.
D’Arcy joined the union in 1990 and was named its top official two years later. But he first flexed his muscle in a big way in 1993, leading his union on a nine-day strike that left DWP managers scrambling to provide water and power to the city’s residents. By the end of the decade, D’Arcy was a major influence on the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, helping the coalition with such issues as immigrant rights and union outreach to Latino voters. That work was part of a citywide movement and went well beyond the interests of electrical workers, said Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the labor federation.
“The bad rap on him is that he’s this big, white dude who’s all ‘me, me, me’. And frankly, he is the opposite,” said Durazo, who counts D’Arcy as one of her smartest strategists.
D’Arcy also scored potent victories for his members. In 2005, he won a five-year contract that gave his members annual raises of at least 3.25% unless inflation rose significantly. Because the deal was tied to the Consumer Price Index, DWP workers received a 5.9% increase last year. The deal was negotiated by city officials during the waning days of the administration of Mayor James K. Hahn but finalized under Villaraigosa, whose 2005 mayoral bid was buoyed by $306,000 from the union.
As he pushes for passage of his solar plan, D’Arcy is in an especially strong position politically. Although Measure B was narrowly defeated, his union used nearly $200,000 to help elect City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel as city controller. D’Arcy’s primary antagonist at the DWP, former commission President Nick Patsaouras, quit the panel in October to run for city controller and lost to Greuel.
Although D’Arcy’s relations with Nahai are strained, he has long-standing ties to the utility’s No. 2 executive, Raman Raj. So close are the two men that seven years ago, a DWP consultant warned that Raj had given D’Arcy too much influence over management of the utility. Raj left after that report was issued, but he returned in 2007.
Throughout the Measure B fight, D’Arcy was emphatic about using his solar plan to provide job training for the city’s less-educated workers. For that reason, Durazo said, she welcomed a greater public voice for D’Arcy on the effort to create “green” jobs.
But D’Arcy also has begun targeting some of the city’s environmentalists -- particularly the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, an advocacy group. That organization, which has pushed the DWP to wean itself off coal, raised questions about Measure B before ultimately endorsing it.
D’Arcy said the group has board members and financial backers who work in the renewable energy industry and are seeking their own agreements with the DWP. “Their conflicts of interest should be on the table, and they’re not, and I have a real problem with that,” he said.
Representatives of the environmental group said they push the DWP to change its larger energy policies but do not lobby the utility to award contracts to their members and backers. They also said that until recently, D’Arcy frequently stood in the way of efforts to clean up the DWP, which gets 44% of its energy from highly polluting coal.
“I think the record will show that Mr. D’Arcy is more interested in political power . . . than he is renewable power,” said V. John White, the group’s executive director.