A vote by hundreds of union representatives has elevated Rusty Hicks to the top job in the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, marking the group's shift from leaders weaned on organizing workers to one who made his name running the organization's increasingly influential political operation.
Hicks is scheduled to take over Jan. 1 for Maria Elena Durazo, who announced last month that she would leave as head of the labor group to take a national union job promoting civil rights and campaigning for immigration reform.
"There is a change in leadership, but there is no change in mission," Hicks said in an interview Tuesday. "This organization is dedicated to fighting income inequality for those who are currently organized and for those that are unorganized but one day may be."
Hicks, 34, will move up from his post as political director of the labor federation, where he helped build its reputation as one of the most formidable electoral forces in Southern California.
He was Durazo's hand-picked successor and, according to federation officials, was unanimously approved Monday in a vote of union delegates gathered in Burbank.
The Texas native takes over an umbrella organization — representing 600,000 employees and more than 300 locals — that is viewed as being near the peak of its powers. Besides its ability to elect political candidates, the labor federation's intervention can help advance, or scuttle, development projects.
Hicks said in a statement that he would continue to fight "for the freedom for all workers to have a voice on the job, in the community, and at the ballot box."
Durazo, 61, gained a reputation as a voluble, hands-on leader, as likely to show up on a picket line with workers as in the offices of the politicians and business leaders she sought to influence.
Hicks, in contrast, has worked mostly behind the scenes to line up money and workers needed to power the labor federation's massive campaign phone banking, door-to-door and get-out-the-vote efforts.
"He is not the kind of rabble-rousing, inspirational figure that Maria Elena is," said Parke Skelton, a political consultant who has worked with Hicks. "But he is a really good tactician who knows how money can be spent effectively in political campaigns. And he's really good at building coalitions among Fed members to keep them together in a common effort."
Durazo said her successor would take the federation to "new heights," and Mayor Eric Garcetti said Hicks "will be a tireless fighter for jobs and a stronger middle class."
Among his highest priorities, Hicks said, will be to push forward a citywide minimum wage in Los Angeles, preferably of $15 an hour. He called the proposal "a huge opportunity and a huge challenge at the same time."
The statewide minimum wage stands at $9, but L.A. workers need $15 because of the high costs of housing and other necessities, Hicks said. He said he hoped a $15-per-hour base wage would be attained "as quickly as you can ... in a way that is economically viable."
Some business leaders have warned that a hasty escalation of the minimum wage would force employers to cut staff and make it hard for businesses in the city to compete with those in neighboring communities.
Born and raised in Fort Worth to a mother who was a bookkeeper of modest means, Hicks said he learned early the need for working-class people to fight for their rights. He attended Austin College north of Dallas and came to Los Angeles in 2003 as a fellow with CORO, an organization that prepares young people for careers in public affairs.
He went on to work on the staffs of state Assemblymen Mike Gordon and Ted Lieu, before moving to the labor federation.
Hicks serves in the U.S. Naval Reserve in intelligence and spent a year in Afghanistan beginning in August 2012. Based at Bagram Airfield, he traveled throughout the country to support special forces in the war zone.