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Labor pours millions into L.A. races

A billboard advertises council candidate Gil Cedillo. Union groups have spent $182,000 on his behalf.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly $4 million in independent expenditures have poured into Los Angeles city election campaigns in recent weeks, with more than three-fourths coming from groups tied to organized labor.

Much of the debate on union spending before the March 5 vote has focused on $2.2 million — the bulk of it from police officers and Department of Water and Power workers — that is fueling the mayoral candidacy of Wendy Greuel.

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But records show labor is also looking to strengthen its hand at the City Council by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers, billboards and campaign ground troops to try to sway the outcome in eight of 15 council races.

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Organized labor already wields considerable influence at City Hall, pressing the mayor and lawmakers to support employee raises and approve construction projects that create union jobs. The large number of open council seats, combined with laws that let special interests spend unlimited amounts, could leave unions with “an even stronger grip,” said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A.

“L.A. is one of the few places in the country where labor plays such a dominant role, not only in selecting candidates to run, but in spending an amount of money that far outdistances whatever groups or individuals are second or third,” he added.

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Campaign finance laws limit mayoral candidates to accepting no more than $1,300 from any single contributor. Council candidates can’t take more than $700 per donor. But special interests and wealthy individuals can spend unlimited sums as long as they do not coordinate their efforts with a candidate.

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By 2 p.m. Tuesday, roughly $700,000 had been spent by independent groups on the three most competitive council contests, with two-thirds coming from labor groups.

The biggest beneficiaries of that money are Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) on the Eastside; former City Commissioner John Choi in an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district; and state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) in South Los Angeles.

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Cedillo, Choi and Price are hoping to replace termed-out council members Ed Reyes, Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry — all of whom antagonized organized labor last year by voting to roll back pension benefits for newly hired city employees.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

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Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the 600,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor — one of the big independent campaign donors — warned council members last year that the benefits rollback would “come back and haunt” them.

Durazo was unavailable for comment. But her organization said in a statement that it chose candidates based on their track records, strategy for winning and views on “living wage” jobs, affordable housing and other issues.

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In Reyes’ district, union groups have spent $182,000 to support Cedillo, a former organizer with Service Employees International Union. Four-fifths of the money came from the county labor federation, which opposed last year’s pension reductions. The rollback, which goes into effect July 1, is expected to save taxpayers $4 billion over 30 years, according to city officials. With days left before the election, Cedillo would not say whether that vote was the right one. Instead, he suggested a new look is needed at retirement benefits for new hires.

“I want to reevaluate the entire situation,” he said.

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Cedillo’s opponent, Jose Gardea, said the council did the right thing on pensions. The unlimited independent money — which is paying for campaign billboards across the district — should worry voters, he said. “It’s an outrageous amount,” said Gardea, who is Reyes’ chief of staff.

Ron Gochez, who is running to replace Perry, voiced similar complaints about the South Los Angeles race, where more than $300,000 in independent money has been spent to promote Price, more than half of it from labor groups. “It’s completely undemocratic,” he said.

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Price, who moved into Perry’s district last year, said he welcomes labor support, noting that the blue-collar 9th District is filled with union members. “I’m proud to represent working people,” he said.

SPREADSHEET: Unlimited outside money

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In Garcetti’s Hollywood-area district, union groups have spent $171,000 so far supporting Choi, who was the labor federation’s economic development director from 2009 to 2011. Choi made his union ties explicit in one closed-door candidate interview, telling a large city employee group he would put them “on the inside” if they endorsed him.

“We’re going to decide together who to open the door for,” he told the audience, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

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Matt Szabo, one of 12 candidates jockeying to replace Garcetti, asserted that the big, independent campaign spenders are looking for obedience from their candidates. “When I accept support, it’s because people expect me to be a good council member, not because they expect to tell me what to do when I’m in office,” he said.

Choi said his comments during the union endorsement meeting were intended to make a point — that labor should be at the table when important decisions are made. “The only people I’m going to be obedient to are the residents of the city,” Choi added.

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Choi, Price and Cedillo are supported not just by the federation but by Working Californians, a group affiliated with the DWP union that has spent $85,000 on their behalf. Unlike most of their opponents, the three candidates also support a half-cent sales tax increase on the March 5 ballot. Durazo signed the ballot argument supporting that measure and the DWP union has given to the committee seeking its passage.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

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On a much smaller scale, labor organizations are aiding candidates in five other council races — Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield and former Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes in the San Fernando Valley, Councilman Paul Koretz and council deputy Mike Bonin on the Westside, and Councilman Joe Buscaino in a harbor district.

Business organizations have not been a counterweight in campaign spending. Much of the non-union money spent on independent campaigns has come from two sources: billboard company Lamar Advertising and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

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The chamber’s L.A. Jobs PAC has spent the largest amount, $56,000, promoting Cedillo, the labor-backed candidate in the 1st District, and attacking Gardea. Ruben Gonzalez, who handles policy for the chamber, said his group is supporting Cedillo, in part, out of unhappiness with Gardea’s opposition to a proposed Wal-Mart supermarket in Chinatown.

In the mayor’s race, Greuel and Councilman Eric Garcetti have each raised more than $4 million on their own. But Greuel has benefited from a total of $2.4 million in independent spending by unions and others. By comparison, independent groups have raised $46,000 for Garcetti, according to city reports.

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maloy Moore contributed to this report.


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