The election of former state lawmaker Sheila Kuehl to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday cheered union activists and worried fiscal conservatives. Both sides view her victory as a watershed that could create a pro-labor majority likely to expand hiring and consider pay and benefit increases for the county workforce.
In its defeat of former Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver, Kuehl's campaign benefited from about $3 million in spending by public employee unions, including $1.3 million from groups representing county firefighters and deputy sheriffs.
Powerful county Federation of Labor leader Maria Elena Durazo thanked Kuehl at her election-night victory party, calling her "sister" and noting that she had taken the unusual step of personally walking precincts for a full day on Kuehl's behalf.
But on Wednesday, Kuehl, her supporters and some neutral observers said that the newest board addition won't automatically do labor's bidding, or fall into a voting bloc with two other liberal, union-backed supervisors — incumbent Mark Ridley-Thomas and former U.S Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who won a board seat in the June primary.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the fiscally moderate supervisor who is leaving office because of term limits, cautioned against prejudging his successor.
"If there's one thing I know about Sheila Kuehl, it's that she's her own person," said Yaroslavsky, who endorsed neither candidate and is retiring after 20 years in office. "She's tough, she's got backbone, and I don't think she can be pushed around."
Kuehl struck a similar note in an interview Wednesday morning. "I've never been anyone's tool or done anything other than make my own decisions,'' she said. "I believe what labor was excited about was not having someone who agrees with them all the time, but someone who listens to them across the table."
The realigned, five-member county board will face an early test of its relationship with more than 100,000 county employees when contracts for sheriff's deputies and firefighters, which expire Dec. 31, come up for renewal. Unions are expected to press for pay increases as the county emerges from the lean budget years of the Great Recession.
A welter of other labor-management issues is also on the near horizon.
In the months ahead, the board is expected to consider a union-supported proposal to increase the "living wage" county contractors are required to pay their employees. Those workers now must receive a minimum of $9.64 an hour when health benefits are provided and $11.84 when they aren't.
The amount of the potential hourly increase hasn't been identified, but elsewhere county labor leaders have pushed for a $15 an hour minimum wage.
The current board has not yet considered raising the minimum wage in unincorporated county areas, where about 1 million people live. That could change with the arrival of Kuehl and Solis on the board next month, partly because the city of Los Angeles is considering a proposal to raise pay for all workers to at least $13.25 an hour, a 47% jump from the state minimum of $9.
Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Gloria Molina, who is being replaced by Solis, recently have joined with Republican board members Michael D. Antonovich and Don Knabe in efforts to preserve what they view as the panel's legacy of fiscal responsibility.
They have noted that the county has enjoyed comparatively stable budgets in contrast to the city, where 25% employee pay raises over five years deepened a financial crisis during the economic downturn.
Current board members, over the objections of Ridley-Thomas, moved to strengthen management's influence over appointments to a panel that rules on labor issues. They also approved a policy requiring a four-fifths supermajority board vote to approve future pay raises for employees. Some observers and union leaders now expect the reconstituted board to revisit those actions
Kuehl declined to discuss specific votes she might cast after she takes office next month, saying it would be "irresponsible" to stake out positions without fully studying the budget and conferring with Yaroslavsky.
Tuesday's split in Yaroslavsky's district, stretching from Santa Monica to San Fernando, suggests why it has been viewed as centrist territory in county politics — and why Kuehl may want to strike a careful course on fiscal policy.
Overall, Kuehl, 73, outpolled Shriver, 60, a Kennedy family scion, 53% to 47%. She established a solid footing across much of the district, winning by a narrow margin in Santa Monica, the home base of both candidates.
She also ran up strong majorities in the most densely-populated portions of the 3rd District — from Hollywood, West Hollywood and the Fairfax District to the Ventura Boulevard corridor in the south San Fernando Valley.
But Shriver prevailed in influential areas like Beverly Hills and Malibu, home to some of his monied backers and high-turnout voters who tend to be more concerned about government spending.
Shriver congratulated Kuehl on her victory Wednesday, but the night before, he had questioned his opponent's insistence that she would have no problem bargaining on labor agreements with unions that supported her.
"If someone gave me 3million bucks and I had to go in and negotiate their employment deal, as a lawyer, I don't think you'd be allowed to," he said. "I would feel my judgment was impaired, myself."
Some disappointed Shriver backers said Wednesday that they remain skeptical Kuehl will move carefully enough on pay and benefit issues.
"Zev brought fiscal conservatism to the county and because of Zev the county did not find itself in the trouble that other municipalities did," said Mike Eveloff, president of the Friends of West Los Angeles neighborhood group. "It's something that we hope Sheila takes to heart."
Gary Toebben, chief of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, one of two major business chambers that backed Shriver, sounded the same concern, urging Kuehl "to focus on the same kind of fiscal conservatism that has served the county well for several decades."
But L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, a Kuehl supporter, joined those who said prejudging the supervisor-elect is a mistake.
Kuehl is "fiercely independent," he said. Asked if she is likely to, at least initially, follow the lead of the more senior Ridley-Thomas, Bonin threw his head back and laughed, saying: "Fat chance."
Ridley-Thomas and Solis both said it was too early to determine how alliances may develop on the new board.
Kuehl insisted that she had a much broader agenda than issues of concern to organized labor, among them improving the foster care, health care and transit systems.
And she said voters should not be surprised to see her sometimes vote with conservatives Knabe and Antonovich. "I can easily see instances where, if we are aligned, I would be happy to be on the same side," she said, adding that collaborating with ideological opponents was "one of my fortes in Sacramento."