Emily Gabel-Luddy knows a lot about politics — she has seen how politics works from inside Los Angeles City Hall as a high-ranking planner, and her husband, Bill, is West Coast political director for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.
But nothing prepared her for the education she’s gotten in the last few months while running for Burbank City Council.
Talking to voters put her in touch with the concerns of people struggling in a difficult economy: a woman who had to take in a boarder to pay the rent, a couple that had to close up shop because business had tailed off, people all over the city whose concerns are invisible until you're out in the community campaigning for votes.
“I'm in a transition phase from being a public servant in one role to another,” she said over a salad at Lancer's as the city clerk's office was preparing to certify her narrow victory in Tuesday's runoff victory over Police Commissioner Robert Frutos.
“I have so much to learn, so much I don't know. Listening to voters was a real education,” she said.
Part of the educating Emily story was how big-city politics came to Burbank with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 — which claims only 138 members from Burbank Water and Power, and yet which dumped more than $42,000 into an independent expenditure committee in support of Frutos. The union spent $18,000 to help re-elect Gary Bric in the primary.
“They mailed out hit pieces saying I was somehow connected to Big Oil, bank executives and Big Development, that this was behind the agenda I was going to set for the city. It didn't make any sense,” Gabel-Luddy said. “I talked to voters, I said, ‘Gee, I've been on the planning commission for 10 years. You know where I stand. There's 10 years of videos you can watch to see who I am.’”
What's going on with IBEW Local 18 is no small concern to residents of both Burbank and Glendale.
The union is led by Brian D'Arcy, an untouchable figure in L.A. politics who has used threats of closing down that city's water and power systems if he didn't get contracts with raises of up to 6% in good times and as much as 4% even in these hard times.
An intimidating figure, D'Arcy threw more than $1.5 million behind a phony solar energy measure that narrowly failed in 2009 and more than $600,000 to oust Bernard Parks — the lone L.A. City Councilmember who has stood up to his bullying tactics — an effort that also narrowly failed in the recent primary.
The union, seeking to split some classes of utility workers from the Glendale City Employees Assn., has gotten the approval of City Manager Jim Starbird to be their bargaining agent based on their unanimous support for the action.
The issue in both cities is cost-cutting measures that will freeze or even reduce payroll costs of all city employees — something the IBEW has been exempt from in L.A.
“The thing that's going to hit me in the face is the budget,” Gabel-Luddy acknowledged. “There's an $8-million deficit this year, a structural deficit that has to do with pensions. I look forward to those discussions. We have to address the revenue gap and the structural deficit that have to be fixed. It's going to take a lot of work, a lot of listening to each other, but we have to do it.”
Her priorities on the City Council include continuing her role on the city’s sustainability task force by looking for ways to reduce water and power use in the face of soaring costs for imported water and meeting renewable energy requirements.
She also wants to end the city’s $1 million-a-year employee bonus system and to push for disclosure of the salaries of city employees and their bonuses.
“We need to be transparent,” she said. “It's public money. No matter how uncomfortable one feels, that's the law. If it makes you uncomfortable, maybe you should work in the private sector.”
Her planning expertise will be brought to bear in trying to mitigate the impact on local businesses and residents from the planned Golden State (I-5) Freeway construction project and the proposed massive development at NBC-Universal — a project that is certain to increase congestion at the 101-134 freeway interchange without providing benefits to Burbank.
Tired from the ordeal of her first venture into the political arena, Gabel-Luddy spent the days after the election picking up lawn signs and thanking contributors.
“After I've done this, I have a very healthy respect for anyone who runs for public office. It isn't an easy thing to do. These are tough times. The world is changing, but it’s very exciting to be part of trying to solve the problems.”