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Firefighters to Pour Cash Into Politics

The L.A. union plans to use PAC money to back local candidates or, as its president says, 'support our friends and punish our enemies.'

March 13, 2004|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Signaling their intention to play a bigger role in Los Angeles elections, city firefighters plan to tap into a $1.5-million political action fund to support and oppose candidates for local office, union leaders said Friday.

Until recently, money from the union account could be used only to weigh in on state and local ballot measures affecting firefighters' benefits.

But union members have agreed to change the rules, and as a result, the money will be available to "support our friends and punish our enemies," said union President Patrick McOsker, citing a motto of the late 19th and early 20th century labor leader Samuel Gompers.

In a column in this month's edition of the union newspaper, McOsker identified Mayor James K. Hahn as a friend of the firefighters and criticized Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a potential Hahn challenger, for being the only elected official to vote against raises for firefighters.

Although the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City has not officially endorsed the mayor for reelection next March, McOsker said in an interview Friday that it was likely the firefighters would be in Hahn's corner.

"Firefighters love Mayor Hahn. He's done a lot for public safety," McOsker said, adding that the union leadership and members hadn't decided how much to spend in the race.

He also said the union's support for Hahn had nothing to do with the fact that McOsker's brother Tim was the mayor's chief of staff. A third brother, Michael, is a vice president of the union.

Former firefighters union President Ken Buzzell said he and many other department veterans were upset with the decision to use the political action fund to support candidates.

The money was collected over the last two decades by an assessment of $1 per paycheck that ended two years ago.

"When the money was collected, it was specifically said that it was not going to be used to go to campaigns for politicians," Buzzell said. "I think ethically [the change] is wrong, because it was collected for a different purpose."

The union's executive board proposed changing the rules governing the political action fund to allow spending on candidates. Members voted by mail in December, with a strong majority favoring the change, Patrick McOsker said.

Parks said the union's move would not influence his decision on whether to challenge Hahn in the March 2005 election.

"It's great rhetoric when you talk about punishing your enemies and rewarding your friends, but you still have to resonate with the voting population," the councilman said. "I believe that only about 10% of the firefighters live in the city. The 4 million people who live here will have more to say about who gets elected than a PAC."

With the election a year off, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) is the only prominent candidate to have declared his intention to challenge Hahn.

Former state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg has said he is considering whether to run for the office.

Hahn, meanwhile, has already raised $1.3 million for his reelection campaign.

In 2001, the firefighters union gave his campaign $2,000 and spent an additional $2,348 on an independent expenditure campaign in the race. The group also donated $200,000 to the mayor's anti-secession campaign in 2002.

Political experts said they expected the firefighters union to spend considerably more on Hahn's behalf this time than it did in 2001.

"I would be more than surprised if the firefighters do not weigh in heavily for the mayor," said political consultant Larry Levine, who is not representing a candidate in the mayor's race.

City ethics laws prohibit political action committees from contributing more than $1,000 per year to mayoral candidates. Buzzell and others predicted that the firefighters union would launch another independent expenditure campaign, which would allow it to spend as much as it wanted to support a candidate as long as the spending was not coordinated with that person's campaign.

Independent expenditure campaigns are expected to play a much larger role in local elections now that the city has banned commissioners from political fundraising, Levine said.

Other unions are expected to increase their involvement in city campaigns.

On Friday, the City Council gave permission for a union representing city supervisors to collect a payroll deduction for their political action committee.

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