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Councilman's Past Has Him Ready to Lead

June 20, 2005|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Martin Ludlow, a Los Angeles city councilman, could become one of the most powerful local labor leaders in the nation today, when County Federation of Labor delegates are scheduled to decide whether to endorse him as secretary-treasurer.

Ludlow's path to the union post began when he was just 9 months old and a white couple in Idaho chose to adopt the black child as an expression of their dedication to social justice.

His childhood during the social tumult of the 1960s and '70s was spent in protest with his adoptive parents, Willis and Anne Ludlow, and their three other children. They saw injustice all around: impoverished Native Americans, struggling field hands on the Snake River plain, the war in Vietnam, the nuclear arms race.

"I'll always remember being raised on a picket line," Ludlow said. "I was raised in a world where you absolutely fight for the underdog."

Early on, Ludlow also learned how to navigate the racial divide in America as the lone black member of a white family who lived in a state that had just a couple of thousand black residents.

With that background and his experience in social activism, Ludlow was the unanimous recommendation of the federation's executive board to lead the labor organization at a time when its unions draw their strength largely from immigrant Latinos. "Si se puede" (Yes we can) is now the rallying cry of Los Angeles workers.

"The issue of unity and diversity are not rhetoric with him," said Myung Soo Seok, a senior deputy council aide. "They've come from the life he led."

Ludlow, who at 40 is just two years into his first term on the City Council, agonized over whether to accept the nomination. He would have to give up his council seat to take the position. But to reject it, he said, would have meant turning his back on everything his family fought for. It is also a chance to follow in the footsteps of Miguel Contreras, who built the federation into a political powerhouse and led it until his unexpected death last month.

Once an aide to Contreras, Ludlow would inherit a labor council that has used its money and clout to back labor-friendly candidates and push for job-producing projects, such as the $11-billion modernization of Los Angeles International Airport.

"The big challenge is to pull everyone back together following the death of our friend," Ludlow said.

Although the influence of the labor movement has waned nationally, it remains strong in Los Angeles, a traditionally pro-union town. The federation represents 354 unions with more than 825,000 workers. It includes janitors, healthcare workers, bus drivers, hotel maids, utility workers, stagehands, construction workers, schoolteachers and electricians, to name only a few.

Ludlow campaigned hard for his friend Antonio Villaraigosa in the city's mayoral campaign, and he enjoys solid relationships with much of the council.

However, when it comes to union business, those relationships would have to be severed for a while. City rules dictate that all elected officials who leave office are forbidden to lobby those in city government for one year on most matters of public policy. The Los Angeles City Ethics Commission sent a letter to Ludlow last week explaining that restriction.

LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the commission, said that Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who will leave office at the end of June because of term limits, was told the same thing, and that Mayor James K. Hahn will be briefed this week. "The law is designed to make sure that public service isn't being traded for private gain," Pelham said.

Ludlow said the restriction would not be a problem. "I will work with the commission to ensure that all the ethics rules are satisfied," he said.

To watch Ludlow in action brings to mind the phrase "fully caffeinated." Whatever Ludlow lacks in stature -- he's 5 feet 7 -- he makes up for in vigor. He is also a mellifluous speaker who consciously bases his style on that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He is an absolute fountain of energy," said Councilman Jack Weiss. "He has taken all of life's stressful classes in the same semester, and it doesn't seem to stress him."

Ludlow was born in 1964. He knows little of his natural parents, other than that his father was black and served in the military, and his mother was white. He was placed in a foster home and named Marty.

The Ludlows, who adopted him in 1965, called him Martin, thinking of Martin Luther King and his dream of civil rights.

Ludlow says he had a happy childhood in Idaho Falls and Pocatello as the son of a Methodist minister and a clerical worker.

But there were the occasional racial slurs.

"I remember the first time being spit on and slapped," Ludlow recalled. "My mom was walking me into a church in Idaho Falls where my father was preaching, and a white woman walked up to my mother and looked down at me and spit on me and slapped my mother and said, 'You should be ashamed of yourself.' "

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