It was the first day of hearings on a controversial $11-billion plan to modernize and expand Los Angeles International Airport. In the gilded chamber of the Los Angeles City Council, airline representatives, residents and business leaders bustled around the marble columns.
One man stood out.
It wasn't just his demeanor -- the contented look of someone anticipating a big victory. It was the knowing glances cast his direction by passing officials, the council members hurrying over to whisper in his ear and squeeze his shoulder.
Miguel Contreras carried a certain amount of clout as one of the five members of the Airport Commission. But airport officials had asked him to sit in the front row on that October morning last year because of his other role.
As the leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, Contreras has transformed the association of 345 local unions into what is broadly acknowledged as the most formidable political machine in Southern California.
The labor leader had lobbied exhaustively for the airport expansion, which promised to create thousands of construction jobs. Before the council meeting, he had warned that those who opposed the plan would be "asked to explain their vote" when seeking labor's endorsement.
In the council chamber, he addressed the 15 elected officials.
"The labor movement encourages all of you, every single one of you who have come to us in friendship, to cast your vote in favor," Contreras told them.
Disgusted, Westchester resident and LAX expansion opponent Denny Schneider watched from a couple rows back.
" 'Godfather'-like," he recalled thinking.
The council would approve the expansion plan 12 to 3.
With his wireless glasses, slightly cherubic face and rapid-fire speech, Contreras bears little resemblance to Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone. But the son of Central Valley farmworkers, a 52-year-old union organizer who never went beyond high school, is uniformly viewed as one of the most influential people in Los Angeles.
"I can't think of anyone more powerful than Miguel," said Tim Leiweke, president of Staples Center and Anschutz Entertainment Group.
Now, however, Contreras' reputation as a power broker is on the line. His federation endorsed Mayor James K. Hahn for reelection over Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer it backed four years ago. Although the labor movement will have a friend in the mayor's office regardless, Contreras' future heft may rest on his ability to get his members to campaign against one of their own.
Contreras has methodically cultivated his sway over the city's political class, marrying the activist spirit of his United Farm Workers origins with a keen political acumen and cold calculations that sometimes stun even his closest friends. Despite notable failures, including the 2001 mayor's race, his power has grown, nurtured by his success at claiming victory for labor no matter the outcome.
Since the late 1990s, he has helped the Los Angeles unions propel a raft of pro-labor candidates into elected office. The federation's reach is evident not only at City Hall but also in Sacramento, where more than two dozen legislators hold office largely thanks to labor.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) says he talks to Contreras every day, "more than with my own children." Contreras is close to Senate Majority Leader Don Perata (D-Oakland), whom he helped win his leadership post last year. (The only branch of state government to which Contreras lacks entree is the governor's office; he and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have never spoken.)
More than a dozen members of California's congressional delegation got their seats with the federation's backing, including Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), who said that labor's role in helping her beat a Democratic incumbent in a 2000 primary caught the attention of lawmakers around the country.
Contreras assumes a modest tone when asked about the reach of his influence.
"I think they're describing the L.A. Federation of Labor and not Miguel," he said. "And that's what I wish they would do, because it's not about one individual."
But his victories have bred an ego that has become a running joke among friends and family.
Nunez has a tactic to remind Contreras that his head is swelling: "I start humming the theme song to 'The Godfather.' That brings him back down to reality."
Contreras' successes inspire both admiration and resentment, but it's rare to find people who will publicly criticize him. Many who have faced off against the labor leader praise him as disarming and refreshingly candid. Others are less impressed but still wary. One business leader accused Contreras of operating through "bullying and intimidation" but refused to be named, saying it could provoke retaliation from the unions.