ANYBODY FEEL an earthquake last week? Don't worry, it wasn't the Big One. That giant crash heard by political observers across the city was not a natural disaster but man-made. It was the sound of one of this region's most promising African American leaders falling to Earth.
Martin Ludlow, the former city councilman who left that post to lead the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, is hardly the first public official to run afoul of the law. (In a deal struck last week with prosecutors, Ludlow pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy in exchange for no jail time. He resigned from the labor federation last month.) Nor is he the first to break the rules. But he was the first African American to lead the powerful county federation. And he was chosen to lead it at a moment when blacks have dwindled to near-invisibility in a labor movement long dominated by rank-and-file Latinos.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 10, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 14 words Type of Material: Correction
Byline: Erin Aubry Kaplan's byline was misspelled as Erin Aubrey Kaplan on Wednesday's column.
Of course, the many years Ludlow spent in the trenches of labor also made him a perfectly logical candidate to succeed the late Miguel Contreras -- a perfectly logical candidate who also happened to be black. So in that sense his race is incidental. Still, if Ludlow's unceremonious exit from the political limelight is bad news for labor, it is worse news for black people, who have been struggling for years against demography and history to simply maintain their bases of power. Ludlow could have helped to grow a new base, a dynamic we haven't witnessed in a couple of generations. Would have been nice.
Whether Ludlow would have ultimately benefited African Americans, however, is debatable. Questions about his credibility were raised among some blacks even as his star rose -- in fact because his star rose. The questions went something like this: If he was increasingly indebted to Contreras, to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and to the unions, to Latino leaders and an essentially Latino movement, what could he possibly do for us? What would he be able to do for us?
Paranoid as those questions might sound, they're reasonable at heart; blacks have been burned plenty of times by pols of all colors who might put black concerns at the top of their campaign list but at the bottom of their priority list once elected. To his credit, Ludlow was not a product of a moribund black political machine run for decades by the likes of Rep. Maxine Waters or County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
Yet Ludlow was trapped all the same, not by machine politics but by the current paradigm of progressive politics. He was bound by terminology such as "working-class families" when he really meant poor black people, at least some of the time.
Nobody argues that poor blacks and Latinos don't have common interests. But they arrived at poverty differently, at different times and for different reasons. Acknowledgment of those differences has long been absent from any efforts at black-brown coalition-building, which is still nascent and tends to be situational. And they are situations that rarely lend themselves to thoughtful analysis. The recent rash of riots in the county jails, for example, certainly spotlighted black-brown relations, but discussions of the problem and its solutions never really transcend the criminal context that frame far too many stories about people of color anyway.
An avid talker, Ludlow seemed unwilling to have this discussion about blacks and browns as it pertained to labor, probably because it was too politically risky. One of the many uncomfortable truths about the working class is that the largely Latino workforce in the service sector, which energized union organizing, more or less displaced the blacks who once held those jobs -- at better pay and benefits.
It gets complicated. It's not that blacks are clamoring to be janitors or hotel workers again. It's that employers have moved permanently to a new, cheaper, largely immigrant labor pool that, its union activism notwithstanding, is seen as harder working, more reliable and less psychologically encumbered by a history of racism than black Americans.
These are the tough but subtle issues black leaders should be raising, and Ludlow had the platform, and the persona, to raise them. He didn't -- or he hadn't so far -- and the opportunity feels wasted.
Blacks are increasingly at the margins of an employment picture that, due in part to globalization, is getting scarier for everybody, including those with college degrees. For the black working class, once buttressed by unions and now fighting for its life, that picture has been scary for awhile.
Martin Ludlow wasn't solely responsible for improving that picture. But now he won't be around to try to clarify it, or at least point out the contradictions that are central to the black condition. By his very presence he could have made a difference, and his absence is disheartening indeed.