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Mayor's inner circle gives, takes

Villaraigosa relies on a group of 13 friends and benefactors for advice and connections. They get the cachet of backing a rising political star.

March 25, 2007|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

It is a creature of political life, the unofficial "kitchen cabinet" whose members offer advice and wield hidden influence by virtue of their proximity to power.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the circle that has gathered around him are no exception.

During his 21 months in office, Villaraigosa has drawn on a network of largely liberal friends and benefactors -- including an influential labor leader, Sacramento politicians, a childhood acquaintance, a San Fernando Valley businessman who led a failed secession movement and a big name in state and local politics who fell from public grace before he was rehabilitated.

Whatever their backgrounds, each of these insiders has something to offer the mayor -- whether information, access to campaign contributions or political relationships for the future. And they each get something in return, if only the cachet of being a power broker to a mayor with ambitions to be governor or more.

"Having the mayor's ear speaks volumes about your ability to reach a primary source of power," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. "That can be a huge point of leverage."

At the center of this group of 13 advisors is Maria Elena Durazo, chief of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who wants better pay for city workers and a "living wage" for hotel employees near Los Angeles International Airport.

Also in the circle is Durazo's frequent adversary, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman David W. Fleming, one of Villaraigosa's newer allies who is eager to better organize the business community.

Villaraigosa also maintains close relationships with state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and former Assemblyman Richard Katz, who was the mayor's unsuccessful choice last year to run the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

For political guidance, the mayor turns to two longtime mentors, former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who left public life after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2001 but has gradually emerged as a behind-the-scenes advisor.

These two, along with public affairs consultant Kerman Maddox, serve as Villaraigosa's ambassadors to the African American community.

Villaraigosa likes to hear as well from more obscure but equally influential people, including campaign manager Ace Smith, Democratic fundraiser Ari Swiller, labor attorney and childhood friend Jesus Quinonez, and entrepreneur Keith Brackpool, one of the mayor's favorite people to meet for a late-night glass of wine.

Brackpool, Swiller, Quinonez, Maddox and engineer Nick Patsaouras met with the mayor's staff in 2005 to vet dozens of candidates for commissions overseeing the city's most important public agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the Department of Water and Power.

Villaraigosa tapped Patsaouras, one of his most trusted fiscal watchdogs, for the board overseeing the DWP, the nation's largest municipal utility. He also put him on a separate panel charged with guarding against cost overruns on construction of a new police headquarters downtown.

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Most influential advisor

Of all Villaraigosa's friends and associates, none is as influential as Durazo. She is the widow of labor giant Miguel Contreras.

Durazo met Villaraigosa during their college years (he attended UCLA, she was at St. Mary's College in Northern California) at meetings to support immigrant rights.

Their friendship grew as they raised families in Los Angeles, attending birthday parties for each other's children. During this period, Durazo recalls meeting regularly with other activists, including Quinonez, the labor attorney, for "community kitchen" dinners in their homes. Villaraigosa, then a single father, would arrive with two young daughters in a beat-up, bright orange Volkswagen.

Three decades later, Villaraigosa and Durazo are like brother and sister who share a common philosophy: Workers should benefit when business prospers.

That outlook was on display in recent months as Villaraigosa supported Durazo's efforts to win passage of a city law requiring hotels near LAX to pay their workers a "living wage" of $10.64 an hour -- even though the hotels have no contracts with City Hall.

Villaraigosa brokered compromises with business leaders -- led by Fleming -- that would guarantee the pay increase but stop the effort from expanding citywide. Several hotels have sued to block the wage law.

When he announced an agreement at a news conference in January, Villaraigosa threw his arm around Durazo and referred to her as "my comadre," a term of affection reserved for a dear friend.

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