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Betting on senator as swing vote

Unions plan to pour millions more into Ridley-Thomas' L.A. County supervisorial race against Parks.

September 14, 2008|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

Labor unions, whose money already has made this year's race for Los Angeles County supervisor the most expensive ever, plan to spend millions more over the next eight weeks to elect their favored candidate, Mark Ridley-Thomas.

The spending, more than $4.5 million so far, or roughly $65 for each vote Ridley-Thomas won in the first round of the race against Bernard C. Parks in June, reflects how much labor leaders believe they have at stake in the election, which is for the first open seat on the Board of Supervisors in 12 years. Unions have enjoyed strong influence on Los Angeles city government but have had less clout at the county level.

The effort to change that comes amid a scandal that has forced out the leaders of two of the union locals that have been most active in the campaign, both affiliates of the giant Service Employees International Union. In both cases, the local presidents stepped aside after reports in The Times about possible misuse of union funds.

Labor officials say that the problems in the SEIU will not change their plans for continued spending on Ridley-Thomas' behalf using an independent expenditure committee. Such committees can sidestep contribution limits as long as they do not coordinate activities with the candidate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Supervisor race: California section articles on Sept. 14 and Sept. 29, about the 2nd District race for Los Angeles County supervisor, said that candidate Mark Ridley-Thomas won 45% of the votes in the June primary while second-place finisher Bernard C. Parks won 40% Ridley-Thomas won 45.63% compared with Parks' 39.53% and Ridley-Thomas' total should have been rounded to 46%.

"Basically, nothing that you've read in the past few weeks has changed who Bernard Parks is," said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "He is still the man who opposed so many things important to working people, who opposed rent control, who opposed a living wage, who allowed Wal-Mart in."

Although Parks supports Wal-Mart in his district, he was not on the council when the chain got permission to open there.

At the same time, union officials privately concede that they are attempting to recalibrate their political strategy to account for diminished confidence in their own leadership.

"I think you can expect them to try to fly under the radar as much as possible, to not make the leadership of the unions a focal point," said Jaime Regalado, who heads the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

Ridley-Thomas, a state senator from Los Angeles, had 45% of the vote in the June primary, compared with 40% for Parks, a city councilman and former police chief, but because no candidate won 50%, a runoff will be held Nov. 4. Both men are Democrats, but labor officials consider Ridley-Thomas a more reliable ally.

The current board includes two Republicans, Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe, and three Democrats, Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne B. Burke. Burke's decision to retire opened the current race.

Because supervisors' districts are so large, challenges to an incumbent are extremely expensive, and turnover on the board is rare.

The winner of the election will likely be a swing vote on issues central to labor's agenda as many county employee contracts come due.

More than that, his vote could impose conditions on private employers who want to do business with government.

"Most people think that organized labor is interested in the county Board of Supervisors because the county has so many of our unionized workers," Durazo said. "That is a very narrow, very conventional point of view. . . ."

That prospect worries business leaders. "Ridley-Thomas is in the unions' pocket; he'll do anything the union tells him to do," said David Fleming, chairman of the Los Angeles County Business Federation. "Clearly, if he gives labor everything they are asking, it is going to cost a lot more money."

Labor leaders are already seeking employee pay raises, but their proposals also extend to job security, which could limit the county's ability to contract out healthcare and other services.

Ridley-Thomas said the county "has significant work to do" to improve wages and benefits. But he offers no specific promises for more than 80,000 unionized county workers and 130,000 home healthcare workers who receive a county contribution to their pay.

Parks said he also is open to compensation increases, but indicated he may not be willing to go as far as Ridley-Thomas.

Parks said that during two council terms, "I think I voted against union contracts five times. In their view it has to be all 105 contracts or there is no deal. With other groups, you would be in the Hall of Fame with that kind of voting record, but they want it all."

Parks' backers aren't even close to matching the unions' support of Ridley-Thomas. Campaign records show that $45,000 has been raised for Parks' benefit by the Council for Safe Streets and Neighborhoods, a business-led independent committee set up the same way as the union fund.

Almost all the county's unionized workers will be up for new three-year contracts next year, and, despite the difficult budget scenario predicted by county administrators, many are making requests for big pay hikes.

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