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Union chief is wired into City Hall

Brian D'Arcy represents about 9,000 well-compensated DWP employees and is using his clout to back Wendy Greuel for mayor and a slate of candidates for City Council.

February 16, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Brian D'Arcy heads IBEW Local 18, which represents more than 8,000 DWP employees. He is a powerful behind-the-scenes player in L.A. politics.
Brian D'Arcy heads IBEW Local 18, which represents more than 8,000… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

If you bumped into the guy, you probably wouldn't recognize him. Chances are, you've never even heard of him.

But he's one of the most powerful players in Los Angeles politics, and he's swinging for the fences again, using his considerable clout to boost mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel and a slate of City Council candidates who just might be inclined to serve his interests if they're elected.

Feared, coveted, respected, reviled — union boss Brian D'Arcy is all those things. But he likes to pull strings from behind the curtains and generally doesn't stoop low enough to speak to pesky media folks. So I was more than a little surprised by the response when I asked to chat with the man who represents about 8,600 well-compensated employees of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Sure, I was told. Come on over.

I haven't always been kind to D'Arcy's union, which has a contract so sweet I once advised job seekers to "run, don't walk," to the DWP and try to climb aboard the gravy train. So it was a little intimidating to have D'Arcy greet me Wednesday afternoon with four henchmen, one of whom handed me a hard hat. This was at the DWP training center in Sun Valley, where employees learn to work with high voltage and climb power poles, and I wondered if I'd be conducting the interview while dangling from power lines.

D'Arcy was making a point with his choice of meeting spots, namely that his members do such dangerous work that they deserve their high compensation. And it's true that some jobs at DWP carry risks. That doesn't explain, of course, why carpenters, gardeners and painters for the utility make more than their counterparts in city departments, or why an executive secretary can collect six figures even as DWP customers keep getting hit with rate hikes.

"The DWP employees earn a salary that is 40% higher than other city employees," said a recent blog post by mayoral contender Jan Perry at citywatchla.com. "The reason why DWP can take advantage of you is because IBEW Local 18 attempts to buy politicians with million-dollar independent expenditure campaigns."

If elected, Perry told me, she'd try to win employee givebacks on pay, pensions and healthcare. Currently, IBEW members pay zip for healthcare, a deal most people would die for.

But D'Arcy, who was wearing a San Francisco Giants pullover and told me that he once had a bumper sticker saying he does not brake for Dodger fans, is not easily intimidated. He had the calm demeanor of a man whose union and its related organizations and supporters expect to spend about $2 million on behalf of Greuel and council candidates John Choi, Curren Price and Gil Cedillo. And that's just in the primary.

"Here's the bottom line with all of them, including Jan," said D'Arcy. One day they're courting his support, and when they don't get it? He's "the second coming of evil."

It wasn't D'Arcy's only blunt, yet accurate, observation. He said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa let himself get pulled in too many different directions from Day One and has been disappointing on balance.

"Everything's a press release with Antonio," said D'Arcy, a lumbering giant who speaks softly and moves slowly, but swings a club pretty well.

If City Hall can't manage a budget, fix broken sidewalks and provide other basic services, D'Arcy said, it's not the fault of his employees, who account for only about a quarter of the DWP budget. When 1,500 laid-off city employees were transferred to the DWP, he complained, their unfunded pensions created a $200-million liability. And he also smacked the mayor, council and others who rushed to approve a solar trade-in pricing system that will cost ratepayers tens of millions of dollars, according to the DWP ratepayer advocate.

The advocate, Fred Pickel, says the DWP will be paying way above market rate for excess solar power from private parties. Pickel told me that program, equipment upgrades and the cost of required expansion of renewable energy sources, are among the reasons DWP customers will get hit with annual rate increases for years to come.

But personnel costs are part of the problem, too. Pickel referred to a report last year that DWP salaries are about 20% higher than wages at 13 comparable utilities.

Still, with new contracts coming up for negotiation soon, IBEW doesn't want to surrender anything, and it's clear that D'Arcy and other public employee labor leaders think they know who will carry their water. Of course, that's not how they phrase it.

"I think she really is the real deal," D'Arcy said of Greuel.

Not to mention that she's very close to D'Arcy and his minions.

If there were a Hall of Fame for power players at City Hall, D'Arcy would be inducted on the first ballot, even though he hasn't always gotten what he wanted.

"His members ought to be kissing the steps of City Hall," said Jack Humphreville, ratepayer advocate for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council and a citywatchla.com contributor who frequently swats the DWP and D'Arcy.

When I told Humphreville that D'Arcy called him a Hancock Park millionaire who doesn't like paying to fill his swimming pool, Humphreville paused before offering a correction:

"I live in Windsor Square."

At contract time, D'Arcy told me, he'll be willing to consider smaller pensions and other concessions for new employees. But he doesn't sound ready to budge much, if at all, for current employees. In fact, he's expecting raises.

If you think that's outrageous, don't take it out on him. His job is to get all he can, and there's never been much standing in his way.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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