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Labor pours millions into L.A. races

Freed of finance laws, unions are spending heavily in an attempt to strengthen their hand at the City Council, records show.

February 26, 2013|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • A billboard advertises council candidate Gil Cedillo. Union groups have spent $182,000 on his behalf.
A billboard advertises council candidate Gil Cedillo. Union groups have… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Nearly $4 million in independent expenditures have poured into Los Angeles city election campaigns in recent weeks, with more than three-fourths coming from groups tied to organized labor.

Much of the debate on union spending before the March 5 vote has focused on $2.2 million — the bulk of it from police officers and Department of Water and Power workers — that is fueling the mayoral candidacy of Wendy Greuel.

But records show labor is also looking to strengthen its hand at the City Council by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers, billboards and campaign ground troops to try to sway the outcome in eight of 15 council races.

SPREADSHEET: Unlimited outside money

Organized labor already wields considerable influence at City Hall, pressing the mayor and lawmakers to support employee raises and approve construction projects that create union jobs. The large number of open council seats, combined with laws that let special interests spend unlimited amounts, could leave unions with "an even stronger grip," said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State L.A.

"L.A. is one of the few places in the country where labor plays such a dominant role, not only in selecting candidates to run, but in spending an amount of money that far outdistances whatever groups or individuals are second or third," he added.

Campaign finance laws limit mayoral candidates to accepting no more than $1,300 from any single contributor. Council candidates can't take more than $700 per donor. But special interests and wealthy individuals can spend unlimited sums as long as they do not coordinate their efforts with a candidate.

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By 2 p.m. Tuesday, roughly $700,000 had been spent by independent groups on the three most competitive council contests, with two-thirds coming from labor groups.

The biggest beneficiaries of that money are Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) on the Eastside; former City Commissioner John Choi in an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district; and state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) in South Los Angeles.

Cedillo, Choi and Price are hoping to replace termed-out council members Ed Reyes, Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry — all of whom antagonized organized labor last year by voting to roll back pension benefits for newly hired city employees.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor

Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the 600,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor — one of the big independent campaign donors — warned council members last year that the benefits rollback would "come back and haunt" them.

Durazo was unavailable for comment. But her organization said in a statement that it chose candidates based on their track records, strategy for winning and views on "living wage" jobs, affordable housing and other issues.

In Reyes' district, union groups have spent $182,000 to support Cedillo, a former organizer with Service Employees International Union. Four-fifths of the money came from the county labor federation, which opposed last year's pension reductions. The rollback, which goes into effect July 1, is expected to save taxpayers $4 billion over 30 years, according to city officials. With days left before the election, Cedillo would not say whether that vote was the right one. Instead, he suggested a new look is needed at retirement benefits for new hires.

"I want to reevaluate the entire situation," he said.

Cedillo's opponent, Jose Gardea, said the council did the right thing on pensions. The unlimited independent money — which is paying for campaign billboards across the district — should worry voters, he said. "It's an outrageous amount," said Gardea, who is Reyes' chief of staff.

Ron Gochez, who is running to replace Perry, voiced similar complaints about the South Los Angeles race, where more than $300,000 in independent money has been spent to promote Price, more than half of it from labor groups. "It's completely undemocratic," he said.

Price, who moved into Perry's district last year, said he welcomes labor support, noting that the blue-collar 9th District is filled with union members. "I'm proud to represent working people," he said.

SPREADSHEET: Unlimited outside money

In Garcetti's Hollywood-area district, union groups have spent $171,000 so far supporting Choi, who was the labor federation's economic development director from 2009 to 2011. Choi made his union ties explicit in one closed-door candidate interview, telling a large city employee group he would put them "on the inside" if they endorsed him.

"We're going to decide together who to open the door for," he told the audience, according to an audio recording of the meeting.

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