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The Remaking of Los Angeles - Part II
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and wife Corina celebrated at The Grove Christmas tree-lighting show Sunday. Chuck Green Photo
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and wife Corina celebrated at The Grove Christmas tree-lighting show Sunday. Chuck Green Photo

The Kingdom and The Power: How an untimely death led to a dramatic power shift in city politics.

The Emergency Room at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood may not seem like the typical place where political power and influence are wielded and transferred.

Indeed, it is an ER where, like other ERs, the only real power is over life and death, and even then from the grace of the almighty, giving and taking. That night in May, none of the friends of Los Angeles labor leader Miguel Contreras who had rushed to the hospital and now spilled out of the waiting room and into the cool evening outside could fathom the mystery of why he had been taken at what seemed like the prime of life.

“We're all here because of Miguel,” said a saddened Fabian Nuñez, who had once worked for Contreras as the political director of his union, the largest county labor federation in the country and was now Speaker of the California State Assembly. “He brought us to the dance. A lot of us owe a lot of our political success to him.”

It was a dance of political power and leadership — a tango, as it were, in which Contreras had choreographed much of what had transpired in political life in Southern California over the past decade, as elected offices had dramatically changed hands in ways reflecting the demographic transformation of the landscape.

Perhaps no elected office reflected the influence Contreras had come to wield more than the one which two of the men who had rushed to the hospital earlier that night each coveted desperately, even as they stood feet apart, both teary-eyed and clearly shaken by the news of their friend’s untimely death: James K. Hahn, the present mayor of Los Angeles, who had come to count Contreras as a personal friend in the past four years of his administration; and Antonio Villaraigosa, the City Councilman seeking to defeat Hahn in their second campaign for mayor and someone whose friendship and kinship with Contreras at times approached that of brothers.

In 2001, Contreras had come anguishingly close to realizing Villaraigosa’s election as mayor. He and his union had worked feverishly in his campaign, trying to make a decade’s worth of organizing and fundraising pay off for Villaraigosa. On election night, Contreras had cried along with Villaraigosa over the disappointment.

But four years later, Hahn having mended fences with the union leader and the County Federation of Labor, Contreras and Villaraigosa found themselves in opposing camps. Contreras and the leadership of the federation had endorsed Hahn for re-election, though Villaraigosa — himself a former union organizer — continued wooing the rank-and-file membership, which still sympathized with him.

The test for Contreras of whether he could deliver the union vote for Hahn and deny power to Villaraigosa lay only 11 days away on election day. In the weeks since the labor federation’s endorsement of Hahn, Contreras had come under intense criticism and pressure from the rank-and-file, from labor activists, and from Villaraigosa supporters.

“The irony is that while the Fed backed Hahn in the current race, it was the Fed’s work of the past nine years — all the voter registration and labor mobilization, the showcasing of issues like the living wage, and the extraordinary campaign labor waged for Villaraigosa four years ago — that helped the create the city that stands ready today to make Villaraigosa mayor,” Los Angeles Weekly writer and Contreras confidant Harold Meyerson, wrote at the height of the campaign.

It all weighed heavily on Contreras, and he as much as anyone else knew what was at stake: If, despite the corruption scandal swirling around his administration, Hahn were to beat Villaraigosa, particularly in a close election, Contreras would possibly forever bear the cross of having been the hurdle that defeated the standard-bearer for labor, for Latino political aspirations, and for the progressive agenda many believed was necessary for the future of a diverse Los Angeles whose very diversity was driving the fractionalization and polarization within the city — from classrooms to neighborhoods, from sweatshops to board rooms, across races and religions.

The direction Los Angeles would take in the coming years — the way it defined its leadership in this campaign — would ultimately go a long way in defining how others would see it: as the city of undying hope and optimism, the city of dreams lived out in real life, and a microcosm of a country still keeping faith with the promise held out by its founding principles, or as a city of cynicism and corruption, a city of lofty claims but empty rhetoric, a city where politics and leadership still appealed to the baser instincts of mankind and not to what Villaraigosa had once called “the better angels within us.”

“It was a hard decision for Miguel,” Nuñez, the Assembly Speaker, recalled with reporters later. “He was torn between what his heart was saying and what his unions wanted. He came to the conclusion that he had to defend the institutional interest of the labor movement and put his personal preferences aside.”

Making Contreras feel worse over the weeks since the federation’s endorsement of Hahn had been Villaraigosa’s own magnanimity, both public and private, as he assured Contreras that there were no hard feelings and that their friendship remained as solid as ever. Villaraigosa was aware that Contreras had tried unsuccessfully to broker a dual endorsement from the labor organization for both Hahn and him, but that even Contreras’ influence had limits — and that Hahn in his four years in office had delivered too much to some unions and that those individual union leaders felt obligated to the mayor.

“In my heart of hearts, I know you are there with me,” Villaraigosa told his friend, trying to assuage any guilt.

At another time, Villaraigosa said the two of them were “cut from the same cloth.” They were, after all, virtually the same age — both men were 52, though Contreras just a few months older. Both men also owed their respective political power to organized labor, although each had come to the union movement in ways that symbolized the differences in the way they had grown up.

The son of immigrant farm workers, Contreras grew up in the ranching town of Dinuba where the defining moment in his life came one pre-dawn morning in 1973 when the entire Contreras family was dragged outside their modest home and all of them fired by the ranch boss in front of the crew chiefs and his father Jesus blacklisted — for following Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers organization.

“For those who don't know me,” Contreras liked to say after retelling the story, “I've been a union man since that day in 1973 at 4:30 a.m.”

By that time Villaraigosa had been a volunteer with Chavez’s union for five years. Although their paths crossed during UFW rallies and activities, Villaraigosa and Contreras connected in the 1980s when Contreras was an organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, with much of his trouble-shooting in Los Angeles. By then Villaraigosa was a field representative and organizer with the United Teachers Los Angeles and also involved in the American Federation of Government Employees.

Around the same time that Villaraigosa won his first elective office — a bitter 1994 campaign for the State Assembly, with the backing of Supervisor Gloria Molina against the candidate of a longtime political rival — Contreras had gone to work for the County Federation of Labor where he became the political director. In a future ironic twist of fate, he became head of the federation in 1996 when its executive secretary, Jim Wood, died tragically young of cancer.

Villaraigosa recalled all that and more as his relationship with Contreras spilled out along with his emotions at the Daniel Freeman ER. A part of him had been hurt by the County Fed’s refusal to endorse him, but the feeling had been brief and without rancor or bitterness. It was one of the great lessons he had learned in the State Assembly where loyalties sometime lasted no longer than a handshake, and where he often found himself in alliance with someone he had opposed just weeks earlier.

Villaraigosa also knew what Contreras had known — and feared — since the announcement of the federation’s endorsement of Hahn: That in the labor movement, Villaraigosa had a devoted following, irrespective of endorsement, and that his ability to tap that well in the mayoral election could ultimately prove embarrassing for labor’s leadership, as well as for Contreras.

If death could ever be considered an omen, and often in Greek tragedy it was, Villaraigosa, the consummate political animal, recognized his friend death for what it was: a personal loss for him, Contreras’ loved ones, and the labor movement — but an absolute, perhaps fatal blow, to Hahn.

“[Hahn] expected, over the last seven to nine days before the election, that Miguel would be out and rallying the troops,” Jaime Regalado, the executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, told an interviewer in the wake of Contreras’ death. “Nobody has the even symbolic or the real power to speak with one voice that Miguel did.”

Tony Castro can be reached at tcastro@laindependent.com.

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