Marc Cooper on the unfortunate choice by the LA Country Federation of Labor earlier this year to back incumbent Jim Hahn in today’s Mayoral election, over former union organizer Antonio Villaraigosa, whom it backed in his 2001 challenge:

Villaraigosa, who in the last Los Angeles Times poll was floating eighteen points above the scandal-plagued incumbent, is considered to be the most pro-labor pol west of the Mississippi. The former union organizer and Southern California ACLU president had a perfect union voting record when he served as speaker of the California Assembly. The County Fed poured more than $1 million into his race when he ran against Hahn in 2001, and then supported him again a year later when he won a City Council seat. But this time around, the local federation of more than 350 unions snubbed Villaraigosa and endorsed the more centrist Hahn. The union leadership made the move in exchange for the Mayor’s support of labor’s political wish list and as part of a deal to promote the Mayor’s job-rich $11 billion airport expansion plan (which Villaraigosa opposes). As a quid pro quo Hahn appointed County Fed leader Miguel Contreras and other union allies to important city commissions. The expedient alliance with Hahn, however, is coming back to haunt labor. In the March primary election a plurality of union households ignored their leadership’s endorsement and voted for Villaraigosa. “Part of it is we are a victim of our own success,” Contreras explained to the press. “After all those years of telling people to vote for Antonio, it’s hard to tell them to vote for someone else.” And as the hard-fought runoff goes into the home stretch, things have gotten stickier. With Villaraigosa garnering the endorsement of major Latino, black and environmental leaders, as well as the local Democratic Party, John Kerry, and most of all the other major candidates who were defeated in the primary, just about the only institutional support left for Hahn comes from the labor federation.

…Hahn’s final television ad barrage is expected to focus on intensely negative themes, painting Villaraigosa as pro-gang, anticop and antireligious. With the County Federation of Labor serving as Hahn’s last significant reserve, union money could very well end up financing those attacks. At a minimum, local labor’s political imprimatur is already indelibly stamped on Hahn’s negative campaign. “This would be a good time for us to be taking an extended vacation in Tahiti,” darkly joked one top-level labor official opposed to the Hahn endorsement. “How do you explain to your rank and file that their dues are being used to beat up the guy they want to vote for?” At a time when the national labor movement is going through a highly public internal debate over where to put its emphasis–on organizing or supporting political campaigns–what happens in LA is crucial. Says the labor official: “It doesn’t make much sense to spend all that money on candidates if at a minimum you’re not spending it on the right ones, does it?”

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