By DANIEL TAUB
Business just lost another big one.
Los Angeles voters last week approved the City Charter Reform Commission championed by Mayor Richard Riordan, but largely rejected the mayor’s hand-picked candidates instead favoring the slate backed by City Hall’s most powerful employee union.
This, despite the fact that the Riordan slate, rich with business contributions, outspent labor by a 2-to-1 margin.
“Footwork beats dollar bills any day of the week,” said attorney David Fleming, a leader of the charter reform movement.
“I know labor went door-to-door,” Fleming said. “They really hustled.”
The loss raised new doubts about the political clout of the city’s business leadership doubts that first surfaced last month with the passage of a measure forcing city contractors to pay higher minimum wages.
“It shows where the power is in the City of Los Angeles,” attorney Richard H. Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, said of last week’s election results.
“On one hand, you had the city municipal unions,” Close said. “On the other hand, you had the mayor, business groups, community organizations.”
Business did have at least one clear victory in the April 8 election rejection of a measure that would have extended a 3.75 percent business license surtax.
But ironically, that measure was defeated amid silence by the business community in fact, no one even filed a ballot argument in opposition.
That victory aside, the business leaders who backed charter reform are now faced with the prospect that the reform process will be taken over by City Hall special interests the same groups they say are at the heart of the need for reform.
Advisors to Riordan, who won reelection against a poorly funded challenge by state Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Los Angeles, say it’s a mistake to predict what course reform will take.
“I wouldn’t read too much into (the election results),” said attorney Michael Keeley, the former deputy mayor who helped engineer the charter reform campaign.
“The mayor has strong candidates in the races that are not yet decided and he has confidence that those races can be won,” Keeley said. “He also feels that regardless of who is elected, the commission will be independent and committed to reform.”
From the beginning, the campaign to have an elected commission rewrite Los Angeles’ 72-year-old charter was Riordan’s baby.
The mayor contributed $575,000 of his own money to the effort and convinced his friends in the business community including SunAmerica Inc. Chairman Eli Broad, Korn/Ferry International co-founder Richard M. Ferry and Galpin Motors Inc. owner Herbert Boeckmann II to give hundreds of thousands more.
Of the eight commissioners seated after last week’s election, seven were endorsed by the Service Employees International Union, Local 347, which represents about 9,000 blue-collar city workers.
But only two endorsed by Riordan were seated last week: former Assemblywoman Paula L. Boland and City Council aide Marcos Castaneda, who was also endorsed by Local 347.
Of the seven council districts where there will be charter commission runoffs, all seven included candidates endorsed by Local 347. But only four of the seven included candidates endorsed by Riordan.
Many chose to characterize the election as a victory for labor, instead of a defeat for business.
“I think that’s a sign that labor’s coming back in L.A.,” said former Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson, who was elected to the commission with labor support last week. “Clearly the attack’s on workers. When workers are attacked, they will respond.”
Added Julie Butcher, acting general manager of Local 347: “When push comes to shove, labor speaks for the people who work here I think the chord was struck in the communities.”
But why didn’t business which after all, helped lead the initial push for charter reform strike a similar chord?
“I think the business community has a big disadvantage politically,” Close said. “It’s believed that the business’ leadership doesn’t vote because they live in San Marino, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica. So they may have the dollars, but they don’t have the votes.”
Richard Lichtenstein, president of Marathon Communications, a downtown consulting group specializing in public affairs, said that the business community’s poor showing in last week’s election is not indicative of waning clout.
“I think the lack of success that the mayor’s group had with candidates may speak to the kind of campaign that was waged rather than the business community’s clout,” he said.
Lichtenstein said Riordan’s candidates would have had more success if Riordan himself had given charter reform and his candidates more attention as part of his own mayoral reelection campaign.
There were also varied opinions last week on how much influence the city’s labor unions will have on the rewrite of the charter, which serves as the city’s constitution.
Several seated commissioners and candidates in the runoffs said that their views were independent of their labor support.
“I look at myself as sort of a community consensus, no matter whose slate I happen to be on,” said Gloria Romero, a college professor endorsed by labor who was elected last week.
Lichtenstein agreed that it is too early to predict how the City Charter will be rewritten, even with the knowledge of who endorsed the seated commissioners.
“I don’t think just because they were labor-supported candidates one could conclude yet how this thing is going to be designed,” he said.
But Close expressed concern that a primarily labor-endorsed commission is likely to preserve the status quo a strong council and weak mayor system than to provide a serious overhaul to the charter.
“Their agendas are very different from those of businesses and residents,” Close said of union-supported commissioners. “Their agendas are more jobs, higher pay, whereas the agenda should be a cleaner, smaller, more-efficient city government.”
Fleming took a less fatalistic view.
“I got really what I wanted the creation of a citizen-elected charter commission,” Fleming said. “I think labor always knew going in they had an advantage in this kind of election. (Business cannot compete) unless you spend an enormous amount of money and buy a lot of TV.”