What else could anyone call dumping a record $2.5 million dollars (with $1.5 million more on the way) by a special interest group in this case Los Angeles labor unions into the campaign kitty of State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas. The unions get away with this naked effort to buy a board seat through a thinly veiled skirt the campaign finance rule limits by funneling the cash through independent committees. It’s all perfectly legal, and it’s all perfectly a sham to nab a seat.
Local unions have always pumped lots of cash into the campaigns of candidates that they believe are the most labor friendly. But they generally stayed within some recognizable bounds of spending proprieties. The Ridley-Thomas spending plunge obliterates that fine line.
It’s no surprise why. The supervisors manage the biggest county government in the nation. The more than 100,000 employees on the county payroll are the largest in the country. But the county is also tens of millions in the budget hole. That means two things. There will be deep slashes in spending on health and social services. With a projected nearly $200 million budget deficit for the county health department, for instance, the board talks of closing nearly all of the dwindling number of county-run health clinics but one. Other strapped county service agencies will be hit hard to make up for the shortfall.
That in turn means employee freezes, cuts in employee benefits and wages, and in an even worse case scenario, layoffs of county employees. Labor unions want and need the most dependable labor friendly guy they can get to keep a hawk like watch over any and every effort to gut employee contracts and staunch the pain of employee cuts. The $4 million that the labor unions are shoving to Ridley-Thomas is added insurance that they’ll get a supervisor who will keep a sharp eye on the supervisors when they start welding their budget slashing machete. With millions at stake in labor benefits, and jobs, the cash the unions are shelling out to grab the election seems like a relatively small price to protect fully labor’s back.
Parks is the last one that unions want on the board. He is a business friendly, fiscal conservative and he would be much more likely to take a long look at union contracts, and pensions and to fight anything that’s construed as excessive giveaways to county unions. He loudly protested that this kind of heavy handed spending on one candidate in a local race decidedly un levels the election playing field. He screams that the hefty union pay-off to Ridley-Thomas is proof that he’s in the hip pocket of labor.
His complaint can’t be waved off. Parks is no slouch when it comes to fundraising. He nearly doubled Ridley-Thomas’s total in the first quarter of this year, but much of it came from business groups. And it still pales in comparison to the king’s ransom Ridley-Thomas got from labor. In hard campaign dollar terms it amounts to six dollars for every one dollar that Ridley-Thomas got from non-labor campaign donors.
Ridley-Thomas’s suddenly swollen campaign war chest means that Parks now will have to work that much harder to pump the spigots from business groups and other campaign donors. The prospect that Parks could get even more cash from business groups is another big reason that labor upped the dollar ante for Ridley-Thomas. This is important for yet another reason. Running for an L.A. city or county office has become virtually a millionaire’s derby, and politicians spend nearly as much of their time arm-twisting, cajoling, pleading with, and jawboning donors to pony up money. A massive check from a special interest group gives the recipient a huge leg up over his or her opponent. They can bankroll tons of crucial ads, TV spots, and churn out reams of literature touting bragging about their accomplishments, make inflated election promises, and most importantly, beat up on their opponent. Almost certainly, much of Ridley-Thomas’s media hit will be to depict Park’s as a business industry shill.
For his part, Ridley-Thomas scoffs at the charge that he’ll be a compliant yes man on the board for labor unions. He says that he has business support too. He does. But the endorsements of a handful of prominent business leaders and the relatively small amount of money they’ve contributed to his campaign hardly add up to any semblance of balance between business and labor interests.
When the supervisors get around to making the inevitable tough decisions on labor contracts, wages and benefits, and possible job cuts, the hard fact is that labor will expect Ridley-Thomas to toe its line on resisting any cuts or give backs, no matter how bad a shape the county’s finances are in, and how fiscally prudent the cuts are.
But there’s much more at stake for labor in getting Ridley-Thomas on the board than just insuring a reliable labor vote in the coming board battles over pay and benefit issues for county employees. Los Angeles labor unions have been in the forefront of the continuing fight nationally for a living wage for newly organized union employees from security guards to hotel workers. The battles have been hard fought and labor’s successes have been mixed. With the economic meltdown and cites and counties facing massive budget cuts, the fight for a living wage will intensify, and the success or failure that unions have in that fight in L.A. County will be closely watched by unions in other states.
Labor unions can’t be faulted for doing what they do best and that’s tossing their cash at a candidate that they think will do their loyal bidding once in office. Business groups do the same. The problem is that the far over the top kind of heavy cash that the unions shoved out to Ridley-Thomas reinforces the deep public suspicion and even public disgust that candidates and their votes are for sale to the highest bidder. That may not be the case with Ridley-Thomas. At least he says not anyway. Yet, with $4 million in his pocket the voter’s eyes should stay riveted on him to see if he really means it.