The Wage Warrior

Politicians fear her, unions revere her, and the entire state has felt the impact of her actions. How did labor leader Maria Elena Durazo become so powerful?
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But months later the same botanica was raided by the LAPD in a prostitution sting—set up in the wake of Contreras’s death. As David Zahniser, then writing for the L.A. Weekly, would report, the coroner hadn’t conducted an inquiry, despite a state law saying that the body of anyone who hasn’t seen a doctor within 20 days before dying must be examined. Although the story was laid out in a plain, just-the-facts kind of way, Zahniser’s implication was clear: Contreras was with a prostitute (or possibly a masseuse who gave “happy endings”) when he died, and the city fathers helped cover it up to preserve the totemic leader’s legacy.

Today when you ask almost anyone who knew Contreras—at least in off-the-record conversations—you’ll hear phrases like “notorious philanderer” and “flagrantly unfaithful.” Perhaps the biggest open secret about him, though it has never been reported, was that he was carrying on a nine-year affair with the majority leader of the state senate at the time, Gloria Romero, who in Zahniser’s story was among the few people trying to find out the truth behind Contreras’s death. When I mention the article to Durazo, her easygoing manner instantly chills. “I thought it was disgusting,” she says, her voice just above a whisper and tinged with venom. “I thought that writing a story like that, which speculates and raises all kinds of issues a year after he died—I thought it was completely irresponsible and completely insensitive to our family.”

When I bring up the marital indiscretions later, she says she doesn’t want to comment. But the next day I get an e-mail from her saying, “No good person is perfect. Miguel was always faithful to the cause both of us have dedicated our lives to.”

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The labor movement in L.A. wouldn’t be what it is if Contreras hadn’t connected it with a growing Latino workforce. But the influx of Latino immigrants, especially in traditionally African American parts of the city, had led to a certain amount of tension between the two ethnic groups within the labor caucus. After Contreras’s death, the County Fed hoped to smooth things over by appointing an African American named Martin Ludlow, who’d just been elected to the city council, to succeed him. “It kind of made sense to have someone like Martin, who was a color-blind progressive, take the helm,” says Jaime Regalado. “The hope was that it would ease the tension.”

But less than a year later Ludlow resigned after investigators found that his city council campaign had been illegally aided by the public school service workers’ union, SEIU Local 99. Into the void stepped Durazo—the obvious candidate, to be sure, although the transition proved difficult. “For María Elena it was a big step,” says Courtni Pugh, the County Fed political director whom Durazo inherited from Ludlow. “I would not say that her passion was politics. Her passion was for organizing.”

Much had changed in the last decade. A Latino was mayor. Another Latino, Núñez, was speaker of the state assembly. The L.A. City Council, too, was filled with Latino surnames: Reyes, Padilla, Huizar, Cardenas. The Contreras machine had made it to the top of the mountain. Now Durazo had to hold it all together—at a time when the national labor movement was fracturing. Since 2005, a number of big internationals, including the SEIU, the United Farm Workers, and the Teamsters, had split off from the AFL-CIO to join the newly formed Change to Win. But in Los Angeles the big unions remain part of the County Fed, in no small measure because of Durazo, who’s been able to find enough common cause to keep everyone under the same banner.

“That’s really unusual,” says Joe Mathews, who was an L.A. Times political reporter before becoming a fellow at the New America Foundation. “Famously we’re so sprawling. There’s not one person who is the face or the boss of anything. But she’s managed to do that in a town where no one does that.”

Durazo, who makes $158,000 a year, has also needed to keep in line all those politicians her husband had helped get elected. In 2007, Alex Padilla’s chief of staff, Felipe Fuentes, was planning to run for the city council when he got some unwelcome news: Local term limits had just been relaxed from 8 to 12 years, and now former councilman Richard Alarcón had decided, after only a month in the state assembly, that he wanted those extra 4 years (probably in order to qualify for a city pension). He planned to run against Fuentes and yet another pro-labor Latino candidate, Cindy Montañez. It was, as one political consultant put it, “a clusterfuck.”

The consultant recalls that Durazo held a sit-down with Alarcón, Fuentes, and Montañez and laid it all out: Alarcón, the eldest, would get the city council seat. Fuentes would get Alarcón’s state assembly seat. Montañez, left with the short straw, would get some political appointment that paid six figures. Which is exactly what happened.

But there are relatively few of these power broker meetings. Durazo’s specialty has been putting together coalitions to push the labor agenda through the city council. “It’s not the same insider game,” she says. “That, Miguel was much, much better at. My approach is much more ‘Who are the interests? And why would they care about this issue? Let’s bring them to the table.’”

One of the main engines for this has been the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE, a nonprofit created by Durazo, Contreras, and a friend of theirs named Madeline Janis.