Independent expenditures by labor unions soar in LA City Council race

Paul Krekorian
Paul Krekorian
Paul Krekorian for City Council campaign

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Voters in the eastern San Fernando Valley go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new representative on the Los Angeles City Council. The result may not depend on the candidates, but on one of the biggest independent expenditure campaigns in city history.

No stranger to politics, State Assemblyman Paul Krekorian is still surprised at the intensity of his contest for L.A. city council.

“I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before," said Krekorian. "What’s happening in this campaign is really a remarkable thing that I think people throughout Los Angeles should really take notice of.”

Krekorian's talking about the independent expenditures in the 2nd District City Council race.

Labor unions have spent in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million dollars against Krekorian – and in support of his opponent.

At his campaign headquarters in a North Hollywood shopping mall, Krekorian surveys one mailer that questions his ethics. The producers of it Photoshopped stacks of cash into Krekorian's hand.

Krekorian chuckles; “Well clearly I don’t think I’ve ever had a stack of cash like that.”

The mailer comes from the Water and Power Defense League – a political action committee controlled by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, IBEW, Local 18. It represents many L.A. Department of Water and Power workers.

The council race is nonpartisan. Krekorian and his opponent Christine Essel are both Democrats.

Both promise to cut business taxes and to make government more efficient. Krekorian emphasizes his experience as a legislator; Essel, her experience as an executive at Paramount Pictures.

Essel, who’s backed by the Chamber of Commerce, says she never sought the IBEW’s support.

"There've been no discussions with the IBEW," said Essel. "They did not have an endorsement interview and I did not seek their support."

No one at IBEW was available to comment about its campaign spending.

First, a call to the number listed on the union's report to the City Ethics Commission went to a non-working number at the L.A. Department of Water and Power – where IBEW workers work.

No representative returned calls to another number provided to the Ethic Commission.

Groups that make independent expenditures in political campaigns often like to fly under the radar. But political scientist Fernando Guerra says IBEW wields considerable power at L.A. City Hall.

"IBEW is a major player in L.A. politics," said Guerra. "You saw that in Measure B."

The IBEW-backed ballot Measure B would have required the DWP to produce more solar power – and would have likely created more IBEW jobs.

Krekorian opposed it on the grounds that it wasn’t transparent – a key reason the union may be spending to keep him out of office.

Guerra, who sits on KPCC’s board, says the IBEW’s increasingly concerned about L.A.’s energy policies.

"For instance, there's a whole movement toward alternative fuels and alternative energy and that could have potential impact on the workers," said Guerra. "So the unions want to make sure that that impact is mitigated."

The independent expenditures by the IBEW and other unions in the 2nd District City Council race irk Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies in L.A.

"I think it corrupts the system. I think it turns off voters," said Stern. "Others people would say 'no, they're an expression of free speech and the more speech the merrier.'"

Christine Essel says she likes all the “free speech.” It includes six-figure spending on her behalf by the construction unions and the Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD cops, which has spent $400,000 alone.

"They know that I have put public safety as the top priority of my campaign and I'm extremely honored to have their support," said Essel.

The firefighters and Service Employees unions have spent money on Paul Krekorian, but far less than the unions that back Essel.

The unions that back Essel also went to court seeking to invalidate city limits on how much they could raise. They failed.

Krekorian believes he'll prevail in his quest to represent the eastern San Fernando Valley in the L.A. City Council.

“They’re working very, very hard to keep me out of the horseshoe," said Krekorian, referring to the horseshoe city councilmembers sit at. "Well I’m here to say that people of this district will not be influenced by these massive amounts of money.”

The truth of that statement will come clear after 2nd District voters cast their ballots Tuesday.