LA Weekly political editor Harold Meyerson pens a Powerlines obit of his friend Miguel Contreras on the Weekly website. I imagine it will also run in the paper this week.
We are, I know, electing a mayor of Los Angeles, but the real architect of the new Los Angeles died with terrible suddenness on Friday night, leaving behind a city that he more than anyone transformed into the only major American metropolis where working people have some real political power.
When Miguel Contreras became the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in 1996, the city was just beginning to climb back from the worst recession since the Thirties, and politically, it was adrift between regimes. The 20-year tenure of Mayor Tom Bradley had ended three years earlier with the election of Richard Riordan – an election in which labor was a marginal player at best. A whole new population, an entire new working class, had descended on L.A. from Mexico and Central America, but they did not figure in L.A.’s civic life, in its politics, at all.
Today, they figure, and then some – and not as a nationalist force but as the keystone of a new-model labor movement that is at the center of the city’s new, governing regime. Talk about building a new world on the ashes of the old!...
Miguel was so vibrant and omnipresent for anyone who covered L.A. politics that it’s hard to have one definitive image of him. If I do, I suppose it was the day that I arrived at his office and he diagrammed for me, with black marker on a white board, how Ludlow would win his hotly contested council seat in the very polyglot, mid-city district that had been represented by Nate Holden. In the Latino northeast quadrant, Contreras said, the Latino activists from the Hotel Workers were walking. Over here, in the more Jewish neighborhoods, Ludlow was spending all his time going door-to-door; the guy was a great advertisement for himself. Over in this corner, there was an operation funded by unions that didn’t care much about Ludlow but that wanted to ingratiate themselves to newly elected councilman Villaraigosa, who’d asked them to deliver for Ludlow. And so it went, neighborhood by neighborhood, until Contreras wound up by predicting how many votes the leading candidates would receive. On election day, he was accurate within a couple of hundred votes for each of them...
A Villaraigosa-Contreras combo would have brought together a progressive mayor with an organized progressive base, something no other American city can really claim. That base is still there, of course, but the man who shaped it into a coherent force is abruptly gone.
After a viewing and rosary this evening at St. Vincent’s Church at Figueroa and Adams, there will be a memorial service Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. I don't expect much work will get done tomorrow in City Hall — or in the Hahn and Villaraigosa phone banks.