Tribes vs. labor spat may spill into election

The upcoming congressional race between Sen. Jenny Oropeza and Assemblywoman Laura Richardson has no shortage of subplots. There is an ethnic component: Richardson is African-American, Oropeza is Latino. Then there’s the inherent Senate vs. Assembly rivalry. But the race may also become a proxy in the battle between labor unions and Indian tribes over new gaming compacts pending in the state Legislature.

The fight over ratifying five major new gaming compacts is threatening to spill over into the state’s upcoming congressional election in Long Beach. Two sitting legislators are squaring off in the race to replace the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald. But their votes on the compacts could translate into key political endorsements from interests who have been engaged in a brawl over the compacts in the Legislature.

Oropeza, D-Long Beach, has long been a champion of organized labor. But earlier this year, she voted against labor, and with Senate leadership, to support the compacts on the floor of the state Senate.

Soon after the vote, a group of labor leaders, including Maria Elena Durazo, the powerful head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, met with Oropeza to express their displeasure. “There were a lot of folks who were unhappy,” says Mary Gutierrez, the organization’s spokeswoman.

Oropeza also heard from disenchanted members at last weekend’s state Democratic Party Convention during a meeting of the party’s labor caucus.

Gutierrez says it is yet to be determined what role her organization will play in the upcoming special election. “We need to bring in the affiliates to determine what type of role we’re going to play. We’ll be looking at it very soon.”

Tribal sources say Richardson has been sympathetic to tribal causes, though they do not necessarily count her as a firm vote on the compacts. But Richardson could win just by labor staying neutral. If Southern California labor leaders are angry enough at Oropeza to withhold their support, that could benefit Richardson, or any other candidate in the race.

But if labor abandons Oropeza, tribes could help pick up the slack. Oropeza has been the beneficiary of tribal political spending in the past. In her hotly contested race against former Assemblyman George Nakano last year, a coalition of tribes dubbed Team 2006 spent $50,000 on an independent-expenditure committee on Oropeza’s behalf. (In that same race, the Service Employees International Union spent $20,000 on IEs, and a coalition of consumer attorneys, environmentalists and the California Nurses Association ponied up another $100,000.)

Meanwhile, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians just sent out a mail piece to voters praising Oropeza for her support of the compacts. The mailer praises Oropeza as “a problem solver for our schools.”

Oropeza’s political consultant, Parke Skelton, admits his client’s vote for the compacts “could play a role. The compact vote was a priority for UNITE HERE. We’ll see how much of a priority it is for the rest of labor.”

Either way, Skelton says, labor will play a key role in the race. “Labor is going to have a lot of influence primarily because they have a lot of members in the district,” says Skelton.

Now, with labor apparently wavering in their support of Oropeza, there will be additional scrutiny on Richardson’s vote on the compacts if and when they come to the Assembly floor.

Richardson has traditionally supported tribal issues in the past, but her office says she has not taken a formal position on these specific compacts.
Richardson, like Oropeza, may find herself caught between labor and the tribes. Labor has spent money against Richardson in the past. In her 2006 race against Assembly staffer Warren Furutani, labor groups spent more than $30,000 in IEs in an effort to beat Richardson.

But much of that had to do with Furutani’s personal relationships inside the building, and Richardson’s political consultant, John Shallman, is hopeful she may get some labor backing against Oropeza.

“Laura’s always had a good relationship with labor,” says Shallman. “She’s been very positive on a lot of labor issues, but she’s also had a good relationship with the small business community. Both have seen her as a strong advocate and strong voice.”

Shallman says there are other key factors working in Richardson’s favor. While the district, by population, is more than 43 percent Latino and only 25 percent African American, Shallman says Latinos in the district don’t vote as often as the district’s black residents.

“Every vote scenario, even in a 21 percent turnout, which is high, shows the electoral profile 40 percent, 15 percent Latino. The lower the turnout, the wider that split gets,” he said. “They made it a safe African-American seat after redistricting. It’s not a Latino seat. No matter who supports who, demographics play such a huge role in these specials.”

But Skelton says other issues may also loom large. Among them, he says, is Richardson’s support for a liquefied natural gas plant in Long Beach Harbor. The LNG plant is vehemently opposed by environmentalists, who have ponied up for Oropeza in the past.

While Richardson and Oropeza are the only declared candidates thus far, others are said to be looking at the race. Among them are Long Beach Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, daughter-in-law of Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, and Gerrie Shipskie, a former community college president. Other possible candidates include Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas and former Assemblyman Jerome Horton.

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