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Labor group pours money into three L.A. City Council races

February 9, 2013 |  8:33 pm

The powerful labor group that fought a plan to scale back retirement benefits at City Hall has spent more than $200,000 to elect three new members of the City Council, according to reports filed Saturday.

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which lobbied unsuccessfully against the council's pension rollback last fall, has spent more than $79,000 on behalf of candidate John Choi, according to Ethics Commission records. Choi, who spent less than a year on the Board of Public Works, is running in the March 5 election to replace Councilman Eric Garcetti in an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district.

The federation has spent more than $85,000 on mailers and other resources for Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, who is seeking to replace Councilman Ed Reyes on the Eastside. And it devoted nearly $43,000 to elect State Sen. Curren Price in the South Los Angeles district represented by Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is running for mayor. Other groups have spent another $36,000 on Price's behalf so far.

The huge sums from the federation raise the prospect of organized labor gaining a firmer grasp on key council seats starting July 1. Perry, Reyes and Garcetti -- all of whom are leaving because of term limits -- cast controversial votes last year to hike the retirement age and scale back pension benefits for newly hired civilian city employees, despite opposition from two dozen labor leaders.

Council members described the measure as one that would help strengthen the city's civilian pension system. But Maria Elena Durazo, the federation's top official, testified against the plan in October, calling it a "drastic step" that would push city workers into poverty when they retire. "It is going to come back to haunt you," she told the council at the time.

Under the city's campaign finance law, candidates for council can raise no more than $700 from each donor in an election. However, outside interests -- labor unions, billboard companies, business groups -- can spend as much as they want as long as they don't coordinate their efforts with their chosen candidate.

Because of the federation's spending, outside spending now exceeds $77,000 in each of those three contests, causing the city's Ethics Commission to announce Saturday that it has lifted campaign spending limits in those races. Candidates in those contests will now be permitted to spend more than $480,000 in their respective contests, as long as they have agreed to accept matching funds.

A similar development took place in the mayoral race, where outside interests -- including the Police Protective League and the union that represents employees of the Department of Water and Power -- have spent more than $600,000 on behalf of mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel.

-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall