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If Hilda Solis is confirmed as Secretary of Labor early next year, as seems all but certain, the special election to fill her congressional seat likely will pit long-time rivals against each other. The outcome of that contest is not so certain. But state Senator Gil Cedillo, legislative Latino Caucus chair, probably has the edge.

Solis, the gutsy, rough-and-tumble daughter of immigrants who many progressives consider to be the most liberal of Barack Obama's Cabinet appointments, upset Los Angeles's Latino establishment in 2000 with her successful primary run against a nine-term incumbent nobody thought could be beat. Her shining record on labor issues - as the state Senate's first-ever Latina, she put up some of her own money to jump-start an initiative in 1996 to get California's minimum wage raised - is matched by forward-looking perspectives and action on the environment and feminism.

A longtime observer of Solis who asked not to be named told me that the Congresswoman decided to accept the Labor post because it would give her the opportunity to "dig deep into the department and root out all the Bush appointees" and enforce labor laws the way they were meant to be enforced. And because Obama promised he would give her free rein on dealing with issues related to the working poor.

As Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for the Washington Post, has noted, Solis could well fill the role of her luminescent predecessor, the first woman in the Cabinet, Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor for 12 years under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perkins was arguably his most liberal appointee, and her broad efforts on behalf of working people was crucial in helping to make the labor movement the keystone of the New Deal coalition.

Jim Brulte, former Republican leader in the state Senate, told the Examiner:
 

"Business groups will need to be very, very well prepared when they go and see her. Because in moving forward the Obama agenda she won't be taking any prisoners..."
Music to my ears.

The future of the 32nd Congressional District seat Solis has held since 2001 will most likely depend on how a complex web of feuds and alliances, which includes the rejuvenated California labor movement that was essential to Solis's election, will play out in the months ahead.

State law requires the governor to announce a special election within 14 days of a House vacancy. Regardless of party, all candidates run on a single ballot. If anyone wins a majority, of votes s/he takes the seat outright. Otherwise, the No. 1 vote-getters from each party face off in a special election eight weeks later.

At the head of the list for the seat are two long-time politicians, Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero.

Born of immigrant parents, Cedillo grew up in gritty Boyle Heights on the eastern edge of Los Angeles proper. His father was a member of the United Steel Workers and his mother was a garment-maker. After law school, Cedillo worked for the Service Employees International Union and was SEIU's general manager from 1990 to 1996, then was elected to the state Assembly, then to the state Senate, where he'll be termed out in 2010. He chairs the legislative Latino Caucus. Although he is progressive by any measure, his actual policy achievements are quite modest.

Obviously, Cedillo has strong and long-standing labor credentials, but there could be one fly-in-the-ointment. In 2005, he backed Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn for reelection instead of Antonio Villaraigosa, with whom Cedillo had been close friends since high school. If Villaraigosa, who won that contest, takes the Obama approach, Cedillo's opposition to his second run at the mayorship might be seen as water under the bridge. But that's rarely how southern California politics operate.

The other candidate with a reasonable chance of winning is Gloria Romero, who replaced Solis in the state Senate and is now Senate Majority Leader. Like Cedillo, she was born Barstow, Calif. Before being elected to the state Assembly in 1998, Romero was an adjunct psychology professor at state universities. She's widely recognized as an expert on prisons and education. And she's a close friend of Villaraigosa.

Romero also has labor backing, some of it a consequence of her close ties to the late labor icon Miguel Contreras, the former farm worker who revived the California labor movement and led the transformative janitors' strike in Los Angeles in 2000. But getting support from top labor leaders here could be more difficult for her than for Cedillo. She'll be unlikely to get the backing of Maria Elena Durazo, Contreras's widow. After Contreras died of an apparent heart attack in 2005, Durazo took over his job as executive secretary–treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

The question for these two is whether Villaraigosa has more clout in such matters than the labor federation. In the past, there was no question that labor held the edge. The special election could be a test of the mayor's power, which some observers see as dwindling because he is at odds with a number of local power brokers, including one-time mentor Gloria Molina, one of Los Angeles County's powerful elected supervisors.

Other possible candidates are the Calderon brothers, Charles and Ron, both on the conservative side of the Democratic Party. Charles was in the Assembly in the '80s and got involved in a losing power struggle there together with other conservative Dems out to oust renowned Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. He was elected to the Senate in 1990 and termed out in '98, the same year he lost the primary race for A.G. He's been back in the Assembly since 2006, one of the few people to go from the Senate to the Assembly. (His previous terms in the Assembly were before the term limits law.) Brother Ron served in the Assembly for two terms and has been in the Senate since 2006. Neither has much chance of emerging victorious in the special election.

One probable candidate, Ed Hernandez, is a one-term Assemblyman whose chances come in around absolute zero.

Possible candidates Judy Chu, chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization (the state tax authority), and Mike Eng, her husband, an Assemblyman who replaced her when she was termed out, fall politically somewhere between the Calderons and the more liberal Latinos in the race. But neither Chu nor Eng stands much of a chance, even though Chu has a long history in politics, having started at the school board level.

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Originally posted to Daily Kos on Mon Dec 22, 2008 at 03:00 PM PST.

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