Home > News and Politics > TONIA REYES URANGA’S ‘ONCE-IN-A-CHANCE LIFETIME’ AND THE BALANCE OF POWER IN LONG BEACH

TONIA REYES URANGA’S ‘ONCE-IN-A-CHANCE LIFETIME’ AND THE BALANCE OF POWER IN LONG BEACH

TONIA REYES URANGA

BY DAVE WIELENGA

These are the waning days of Tonia Reyes Uranga’s run for her political life—and perhaps the darkness before the dawn of a new balance of power in Long Beach. Too heavy? Maybe not. Defeat in Reyes Uranga’s June 8 showdown with well-connected newcomer James Johnson for the 7th district seat on the Long Beach City Council would return her to private citizenry for the first time since 2002. Victory could mean the end of the so-called Mayoral Majority that’s been steered for the past four years by just-re-elected Bob Foster. What would you call that?

“This is a once-in-a-chance lifetime,” is the way Reyes Uranga put it near the end of another day at her Atlantic Blvd. campaign headquarters—although that’s not exactly the way she meant to put it. She heard herself mix up the words, but when she tried again, they out the same tangled way: “This is a once-in-a-chance lifetime.”

You get the point—it’s been a wearyingly long and complicated campaign for one of Long Beach’s most-fierce political warriors.

When it began last year, Reyes Uranga’s husband, Long Beach City College trustee Roberto Uranga, was running for the seat she’s occupied for the past eight years. But in mid-October he unexpectedly announced he was dropping out. A few days later, Reyes Uranga a-little-more-expectedly announced she was dropping in—and because of Long Beach’s term-limit laws, undertaking a write-in campaign, which had been done successfully only by former Mayor Beverly O’Neill. Meanwhile, Johnson, a 32-year-old protégé of Mayor Foster, had burst out of the gate with a huge campaign war chest and long list of endorsements.

In the April 13 primary, however, Reyes Uranga’s name recognition and record of service—as well as the vote-dispersing presence of two other candidates—was enough to keep Johnson from getting a majority that would have earned him election.

“I made the runoff—that was the best scenario,” Reyes Uranga reflected. “I mean, a write-in campaign is such a big unknown: will people know what to do? No matter how many times you repeated the instructions—they had to both fill in a box and write my name—it was still a confusing process, and a little bit scary. Things don’t always work out, but this time they did.”

Yet even as she savored that accomplishment, Reyes Uranga looked a little wistful.

“Of course, we would have loved to win it outright,” she acknowledged, smiling with a little embarrassment at her greediness. “Given that it was a write-in, though, this was the next-best thing.”

REYES URANGA’S NAME will be printed the ballot in the June 8 runoff, and that ought to improve her chances. Some observers, including Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Randy Gordon, speculate it makes her the favorite.

What definitely raises the stakes, however, is the victory that Steve Neal achieved on April 13 over 9th district incumbent Val Lerch, who was also attempting a write-in for a third term. For the past four years Lerch has tended to lean the way Mayor Foster has pushed, which has generally not been in support of Long Beach’s working class—Exhibit No. 1 is the clean trucks program that placed the financial burden for reducing Port of Long Beach air pollution on the independent drivers. Neal’s campaign was strongly supported by the same organized labor money and volunteers that are campaigning for Reyes Uranga’s re-election.

“We definitely made a difference in Neal’s election,” said Leigh Shelton, a communications coordinator for Unite Here’s Local 11, which represents hospitality, restaurant and airport workers and has been trying to improve working conditions in Long Beach hotels. “We had our members and non-union hotel workers walking six days a week—every day except Friday. We knocked on 10,000 doors during the six weeks before the election.”

According to Shelton, 282 volunteers—again, mostly Unite Here members, but also non-members and students—are canvassing neighborhoods in support of Reyes Uranga.

“It’s important to keep Tonia,” said Shelton, “because she is a real leader—one of the few elected officials in Long Beach with the political courage to demand living-wage jobs in return for the developments they approve, and often subsidize with public money.”

If this effort does help Reyes Uranga get re-elected, the reverberations among other Long Beach City Council members who aspire to higher office could be even more important—perhaps fracturing a coalition that has tended to support Foster’s position on many crucial issues over the past four years.

Foster has almost always been able to count on the votes of Suja Lowenthal, Gary DeLong, Dee Andrews and Lerch, and has usually been able to achieve a majority with by picking up Patrick O’Donnell, Robert Garcia—or both. He’s done this by alternately dangling the carrot of his fund-raising connections (most-recent example: Foster raised a quarter-million bucks for his re-election campaign against a junior college political science student) and wielding the stick of deft power plays executed by his chief of staff, Becki Ames (last year they made an example out of former housing commissioner Jack C. Smith, deciding not to reappoint him after hearing rumors that Smith had privately criticized the mayor’s Measure I; Smith denied making the criticisms).

Consequently, the June 8 runoff could play out like this: if it turns out that Foster’s public endorsements and private arm-twisting aren’t enough to get Johnson elected over union support, upwardly aspiring council members may have to reconsider their alliances—and their votes.

That might persuade Lowenthal to behave like the candidate who first won election in 2006 with a $30,000 independent expenditure by Unite Here, rather than voting for developments without living-wage protections.

As for some others, Garcia’s transformation from Republican to Democrat before his run for the 1st district council seat in 2008 is testimony to his talents in political calculus, 4th district representative O’Donnell was spotted last week at a Reyes Uranga fundraiser, and somebody probably ought to tell Dee Andrews that Neal’s staff will include Al Austin, the labor consultant who barely lost to Andrews in 2007. Of course, Foster endorsed Austin in that race, so the math isn’t perfect.

Presented with all that political ciphering, Reyes Uranga opted to keep her calculator in her pocket.

“To me, the bottom line is that I need to be re-elected because I want to help my 7th district constituents—and all Long Beach residents—get back to work and keep their neighborhoods safe and clean,” she says. “If you ask someone from the unions, of course they say, ‘It shows we are here to stay, that we can win in Long Beach.’”

In fact, that is what they said.

“This is the first time we’ve put it all out there, but it’s not just going to be for this election,” said Rachel Torres, research analyst for Unite Here Local 11. “We are thinking 2012, too, when council members will be seeking re-election or higher office.”

Reyes Uranga insists she prefers a broader perspective.

“If you ask me or others on the council, I think what this really represents is having representation that reflects working-class communities,” she says. “The 9th district is a working-class district, and Steve Neal reflects that. The 7th district is a working-class district, and I reflect that. More and more people are looking closer at whether or not a candidate really reflects their most-important concerns—because when you don’t have a job, or a good job, every decision that is made by someone in power seems to affect you even more.”

WHAT HAS RANKLED many in Long Beach as they have watched the city council render decisions on many significant issues over the years has been its reluctance to ask serious questions—and get real answers—before the vote. The city’s face is pocked with the consequences, from the Queen Mary to the Aquarium to the Pike, and the wait-and-see has just begun on the recent swap of the Public Service Yard for 33-plus acres of degraded Los Cerritos Wetlands-area property.

Less obvious is the very personal toll on the people whose livelihoods have been caught in the city’s transition to a tourism economy, from those who work in the hotels constructed to accommodate the conventioneers and sightseers to those who actually do the construction.

It happened again on April 20, when the City Council unanimously approved zoning exemptions to accommodate the $1 billion Golden Shore project, a massive multi-use development that promises to overhaul downtown during the course of a decade. Well-known local developer George Medak also promises that the project—a joint effort by pillars-of-the-community Molina Healthcare and the Keesal, Young & Logan law firm—will create 2,200 construction jobs along the way.

“But what kind of jobs?” Reyes Uranga wonders. “Are they good jobs? Do they pay living wages? Are they sustainable? If they have a hotel are they going to allow for a (union-organizing) cardcheck for employees? What does this project really mean for the people of our community?

“No one asked those questions—except me. Everyone based their vote on these guys’ character or reputation … or their bank account. It’s about your bank account and who you know. It’s true. Nobody wanted to disrespect them, to ask them the questions that we are supposed to ask as members of the council, for our constituents. That’s what I’m talking about: we don’t even have the guts to ask the right questions.”

On the other hand, the vote to approve the Golden Shore project was unanimous—that is, it included Reyes Uranga, who in February signed a pledge to support a set of policy initiatives aimed at creating good jobs for working families and creating healthy communities in Long Beach. That pledge to the Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs & a Healthy Communitycommitted her to:

  • A plan to ensure that the Long Beach hospitality industry provides good jobs with living wages.
  • A plan to ensure that major new developments in Long Beach provide community benefits, such as job training, local hiring and affordable housing.
  • A sustainable plan that ensures green jobs at the Port of Long Beach are also quality jobs.

So?

“I was going to vote no on it and I contacted Skip [Keesal, of the law firm],” Reyes Uranga explained. “He was freaked out that he was going to be associated with a negative controversy because, you know, he’s an upstanding citizen, a great person, somewhat liberal, who backs the right candidates—in my eyes, anyway. His wife’s a Catholic, one of those kind that go all the way to the grotto or whatever, Lourdes, and prays, and he’s a big Dem—I mean, just to say, I think his heart is in the right place.”

And?

“I had a 2 ½- , three-hour lunch with him. Now, I never sat with that guy before, and he asked me to lunch for three hours at 555 East—and I told him, ‘Your character is on the line here because I trust you, because otherwise I vote no. Don’t leave me feeling bad about signing this pledge about what kind of jobs or developments we’re going to have in this city.’ He gave me his word that he would meet with the coalition—he gave me his word.

“And then I said, ‘OK, I have to leave now’—because I really don’t have the luxury of a three-hour lunch. And then, on Tuesday, I voted for it.”

IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE any other member of the Long Beach City Council telling this story to a reporter with a tape recorder running, and as usual, Reyes Uranga never asked to go off the record. On the other hand, her conversation with Keesal at a restaurant is not the same as grilling him in open council session.

“Yeah,” Reyes Uranga acknowledged. “If you’re a well-known person with a whole lot of money, you do kind of get by on a lot of stuff.”

Her method was not ideal, but perhaps getting Keesal to promise a meeting with the coalition during a private meeting was more effective than a public interrogation and a lone “no” vote—especially when she reveals it afterward in the press.

Reyes Uranga says the same techniques might be valuable in one of the biggest issues facing the city—the sustainability of the pensions promised to public employees.

“Yes, we do have to attack the pension issue, but we don’t have to be mean-spirited and highfalutin about it,” she says. “My concern is we have too many people riding this wave; some people say Gary [DeLong] campaigned on it. These are people’s lives and their jobs that we’re dealing with. I think we have to be respectful.

“To do it on the front page, to do it in a way that’s sensational—having council members or even the mayor shooting these political, inflammatory comments across the bow—doesn’t do any good when we are trying to ask these employee associations to sit down and talk to us. Because remember, we have valid contracts with these associations and if we want to change them we have to ask them to reopen those contracts. If they say no, we’re stuck.”

Reyes Uranga says that if voters retain her perspective on the council—especially now that they’ve added Neal’s—it could go a long way toward finding a solution to this predicament.

“Having some kind of labor-oriented people on the council changes the discussion—it’s not as sensational,” she says. “It brings a more human touch because we start looking at what it really means to be a worker in this city. Because to simplify it and say pensions are the root of all evil and that employees are running the show is ridiculous. They are hurting just like everyone else.”

THE PHONE RINGS, and Reyes Uranga is the only one left to answer it—everyone else has gone home for the day. It’s a resident of the 7th district calling, unhappy about a low-hanging tree branch. Reyes Uranga spends nearly 10 minutes on the matter, writing down the address and phone number, explaining procedure, promising to follow up. It’s the part about being a city councilmember that may seem trivial amid the discussion sof the city’s big issues, but is actually the nuts-and-bolts of the job.

“I’m better able to handle things like that now,” says Reyes Uranga. “I got so freaked out the first time someone called me about a tree, a sidewalk, a pothole, a parking issue—the daily things that really are the basis for what council members do. But now I know what to do.

“And I’ve found that the more competent I am in terms of the little things, the better able and the more freedom I have with the bigger issues. It can be a double-edged sword, though, because if you don’t fix the little problem—and you can’t fix everybody’s—it will bite you the next time you run for office. People can get nasty, but I love the challenge. Sometimes, if I can get them from nasty to just really bad, I feel I’ve done my job. And if I can make them happy?”

Reyes Uranga smiled. She’ll find that out on June 8.

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  1. Dr. B
    May 27, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Noone on the council is perfect. Standing up to the Foster Machine is incredibly important for any politician in the LBC. James is young, smart,and I really like him as a person, but he is already compromised. Tonia get stuff done, sticks up for the little guy, and with very disarming questions, she fakes ’em out and usually scores! Excellent article. I miss the District.

  2. danny
    May 27, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    great job, Dave.

  3. Joe Mack
    May 27, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    Here are the answers which you seek.

    http://www.longbeachpolitics.homestead.com

  4. Chris Fuentes
    May 27, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Well written, you manage to tell the story with HER words, putting shape to someone who is, to say the least, ‘multifaceted’. I admire her candor and chutzpah, sadly this kind of elected official is the exception and not the rule. I think she will win because she shows up and does her job.

  5. Joe Mack
    May 28, 2010 at 6:32 am

    “I’m better able to handle things like that now,” says Reyes Uranga. “I got so freaked out the first time someone called me about a tree, a sidewalk, a pothole, a parking issue—the daily things that really are the basis for what council members do. But now I know what to do.

    MY GOODNESS! EIGHT YEARS LATER AND TONIA NOW, KNOWS WHAT TO DO!
    OR, IS IT FOR ONLY A FEW WEEKS EACH ELECTION TIME. AS PER ANSWERING PEOPLE’S PHONE CALLS AND EMAILS, WELL SHE HASN’T ANSWERED MINE. THOUGH, I AM ASKING FOR MORE THAN TRIMMING MY FRONT YARDS TREE BRANCHES. I’D LIKE HER TO ANSWER MY
    PESKY-QUESTIONS. TO BE FAIR, HER OPPONENT IS UNWILLING AS WELL.

    http://www.longbeachpolitics.homestead.com

    • lbcitygirl
      May 28, 2010 at 7:13 am

      Pesky questions, or just bizarre ones?

    • lbcitygirl
      May 28, 2010 at 7:13 am

      And please stop spamming every news site in town with your weird web site.

  6. Judy Crumpton
    May 28, 2010 at 9:07 am

    Tonia is a strong legislator who makes good decisions for all of Long Beach and is very loyal to the residents of her district. Four more years of her service is a true benefit to all of Long Beach. She is her own decision maker, no puppet person here folks! VOTE for Tonia and support her campaign!!

  7. marie
    May 28, 2010 at 9:30 am

    I hate to think of the city without Tonia. I hope for those of you who want to see her continue fighting for working families that you connect with her campaign ASAP and Volunteer if even for a day. Every single Vote Counts, and the personal connection is really inspiring.

  8. Joe Mack
    May 28, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Dear lbcity girl,

    I’d love you to tell me what a bizarre question is?

    I find the establishment press is more than likely to ask a boring one.

    Personally, I’ll take bizarre to boring every time.

    Though, (personally) I don’t believe I’ve ever asked anybody a bizarre question.

    Nowadays, banality is seen as a sign of sophistication. And to be undecipherable is to be brilliant!

    Joe

    • wrongbeachjohn
      May 28, 2010 at 2:02 pm

      joe you look like you need to brush your teeth!

    • lbcitygirl
      May 28, 2010 at 5:55 pm

      The issue that I am having with you is that I do not appreciate you posting your spam everywhere. If you have a question ask it. If you are going to contribute to the conversation, welcome aboard. But if you are here for self promotion run along.

      If I was moderator of Redistricted, I’d be deleting your link unless it somehow added to or illuminated an interesting point related to the post I’d made. And if you did it again I would block you from all future posts.

      And your last comment kind of illustrates by what I mean when I say bizarre.
      Why don’t you go hit your sock drawer, pal?

  9. Joe Mack
    May 29, 2010 at 8:07 am

    I am happy you are not the moderator of Redistricted. I despise censorship. That you approve of it makes you particularly undesirable.

    I do think you and wrongbeach would make great friends as you both enjoy making personal lame-insults.

    I won’t respond in kind as as crude simple-minded retorts are not my style.

    I will say that you expose a great lack of personal charm and wit. But, maybe you’re just having a bad day…cramps, or, (I’m just guessing as you prefer to hide your image) hot flashes?

    • lbcitygirl
      May 29, 2010 at 10:19 am

      It is not censorship.
      If you want to promote your personal website, I’m sure Dave Wielenga would love for you to purchase an ad. Then I will gladly support your self promotion as well.

      And I’d suggest if you can’t handle the insults, maybe you should go elsewhere?
      And frankly, after reading on your blog about how Ann Coulter makes you want to visit your “sock drawer” you are the last person I’d want to charm. (“Sock drawer”– worst and grossest euphemism I have ever heard for wacking off. Not only did reading that give me the willies it was way TMI!)

      Have a nice day Joe Wack.

    • wrongbeachjohn
      May 29, 2010 at 11:02 pm

      joe no “personal-lame insult”, just a fact communicated to you at the level you infest.

  10. Joe Mack
    May 29, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    You misread my column, I despise Ann Coulter. I was making fun of her as regards to Ayn Rand, not needing to wear mini-skirts to attract attention.
    I urge everyone to read the column your themselves:

    http://www.joeedwardmack.com

    As for your being against, wacking-off…I assume you, lbcitygirl are also against other forms of sexuality, i.e., gay sex, etc.

    I truly wish you ill. I DESPISE intolerant people.

    I like the Tennssee Williams quote:

    “Nothing human disgusts me, unless it is cruel or unkind.”

    You, longbeachcitygirl disgust me!

    Joe

    PS: Dear Dave Wielenga,

    Those two chicks are rather lame, but, I’m not asking you to delete them.

    • lbcitygirl
      May 29, 2010 at 4:24 pm

      So then, let’s hear some examples of the questions you’d like Tonia to answer now that we’ve gotten through all that!

  11. Joe Mack
    May 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    My goodness! No personal insults, how nice.

    Ok, here’s one:

    Tonia, why were you so silent after the Halloween-attack in your district?
    I’m really not interested in other issues such as taxes, pollution, crime. I know of no pols whom are in favor of them. With me it’s all PERSONAL and nothings more personal than a person’s ability to feel safe on the streets. It’s so basic.
    Oh, lbcitygirl…if you are a friend of Tonia’s…are going to her election night party and they are serving refreshments with drinks. Please attempt to secure me an invite. If I am stuffing my face I will not feel motivated to ask questions.

    Joe

    • wrongbeachjohn
      May 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm

      A wacked off wack job!

  12. RW Crum
    May 30, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Oh please. Painting this broad with a soft brush as someone who now “gets it”? I’ve said it countless times, she’s a crook, her husband is worse, and she needs to go, even if James Johnson is the alternative. She’s been part of the problem for eight years, and ignoring termlimits, ordinarily a safeguard for incompetent politicians, is yet another example of her arrogance. Once elected, she’ll continue to push her racist agenda, dole out patronage, and generally lookout for her own interests, helping others only if it benefits her in some way. Get her out of town.

  13. lbcitygirl
    May 30, 2010 at 8:25 am

    http://www.lbreport.com/news/may10/campcon.htm

    Dave, I’ve been confused about his story ever since you posted it. And I posted a link that helps show why I am confused. I see from the LBReport’s article above that Mayor Foster and his wife both contributed to Johnson’s campaign. So I do no understand why the balance of power shifts if Tonia looses? It seems Foster would prefer Johnson. Wouldn’t the “so-called Mayoral Majority” be going strong, maybe stronger with Johnson’s victory?
    thanks, LBCG

  14. lindaonline
    May 30, 2010 at 9:43 am

    LBCitygirl, the balance of power shifts IF TONIA WINS!

  15. Joe mack
    June 1, 2010 at 4:58 am

    The balance of power stays the same unless a real populist is elected. I can offer Nick Dibs as an example. He is as decent as the day is long. His natural constituency are the middle-class and anti-war. However, those whom are unconnected (non-Union) are not in favor at this time.

  16. lindaonline
    June 2, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Joe, the halloween attack occured in the 8th district, do some research!

  17. Joe Mack
    June 2, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Dear Linda,

    You are right! Did anyone condemn Gabelich! Remember her “closed” meeting?
    I do recall ALL the pols commenting, tepidly…

    Bob Foster’s purple-peace arm-bands.

    As far as doing research. Hey, I don’t get paid for my rants, it’s soley for my personal-entertainment.

    Is anyone other than Tonia and that blonde-dude running? IF not, I really think it would be silly if you got our of your Lazy-boy and voted, don’t you?

    Speaking of Tonia’s door to door campaigning..She better not come to my door on Monday night at 9. I am a Bachelor/Bachelorette fanatic! I care much more about whether Allie will find true love than who’s gonna be elected in the 7th!

    Of course, if leggy-activist Jill Hill were in the running, I may very well have touted her candidacy.

    BTW, is leggy-lawyer Heather Mahood still work for the city?
    When I used to cover the council meeting live, I could always count on her gams to jolt me back to consciousness when Thomas Murphy started talking.

    Joe

    • lbcitygirl
      June 2, 2010 at 10:48 pm

      I am beginning to get an inkling as to why those nasty politicians don’t answer your pesky questions, Joe.

  18. Joe Mack
    June 3, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Dear Lbcitgirl,

    I think you are correct.

    But, I am sure they will answer all the soft-ball banal queries the polite-press serves up. Along with (I’m sure you’ve noticed) NOT really answering the questions “asked.”

    Oh, if only more of us “demanded” serious-responses from the politicians things might very well change for the better.

    I remember Laura Richardson one of the few pols whom actually offered VALUE to potential supporters. Her voters were given a coupon for a free hamburger. I don’t recall if fries and coke were included. Those folks were the only NON-SUCKERS, among the voters (along with the Unions,) whom received REAL value.

  19. June 6, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Joe, how can you demand a serious response to a question that is not based in fact? Such as your question: “Tonia, why were you so silent after the Halloween-attack in your district?” If the very premise of your question is incorrect–the attack did not happen in Tonia’s district–your attempt to “demand” an answer to a “serious” question is at best a distraction and at worst a destruction of the public discourse.

  20. oscarwildefan
    June 7, 2010 at 6:55 am

    Dave,

    As I recall, after the Halloween attacks everyone had something to say, Tonia’s response was as tepid as the rest. I guess Bob Foster’s was the worst recalling his purple-peace arm-bands.

    Usually pols LOVE grandstanding about Hate-Crimes. That this one was
    black-on-white must have made them nervous.

    As per distrations, god,I need them!

    I don’t think I’m capable of destroying public discourse as only the boring seem to be taken seriously.

    I do applaud YOU personally for not censoring me.

    Thank You!
    Joe Mack, http://www.longbeachpolitics.homestead.com

  1. June 8, 2010 at 2:11 pm
  2. June 8, 2010 at 5:03 pm
  3. June 23, 2010 at 8:29 pm

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