- Melina Paris
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Business versus Labor Champion: The power struggle behind efforts to recall Jeannine Pearce in Long Beach
By Melina Paris, Staff Writer
There are many stories to tell about the former Navy port city of Long Beach, known as the “Iowa by the Sea.” The city has evolved over the years, some even say it now reveals a new tale of two cities.
The first city has successfully harnessed the tourism sector as a host to global travelers. Long Beach, especially downtown, is home to a number of high-end hotels such as the DoubleTree by Hilton, The Renaissance, Hotel Maya, The Hyatt Regency and The Westin, with more on the way. In April, the New York Times reported that Seattle-based real estate investor, American Life Inc. had plans for a 29-story glass high-rise adjacent to a redevelopment of the city’s civic center.
The second city belongs to the residents, many who work in the hotels.
A 2009 Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy report, Tale of Two Cities, stated that the “second” Long Beach consists of the surrounding working-class neighborhoods where poverty concentration is listed as sixth highest in the nation by the Brookings Institution.
Long Beach District 2 Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce represents both.
Some say that the power struggle between the business and labor communities that divide the city have led to the effort recall the councilwoman. An effort anchored by the events of one night.
Despite the end of an extramarital affair months earlier, Pearce’s former chief of staff Devin Cotter and she celebrated his birthday on a June night in 2017. Pearce was driving when an argument erupted between them. She pulled over to the center median of the 710 Freeway.
The Committee to Recall Council Member Jeannine Pearce issued a press release, August 2017, accusing Pearce of domestic violence and sexual harassment against Cotter from that June night. No arrest has been made and no charges have been filed against Pearce. Recall proponents also claimed that Cotter was kept on the payroll after he left his position. This has not been confirmed. Reports from the Long Beach Police Department and California Highway Patrol state that the CHP initially spotted Pearce’s car and stopped to investigate and subsequently called LBPD to assist in what appeared to be a domestic violence situation. Pearce was given a DUI test, which she passed.
That night set the framework for the efforts to recall Pearce in August. It has become the cover story for what has ostensibly become an effort by the hotel industry to take out a political opponent supported by the hotel workers’ union. For many, it was a harsh reaction to a personal incident. Many wonder what is behind such a strong reaction to a personal issue. These type of situations are common in and out of politics. In fact, in the recent past both Democratic frontrunners for California governor had similar personal situations. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa both had extra-marital affairs while in office, but neither man faced a recall. As we know, Donald Trump has had his share of infidelities.
“So, while yes, I had a personal mistake; Gavin Newsom had personal mistakes,” Pearce said. “He’s running for governor, likely going to win. Villaraigosa, another gubernatorial candidate, he’s likely going to stay in politics. There wasn’t a recall campaign against these men [who made] mistakes. The only reason that this recall campaign has teeth is because of $180,000 funded by the hotels for my advocacy for women speaking out.”
Pearce said she has tried to remain private about the incident because it was already well-documented in police reports.
As an elected public figure, she is more vulnerable to scrutiny.
Nevertheless, she believes her personal life is being used as red herring to mask political attacks on a progressive politician.
The two groups behind this effort are The Committee to Recall Jeannine Pearce and a well-funded group called Friends of Long Beach. Ian S. Patton manages the committee supporting the recall. He also owns Cal Heights Consultancy, a political consulting firm. Patton initially responded to an interview request but did not follow through by press time.
Victor Sanchez, the director of The Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs and a Healthy Community, which is anchored by LAANE, knows Pearce from her work through city council. He said the recall effort is unfortunate.
“It’s really about power,” Sanchez said. “When you follow the money you get a clearer picture of what this is about. It’s about a larger power struggle in the city and you have a few interests that are trying to use a personal issue as a front and as a means to take back power in Long Beach. Jeannine has been a champion and is meeting the immediate needs for her constituents. We’ve seen nothing less from her. She is a great partner. We’re obviously continuing to do our work within council but the thing I would be able to say is that you just have to follow the money and you will see what this is about.”
The players behind the recall effort
The Friends of Long Beach is made up of local hoteliers and developers, including, American Life Inc. Pearce said the group was formed by former Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster and labor consultant, George Urch. Foster did not respond to an interview request and his affiliation with Friends of Long Beach is not confirmed. However, longbeachreport.com reported that Friends of Long Beach supported Robert Garcia for Mayor under the belief he would continue many of Foster’s policies The recall campaign disclosure statement lists the major hotels and businesses that have put money behind this effort, totalling $180,000. They are American Life Inc., The Breakers, Long Beach Hotel Properties, Pabst Kinney, Kristie M. Pabst, Reed and Davidson LLP, Hotel Maya and The Marriot.
Pearce has a long history of supporting workers’ rights in Long Beach. Ten years before she ran for city council, Pearce was a community activist working with Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy in the fight to improve working conditions and to pass a living wage ordinance for hotel workers. This culminated in two ballot measures from 2013 to 2016: Measure N and Claudia’s Law.
Measure N was a Long Beach living wage ballot initiative to support low-wage hotel workers, which passed in November 2013. Claudia’s Law was named after a female Long Beach hotel worker who sustained a cerebral hemorrhage after working a 14-hour shift at the Long Beach Renaissance Hotel. Claudia’s Law would have limited the work loads of hotel employees and required hotels to supply staff with panic buttons as protection against sexual harassment and assault. Long Beach City Council rejected the proposal in a 5 to 4 vote in 2017.
A Tale of Two Cities
After losing 100,000 jobs in the late 70s from defense spending cuts and closure of the naval base and aerospace plants, Long Beach began a redevelopment plan. The plan was based in trade and tourism being the most significant parts of the economy. Long Beach transitioned from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based one.
The Tale of Two Cities showed the city tax dollars that go to the major hotels since the 1980s. It cites that more than $2 billion of private and public investment has been made in the hospitality and tourism industries in Long Beach.
After making $2 billion in investments, the influence hotel’s and developers have on Long Beach city politics is obvious. Long Beach aims to realize huge economic progress, progress that ideally should be good for the entire city. The Tale of Two Cities conclusion lists factors behind the emphasis on tourism, one being that successful redevelopment efforts should capitalize on natural assets of an area. For Long Beach that means taking advantage of its coastal location. Tourism and hospitality have also been fast growing sectors of the U.S. economy.
Joining the city’s economic fortunes to tourism is not new to Long Beach. Between 1900 and 1920, city leaders tried to make Long Beach the Coney Island of the West. It never quite materialized and Long Beach became a military, industrial and port town. Today, with revitalization of those sectors unlikely, the question is: “Can the currently conceptualized tourism-based strategy halt the erosion of the middle class and replace outsourced jobs and downsized areas with good jobs”
Pearce spoke about the recall effort and her background with LAANE.
She explained LAANE’s position: Its organizing efforts are based on the idea that because tax subsidies are given to hotels, Long Beach residents should be able to reap the benefits of having a good paying job in return.
“The Hyatt was one (hotel) that received rent free for 10 years that was on city land,” Pearce said. “Long Beach has a long history of trying to make it easy for hotel developments. The Westin and The Renaissance also received a large subsidy.”
LAANE worked toward getting the Long Beach City Council to pass a living wage for hotel workers. It was unsuccessful. Then in 2010, The Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs, of which LAANE is a coalition member, changed their mission from just policy to becoming an organizing and leadership development organization. A subgroup, called Long Beach Rising was started to bring everybody in for representation. For two years their focus was on base building and leadership development.
In 2012, Long Beach Coalition for Good Jobs began a field campaign to support a living wage for hotel workers, Measure N. When they were not able to get the city council to pass measure N, they took it to the voters. Pearce was a co-lead on that campaign, which won with 64 percent of the vote. The power shifted for hotel and low-wage workers and for the progressive movement. After Measure N was passed, a worker retention policy was passed that stated that if the Long Beach Airport and Convention Center changed operators, they would need to retain their workforce. This happened after new operators were coming into convention spaces, laying off employees and hiring new ones at lower wages.
“After Measure N, you saw tourism go up in Long Beach,” Pearce said. “I firmly believe that you have social justice tourism out there that says, here is a city that cares enough about their employees, their residents, their neighbors, to pass policy to protect them. I want to check out that city. That’s why people go to Seattle. That’s why people go to Portland. And, Long Beach should be a city where we can say, ‘We’ve got a thriving tourism industry that respects its workers.’”
A large base of people were fighting for progressive issues and were walking door-to-door for progressive candidates and the mayor’s race. The next round of elections in 2014 saw progressives, Rex Richardson, Roberto Uranga and Lena Gonzalez win.
Pearce as advocate
When the 2016 election came up and Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal chose not to run, Pearce decided to take a chance. She knew that hotel workers, truck drivers, those living on some of the corridors with the highest asthma rates, probably weren’t going to have a voice. So, she decided to run. Pearce said many people believed Eric Gray, her opponent, would win. He had the support of the Long Beach Police Officers Association and he had Foster’s support.
“It was old guard Long Beach and new guard Long Beach,” Pearce said. “We were at this time of this shift and when voters have to decide, ‘Do we go backwards or do we progress forward?’ That’s the tug and pull that you see on council right now.”
Pearce was elected into office July 2016. In June, 2017 the incident with Cotter occurred. In September 2017, Claudia’s Law was put on the agenda with Lena Gonzalez leading it.
Pearce said the hotels’ response to Claudia’s Law was that there was no sexual harassment happening and they opposed supplying their staff’s with panic buttons.
“I was elected based on the premise that I was going to fight for these women,” Pearce said. “It was really clear to everybody who I was during my campaign. In September, the vote happened. Unfortunately it didn’t pass.”
Pearce continued, saying her opponents will try to get her to talk about details of her personal life. They say she never publicly apologized but she counters that she did, four or five times. Pearce attended an outpatient program for two weeks and she sees therapists regularly.
The money talks
Pearce said she has to govern for everybody and that includes those who feel they haven’t had a voice. Pearce was told by her predecessor that some people in downtown don’t feel like she is listening to them as much.
“I know a lot of these people were upset by the Westin Hotel pickets,” Pearce said. “Before they went union, there were picketers every morning, right across the street from residents and so that’s what I think stirred the pot.”
Downtown residents often complained of the loud early morning protests in front of the hotel, where picketers used bull horns and noisemakers.
Pearce said she has a problem with the hotels that come to the city and the taxpayers asking for transient occupancy tax deals, for subsidies to come here. Then “based on not wanting to protect their housekeepers, … then ask taxpayers to foot the bill for an election that the majority of these folks don’t want.”
So, in this tale of two cities an industry of hoteliers and developers has put $180,000 into a the recall of a council member who advocates for the labor within these hotels. This tale is an old story that has resurfaced in a city on the cusp of major growth. In a New York Times story, After Years of Decline, a California Port City Sheds Its Past, Mayor Robert Garcia said the downtown is being reborn and recreated.
“We’ve got the welcome mat out,” Garcia said. “We’re constantly meeting with folks, hosting forums for development interest.”
Garcia’s office was contacted for this article, but Communications Director Veronica Quezada said the mayor was not available for this interview.
Piercing the truth
Pearce said she realizes that people want to know a couple things.
“They want to know if I was driving under the influence,” she said. “They want to know if I caused the damage to that gentleman’s face. I was drinking responsibly. I ate. I drank minimally and I did not make those marks to his face.”
She said it has made her hyper-aware of how difficult it is to share a story and not be victim-shamed.
“It was a night that made me realize that I was going to have to get a restraining order and that it wasn’t a safe situation to be in,” she said. “The fact is, with narcissists, every time that you regain a little bit of the power that they have managed to take away from you, the more rage they have. That’s really at the crux of what happened that night.”
She elaborated on the events of the night, as Cotter was getting in her car.
“I said to myself, ‘What am I doing?’” she said. “I remember he got in my car and had some kind of attitude and I pulled over and said, ‘If you’re going to have an attitude, get out of my car,’ and he said, ‘No, I’ll be fine.’”
Looking back, that’s exactly when she should have kicked Cotter out of her car, she said.
“From that moment on it was the most anxiety driven evening that I can recall having,” Pearce said. “The only thing that mattered was, [that] it was abusive [and] it was sick … Because I didn’t have a mark on my body, I was dubbed the abuser. The wounds that women and men face through narcissistic abuse are often harder to get over than physical violence because [with] physical violence they see it, they understand it, they believe you.
“The officers that night told me to get a restraining order. They said, ‘If you see him again call 911.’ If they hadn’t told me that I might not have called 911 when he showed up at my house later. Because your mind doesn’t work the same way when you’re under attack.
“So that happened but that’s not why I’m being recalled. These guys are trying to re-traumatize me re-abuse me, victim blame. That’s why women don’t speak out.”
Pearce said that one thing that has kept her in office and to fight the recall is believing that nothing that horrible could have happened to her without a reason, without being able to share her story. She hopes people in similar abusive situations realize it’s not their fault and that there is help out there.
The recall campaign has until May 9 to gather 6,400 signatures. Then it would go to a November election. If enough signatures are turned in by May 3, that would trigger a special election. A special election would cost the city taxpayers up to $275,000. Should they be successful in recalling Pearce, there would then be another special election costing the taxpayers up to another $275,000.
To view The Tale of Two Cities report visit: https://tinyurl.com/LBTale-Two-Cities