Labor’s Maria Elena Durazo on the ballot for California State Senate
Maria Elena Durazo. | Eric A. Gordon / PW

2019 ILCA PW Winner, SECOND PLACE Saul Miller Award, Political Action

LOS ANGELES—Longtime labor activist and leader Maria Elena Durazo is a familiar and beloved name to hundreds of thousands of union members and working people. She is vice president for UNITE HERE International Union, which represents more than 270,000 hospitality workers in the U.S. and Canada. And for almost a decade, 2006-2015, she was the first woman elected secretary-treasurer of the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, representing the interests of more than 300 local unions. Her late husband, Miguel Contreras, had earlier served in that position. Currently she serves as co-chair of the National AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee and she is a vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Durazo had a hardscrabble upbringing as one of ten children born to Mexican immigrant workers who traveled from farm to farm in California and Oregon to work in the fields.

Now she is running for the California State Senate in District 24, comprising a huge swath of L.A. in the areas west, north and east of downtown. The district stretches from Gower St. on the west to El Sereno and City Terrace on the east, from Eagle Rock on the north to Boyle Heights and south of the 10 freeway to the south.

Each California state senator represents over 931,000 people—more than are represented by a U.S. Representative. Each state senator represents a population roughly equivalent to the state of Delaware.

The 24th District seat opened when Kevin de León, State Senate president pro tempore 2014-2018, termed out. He is now running in the primary race against sitting U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

“What made me decide to run?” Durazo asked herself rhetorically at a recent (May 8) garden party in Highland Park, one of almost three dozen such house meetings she has attended so far on behalf of her campaign. “I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to run. Something was going on in my mind and in our country and I made up my mind, this is the time to jump in.

“Here we have this dangerous person in the White House and he’s coming after everyone in our community. We have to keep pushing forward.” Durazo’s original campaign slogan that appeared on billboards around town was “Resist Trump,” although that seems to have disappeared from her current campaign literature. Her door-to-door handout says, “I decided to follow Cesar Chavez’ example and dedicate myself to a life empowering others.” That statement stands opposite a full-page double portrait of her alongside revered Farm Worker Union founder Dolores Huerta.

Building on her labor organizing experience, she told the gathering, “I don’t know any other way of doing things than from the bottom up.” At this stage, she says, “It’s not just mail, it’s knocking on doors. We’re up against those who want to stop us from voting.”

At her appearances, she related, many people supporting her have warned, “We’re going to hold you accountable. And you know what I reply? I’m going to hold you accountable too, to stay active, keep organizing and stay in touch.”

In her campaign literature she underlines this point. “I am not asking you to send me to Sacramento. I am asking you to come with me to the State Capitol. Because I believe more in the power of people coming together than I do in the power of government.” Her pink and white campaign button features the single word WE in the top half of the circle, with her name and “Democrat for State Senate” in smaller print below—and, naturally, the union bug.

High rents, high prices for homes, and homelessness are the issues Angelenos are talking about these days. These are among Durazo’s chief concerns. “No one should be fearful of losing their shelter—the roof over their heads. We need to welcome newcomers to our neighborhoods, but not accept the kind of change that pushes people out.” In many ethnic areas this has been an issue, with increasing gentrification and militant resistance.

Most of all, in this economy, “We’re got to create good jobs. So many people are trying to live on minimum wage. Where is the green economy here?”

Responding to her constituency

Hands raised for questions. What’s your outreach to Korean voters (L.A. has the largest Koreatown outside for Korea), asked Rossana. Durazo is planning precinct walks and telephoning to that area. Also, she has the endorsement of Korean-American Democrats.

José wondered how she would confront the wide diversity and polarization in District 24? “I represented a lot of diverse interests at the County Fed—over 300 unions. Building trades interests are different from a hotel worker. We have to have victories, like on homelessness, where everyone wins.”

People’s World asked about her public endorsement of former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for governor in light of his favoring charter schools, accepting money from payday lenders and Herbalife, and waffling on the issue of healthcare for all in California. “I’ve known and been friends with Antonio for forty-plus years. He called out racism on the treatment of immigrants. He worked with student organizations in Southern California on farm labor struggles that I was working on up north. He was in the Chicano high school walkouts fifty years ago. He’s been a union organizer, an Assembly member, where he expanded the healthy families program. I know what he cares about. Public transit. Good union jobs, not just for developers. Hiring locally, meaning African-American and Latino workers. He stood out front with hotel workers, port workers. He is not anti-union. He was marching on May Day before anyone else. He has acted on most of the issues I’ve worked on. I don’t see another candidate with his experience. We disagree on other issues.”

Ismael: What about Healthcare for All? “I hope we do it sooner rather than later.”

How can we use community colleges to train young people to lead, with civic engagement, community organizing, bringing up the next generation of Maria Elena Durazos? This question visibly excited the candidate: “I’m a big believer in that. That’s my career. At UNITE HERE and at the County Fed I left them in the hands of much younger people. I believe in passing it on.”

Question: There’s a lot of animosity around the charter schools issue. How do we bridge the gap between teachers and families? This one also elicited an animated response. “I don’t like, and I don’t support privatizing public education. Public education should be public and not for profit. (Applause.) But some parents don’t think their kids are getting a good education. They’re probably not aware there are all kinds of different schools out there—trade schools, magnet schools. Why are some of them failing? The solution is not privatizing. Charter schools do not have the same list of requirements for a good education. It’s a majority people of color children that are not getting the education they deserve. We should consider making a good education a constitutional right in California.”

Rosalio asked about progressive taxation. “Prop 13 is a big problem. We’ve got to solve that. I don’t think we get enough in return for the tax credits we give. And what we get can be in different forms, not only jobs and development: housing, park space, higher buildings and greater density.”

Durazo’s opponent in the June 5th primary is Peter Choi, a small business owner who has endorsed Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom for governor. He lived abroad during much of his childhood as the son of a South Korean ambassador stationed in various countries. Most political pundits predict a safe win for Durazo.

The evening would not have been complete without an appeal for funds for the campaign (the event raised an average of over $100 per person attending), and for volunteers. People can call the campaign office at (323) 985-8890 or contact it by email:, or stop by at the headquarters, 2111 E. Cesar E. Chavez Ave., Los Angeles 90033. Parking is located behind the building on St. Louis St. Big upcoming concentration dates are May 12 from 9 am to 1 pm, May 16 from 4 to 7 pm, and Union Day on May 19 from 9:30 am to 1 pm.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.