Former governor and current gubernatorial hopeful Jerry Brown speaks to the crowd at the annual Labor Day picnic put on by the Orange County Labor Federation. (Photo by: Norberto Santana, Jr.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010 | Great Recession job losses are near 10 million nationwide. Unemployment rates both locally and nationally are at or near double digits.

Economists and policymakers are coming to a realization that untold numbers of clerks, maids, construction workers, maintenance people and teachers arrived at quite awhile ago: Jobs are a scarce commodity, and the middle class is suffering as much as it has since it was created.

It was against this ugly backdrop that Orange County labor leaders gathered at the Santa Ana Zoo picnic grounds this weekend for their traditional Labor Day celebration. The annual workers’ weekend has come to represent a kind of starter pistol for the political season.

Several big political names — from the local and state levels — were in attendance, including former governor and current gubernatorial hopeful Jerry Brown. The message being delivered to these folks from labor leaders this political season is as stark as the current economy.

“It’s about the survival of the middle class,” said Tefere Gebre, who heads Orange County’s Central Labor Council.

“We’re going to spend money,” Gebre said.

And they’re going to insist on results.

“I don’t care if you have an R or D next to your name,” said Gebre. “The question is whether you will deliver to our members.”

Saturday, Gebre and others said to expect labor to make the case for heightened public sector spending on transportation, education and health care infrastructure. There will also be calls for more tax equity with higher earners and corporations kicking in more.

But it all will come with the same underlying message.

“This election is all about jobs,” said Art Pulaski, secretary/treasurer of the California Labor Federation.

Pulaski and other top labor leaders gave a sense of how they intend to frame the debate over the next couple months. Republican candidates Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are “job slashers” because of their private sector CEO experience, Pulaski said, while “Brown created 1.9 million jobs when he was governor,” Pulaski said.

Pulaski also said expect to hear much more about pensions from the labor perspective.

While acknowledging the large unfunded liabilities facing public budgets, he noted that labor would focus on getting the message out about how the problems were created by focusing on employers taking vacations from contributions, Wall Street excesses, and management and executive pay raises.

“Most, 75 to 80 percent, of the source of the money for pensions come from employees and the stock market,” Pulaski said.

Brown, in his address to the crowd, also focused on the jobs theme, linking the issue to the state’s overall quality of life. And he promised to wage a much more public campaign in the coming weeks than he has until now.

“Don’t worry. Help is on the way,” he told the crowd. “We have the firepower to deliver the truth.”

Brown came out swinging Saturday largely framing Republican nominee Meg Whitman as divisive on issues like immigration and taxes. He cast himself as an experienced, and positive, candidate who can be frank about deep problems and focus on solutions.

“California is a rich state, and we have to remember that,” Brown said. He added that despite all of its fiscal ills, there are only seven nations on earth richer than the Golden State.

Before his speech, Brown told reporters that he feels confident despite a blitz of television ads from Whitman, saying “she’s said everything she can say.”

State Assembyman Jose Solorio delivered the legislative message Saturday, which was that the crowd needed to elect more Democrats to Sacramento to cross the two-thirds threshold and dominate policy.

In addition to the statewide heavyweights, politicians from across Orange County made the trip to the zoo. It will be an interesting season at the local level, with some big names facing challenges and others bowing out and leaving large voids to fill.

In Santa Ana, longtime Mayor Miguel Pulido faces a strong challenge from local attorney and school board member Alfredo Amezcua.

Pulido said he’d run on his record of providing jobs and redeveloping Santa Ana. “Without money” coming in as tax revenues, Pulido said, “it’s all just planning.”

He tied his campaign to Brown, saying “we need him in office” and noting that local governments would need a cooperative Sacramento to keep delivering local services without job cuts.

Amezcua complained Saturday about Pulido’s long tenure at the city, arguing that public safety and economic development haven’t kept pace and that Pulido has lost touch.

Santa Ana’s race features an interesting intra-party rivalry: Pulido and Amezcua are Democrats. In fact, on Saturday, Amezcua was protesting the vote tallies at the recent endorsement vote by the Democratic Central Committee in Orange County.

Anaheim looks at life beyond the imposing figure of its longtime Republican mayor, Curt Pringle. At Saturday’s event, new potential council faces — such as John Leos — had set up booths and were talking about expanding city revenues.

In communities like Costa Mesa, the fate of the OC Fairgrounds will likely loom over the council election for two slots. And South County’s largest city, Irvine, also could move beyond a longtime council dynamic with the exit of Republican Councilwoman Christian Shea.

Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang said he is looking forward to a new era of cooperation. He talked about staying focused on expanding on the title of Americas’ safest city to include greenest and smartest.

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