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J-division men often provided the troops for labor rallies and political campaigns, tapping light posts to supply the juice for sound systems, and using the trucks with the long stretch buckets to festoon streets with banners and campaign posters. McLaughlin was appointed business agent for the division and he generously shared his members' expertise with other unions, a move that earned him friends among the rest of the city's trade union leadership. When they went looking for a new council president, the good-look ing guy from Local 3 seemed a perfect fit.
Back then, McLaughlin's election as the city's top labor official was viewed in union circles as a major reform victory. For one thing, he was replacing Van Arsdale's son Tommy, who had frustrated other city union leaders with his cautious labor conservatism. For another, McLaughlin was just 43 at the time and he talked the talk of a labor activist, in stark contrast to many of the city's ossified unionists, particularly in the powerful building trades. In addition, he already knew the city's top politicians, having been elected in 1993 to the state assembly, representing what was then a mostly white working-class swath of Flushing, Queens.
And there seemed to be no question he was a hard worker. He seemed to need little sleep and peppered his staff with constant questions. "I am on the beach in the summer, it is 10:30 at night, and he is e-mailing me about projects he wants to get done," said Ed Ott, a former health care workers organizer whose 1996 hiring by McLaughlin as the council's policy director was viewed as another positive sign that the city's new labor chief wanted to get things done.
But even then there were hints that big Brian McLaughlin also carried a dangerously big ego. In his campaign for the job, McLaughlin told supporters he wanted to be the council's first full-time leader, focused strictly on union business. But after his election, he refused to yield either his $80,000-a-year assembly seat, which kept him commuting to Albany at least six months a year, or his position as head of the J division, a post that carried prestige within Local 3, one of the largest and most powerful of the city's unions.
There was also an exasperating tendency to try and please everyone, to make promises he could never deliver. "He wasn't a hard guy to like," said a top city union leader. "He just wasn't someone you wanted to do business with."
As one labor official put it: "He was split so many ways, it made it impossible to focus."
Despite the many hats he wore, McLaughlin did find time to harness the council's organizational assets for his own benefit. Each of the council's 400 affiliate unions contributed to its political action committee, a fund intended to provide monetary heft to labor's political agenda, putting money behind pro-union candidates and causes. But records show council contributions went heavily to candidates in Queens, McLaughlin's political base, with McLaughlin's own assembly campaign committee and his political club receiving the largest donations. In 1999, the PAC shelled out $49,000, its largest single expenditure, for a series of radio ads that highlighted the labor council's push for a so-called living-wage bill. But the ads' main purpose, confirmed sources who helped craft them, was to get McLaughlin added name exposure.
Technically, McLaughlin was accountable to an executive board, composed of more than 30 representatives of the city's largest unions. But according to several board members (many simply didn't bother to attend the monthly meetings), there was little discussion of the council's own operations. "I never went to a meeting where they approved an expenditure," said one member. "I don't remember ever seeing an audited financial statement."
Often, McLaughlin brought guests to make presentations. A couple of years ago, a board member recalled, McLaughlin introduced the marketing director for a cell phone company that had agreed to union contracts. Using the company would be good for labor, McLaughlin told his board, adding that the director was making a contribution to the council's upcoming golf tournament. After the marketing director ended his pitch, someone walked in with a pile of boxes. "I have a gift for everyone," the cell phone rep said, and proceeded to hand out new phones to the board members. The phones, union officials noted, came loaded with several hundred free minutes. Some happily took them, but many left the boxes on the table, aware that the gift from a union employer represented a potential violation of federal law. "It was such a typical Brian meeting," said one member. "Just a dog and pony show. Instead of talking about real work, he's just trying to ingratiate himself with this guy."
Members of the J division were constantly in the council's offices. Some came and went, carefully noting their volunteer hours. But a small clique of McLaughlin's closest associates were fixtures in the place. "Brian's Local 3 guys were always around," said one former council employee. "For a while I tried to figure out who was who, and why they were there. Then they would tell me, friendly-like, 'Just don't worry about it.' So I didn't. I figured I didn't need to know to do my job."