One of Esai Morales' first showbiz jobs was as a background actor on "The White Shadow," the early '80s TV show starring Ken Howard -- now co-president of SAG-AFTRA.
Three decades later, Morales is squaring off against Howard for the presidency in the newly merged union's first combined national election -- and hopes to pull a surprise knockout. The winners will guide the union in negotiations with the studios and TV networks, which come up next year. Ballots went out July 17 and must be returned by Aug. 15.
The gap isn't as wide as the one between star and background actor, but Morales is well aware that he's a clear underdog against the incumbent Howard (photo below), whose administration and the Unite For Strength faction he heads pushed the decade-long campaign for merger over the top last year.
"A lot of people told me before I decided to run that this would be really tough," said Morales, who recently appeared on the Starz original series "Magic City" and is best known for his work on "NYPD Blue." "But I thought that if I didn't, it would mean endorsing the current leadership and its strategies; you don't want an unopposed election. I think we're going to win, but even if we don't, we'll keep them honest, and on point."
Morales is heading a slate of candidates for Membership First, the L.A.-based coalition that for years opposed the merger. The overwhelming 86 percent vote of approval by the rank-and-file in March 2012 could be interpreted as a sign that most of the membership is happy with the status quo.
But Morales and running mate Jane Austin, who is going against Howard's choice Amy Aquino for the national secretary-treasurer post, don't see it that way.
"The membership is more savvy than that," he said. "We were sold a bill of goods on the merger and I think that more and more people are becoming aware of that as time goes on."
He cites what he calls a lack of transparency on the guild's finances, slow payment of residuals, the erosion of standards for middle-class actors and the closure of 10 branch offices as examples of the disconnect between the current leadership and membership.
Morales, 50, said that he supports former SAG President Ed Asner's suit filed in May, which charges the leadership with mishandling the residuals and foreign royalty payments to members, and would welcome the light it could shine on SAG-AFTRA's finances.
While victory may be a long shot, Morales (photo left with daughter Mariana) believes that a road map to a win exists. Part of that confidence stems from the knowledge that this is the first election for the combined union, whose membership now exceeds 160,000, and that a lot of the traditional SAG election dynamics may not apply.
As part of the merger, elected leaders from SAG and AFTRA were combined to create a 110-member national board. This election will create a "permanent governance structure" with 70 board seats allotted for the 22 locals; Los Angeles has 28 seats and New York 16. A total of 10 national officers will also serve on the national board bringing its total size to 80.
Winning in Hollywood will be essential for a Morales victory, and he's hoping that he can capture the 10 locals that had their offices closed following the merger; if he can win those battles, it could come down to the New York local, which is a bit of a wild card.
Roberta Reardon, the former AFTRA president who is currently serving as co-president with Howard, is runnng for president of the N.Y. local. But she also has her eye on the national executive vice-president position, which will be chosen by delegates at the union's convention in September.
That's a potentially powerful position, which would make Reardon (photo right) the chief operative for the president. If Howard wins, it would essentially put those two at the top again.
How deep Reardon's support in New York runs remains to be seen. She's running against fellow merger-supporter Mike Hodge, who will be seeking his third consecutive term atop the local, and tops a slate of United Screen Actors Nationwide candidates. Howard last week endorsed Hodge.
Morales, who was born in Brooklyn and still resides in New York, is hoping that his message of reinvigoration of the rank-and-file will hit home there and nationwide.
"My candidacy is about empowering the membership, and I think that's a message that will resonate with a lot of our membership, whether they're AFTRA or SAG, pro- or anti-merger," Morales said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Starz series "Magic City."