Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"State Democrats facing revolt by labor"

Andrew Garber (Seattle Times):

State Democratic lawmakers have a revolt on their hands among major labor groups that provide the party crucial support during elections.--State Democratic lawmakers have a revolt on their hands among major labor groups that provide the party crucial support during elections.

The Washington State Labor Council, the Service Employees International Union and unions representing teachers and state workers have either stopped or sharply reduced donations to Democratic caucus political-action committees that back candidates for the state House and Senate.

"I think the labor movement is more serious about withholding support from Democratic candidates this year than I have seen in my 30 years in politics," said Dwight Pelz, chairman of the state Democratic Party.
There's even talk of trying to defeat some Democratic incumbents if they don't support issues important to labor in the next legislative session — such as raising taxes to help close a growing budget shortfall.

The unions said they're angry at deep spending cuts lawmakers made earlier this year to balance the state budget, and at a lack of action on labor-backed legislation and causes.

Rick Bender, the Labor Council president, raised concerns about the influence of conservative Democrats, particularly in the House, which is led by Speaker Frank Chopp.

"The leadership team Frank has put together is pretty conservative, and they don't reflect the caucus as a whole and sure don't reflect where we are on the issues," Bender said.

Chopp, D-Seattle, did not respond to interview requests. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, called the action by labor "a sad state of affairs."

"I think we have done a lot for labor," Kessler said. "We have a huge labor agenda every year. It may not be everything they wanted but if we ... go forward with a very good labor agenda and it's still not enough, then I guess I don't know what they want."

All of this puts Democrats in a tough spot. Raising taxes in an election year is politically risky. But so is alienating the party's base. Democrats currently control the House, the Senate and the governor's office.

Labor groups typically donate several hundred thousand dollars a year to the Democratic caucus PACs, controlled by House and Senate leaders, and provide volunteers to staff phone banks and campaign door to door.

But this year, labor donations are a fraction of years past.

Paul Berendt, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party, called the move by labor "a strategy of self-destruction."

Some Democrats worry the family feud could backfire in what may prove to be a tough election in 2010 if the economy doesn't improve.

"I don't think anybody in the labor movement would be served by Republican majorities in the House or Senate," Pelz said.

Reasons differ

The beef with Democrats varies among the different labor groups.

Some are unhappy with lawmakers for not raising taxes to help close the $9 billion budget shortfall earlier this year. To cut costs, the Legislature eliminated pay increases for teachers and state employees and cut health care, education and other state services.

The Washington Education Association wants lawmakers to put more money back into schools.

Some union groups are angry that lawmakers did not approve changes in unemployment insurance sought by labor, including a permanent increase in benefits.

Bender said his members are particularly sore about a flap last session over worker-rights legislation. The bill, supported by labor and opposed by business, would have prohibited companies from requiring employees to attend meetings related to religious or political matters, including labor issues.

The legislation was killed by Gov. Chris Gregoire and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate after a few state lawmakers got an e-mail being circulated among labor groups.

Part of the e-mail said: "Union leaders would send a message to the State Democratic Party and to the Truman and Roosevelt funds from the House and Senate that 'not another dime from labor' until the Governor signs the Worker Privacy Act."

The Truman and Roosevelt funds are Democratic caucus PACs.

Legislative leaders said the e-mail raised "serious legal and ethical questions" because it implied a link between action on the bill and campaign contributions. They killed the bill and asked the Washington State Patrol to investigate. The State Patrol concluded no laws were broken.

Labor criticized Democratic leaders for overreacting.

Bender said that episode, along with a lack of action on other labor-supported issues, "changed our relationship" with the Democratic leadership.

Instead of contributing to the caucus campaign committees, the Labor Council created its own PAC called Don't Invest In More Excuses, or DIME — a play on the e-mail that killed the worker-rights bill. So far, the PAC has raised more than $280,000.

Labor groups say they now plan to support candidates directly instead of sending money to the caucus PACs.

Next session

The next legislative session will be key, they said, to labor support in the 2010 election. A big issue will be how the Democrats close a shortfall approaching $2 billion in the current state budget.

Democratic lawmakers who don't support a tax increase and fall short on other labor issues could find themselves without union support. Or even become a target.

A request has been sent out to hire political consultants to help oversee "challenges against incumbents who are barriers to progress, supporting progressive candidates in open seat races, and defending progressive champions in swing districts," according to a copy of the request obtained by The Seattle Times.

"We will likely target 8-10 legislative races for various levels of activity, including 3-5 core races that will involve substantial full-scale independent campaigns," the request says.
It's not clear what groups are involved in the effort. Union officials wouldn't acknowledge or discuss the request.

Bender said he had not seen the document but noted "there has been some pretty in-depth discussion about potentially going down that path on a number of races. Nothing has been determined yet, but that could very likely happen."

In the upcoming legislative session "there are people who will have to get off a fence this year and grow some courage," said David Rolf, president of Service Employees International Union Local 775.

He added, "if some of the less courageous Democrats ended up not returning to the House or Senate, that would produce a much more favorable environment overall."

No comments: