Labor Helps Patakis Re-election Battle
By Kathleen Murphy, Staff Writer
You'd think New York Gov. George Pataki was a Democrat the way he's been bagging labor union endorsements this year.
Healthcare workers, the laborers, the sanitation workers, and a prison guards' union have thrown support to the Republican, who's running for his third term. Union phone banks, campaign contributions, and an army of activists will bolster Pataki's re-election bid.
Not since Nelson Rockefeller's four terms starting in 1958 has a Republican enjoyed so much labor support in a New York governor's race. For decades, union members have been the foot soldiers of the Democratic Party, building on the pro-union stance of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.
Another GOP governor also has labor support this year. The Nebraska Teamsters Local 554 endorsed Gov. Mike Johanns, the first Republican leader of the Cornhusker State to win their backing.
But Teamsters, the AFL-CIO's largest member group with 1.4 million members, are known for breaking ranks. They supported Richard Nixon for president in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush in 1988.
New York Democrats have found Pataki's labor endorsements to be no laughing matter. The governor's opponents have accused him of buying the support of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 by approving a $4 billion package this year to raise salaries for SEIU's members, healthcare workers.
But union households in New York lean toward Pataki, a recent poll from Quinnipiac University showed. It gave Pataki an overall job approval rating of about 70 percent, and a 72 percent approval rating in union households.
Maurice Carroll, director of the polling institute, said labor's support "sends a message that maybe this guy isn't Newt Gingrich," the controversial former GOP U.S. House speaker.
"Pataki has figured out, brilliantly, what you have to do to win in New York," Carroll said.
Pataki's campaign spokeswoman Mollie Fullington said: "We have a very broad and diverse base of support that ranges from union endorsements to other groups that wouldn't traditionally endorse a Republican. For a Republican to win New York State, you naturally have to reach beyond a Republican base."
In New York, 5.2 million Democrats outnumber 3.1 million Republicans on voter registration rolls. According to exit polls in the 2000 presidential election, 65 percent of New York union households voted for Democrat Al Gore.
The 11,000-member New York City Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, the union that represents jail guards, has endorsed Pataki for the second time because he restored the death penalty, ended parole for violent felons, and enacted gun safety laws.
"It's not like we're anti-Democrat," said union spokesman Peter Benjaminson. "We just go with the strongest candidate who agrees with our positions."
New York union leaders say they are proud of their GOP ties and unionists elsewhere say endorsing Republicans will send a wakeup call to the Democratic Party.
"I think it's healthy for us to be able to support people of other parties. I think it keeps everybody on their toes," said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, which has endorsed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Clark University labor relations expert Gary Chaison said unions "found themselves in a very cozy relationship with the Democrats" and are beginning to rethink that.
"They are beginning to say, if we are always considered to be supporters of the Democratic party, then the Democratic party owes us nothing because they know we'll always be in their corner.' The Republicans are very strongly, at least on the national level, making overtures toward organized labor, and unions are becoming friendlier toward Republicans to catch the attention of Democrats," he said.
Jim Sheard, secretary-treasurer of the Nebraska Teamsters Local 554 that endorsed Gov. Johanns, told Stateline.org: "The Democratic Party sure hasn't done anything for us lately. The Democrats seemed to have abandoned labor."
Teamsters Local 554 is unaffiliated with the Nebraska AFL-CIO which so far has taken a neutral stance in a governor's race that pits Johanns against Democrat Stormy Dean.
Ken Mass, president of the 52,000-member Nebraska AFL-CIO, said neutrality shouldn't be seen as a victory for Johanns.
"The ideas or positions Stormy Dean may have are a little vague, so I think it was more of the delegates' uncertainty of who Stormy Dean actually is and where his positions lie," Mass said. "I don't think it's a winner for Johanns because if he had done his job, he should have gotten the endorsement."
In Nebraska, sometimes it's hard to tell the candidates' parties apart anyway. Dean used to be a Republican, and Johanns once was a Democrat.