By John Wagner and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 10, 2006
Two labor unions pushing for legislation that could expand Wal-Mart's health benefits made campaign contributions to 48 members of the Maryland General Assembly in the month before the high-profile vote.
The contributions, totaling more than $36,000 in the run-up to the January vote, came to more than a quarter of the state's legislators from affiliates of the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, according to analysis of campaign finance reports filed last month.
"They were obviously trying to get somebody's attention," Bobbie Walton, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said of the two unions, which were pitted against the retailing giant on the issue.
The House and Senate decided last month, with just a few votes to spare, to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of the bill setting a threshold for benefits provided by large employers.
Wal-Mart retained as many as a dozen Annapolis lobbyists for the fight, which drew national attention, and tried to sway public opinion through radio and newspaper ads. This week, a retailing association aligned with the company filed suit in an attempt to block the law.
But in the weeks before the override vote, Wal-Mart made only seven direct political contributions to lawmakers, one of which was returned, according to Maryland State Board of Elections records.
The final weeks before the legislature convenes are typically feverish ones for fundraising because Maryland law bans contributions during the 90-day sessions.
But donations from SEIU and UFCW, collectively, were more than seven times what the unions had given previously in the month before sessions started, dating back to 1999, the first year that contributions are recorded in a database maintained by the elections board.
Moreover, about a third of the lawmakers who received money in the weeks just before the session had not received any contributions from these union chapters before Ehrlich's veto of the bill last spring. All told, SEIU affiliates contributed $20,570 in the month before the vote, and UFCW affiliates contributed $16,050.
Combined, the contributions exceeded what the two unions gave lawmakers in the final months of the 2002 campaign, the last time state lawmakers stood for election.
"Our members have given in greater amount to our political action funds because they understand the importance of the upcoming election year, due in no small part to what they viewed as a list of unpopular vetoes made by the current governor," said Robert L. Moore, president of the SEIU chapter that serves Maryland and the District.
Aides to Ehrlich (R) suggested that the money was more evidence of the unions' role in muscling through the legislation, which requires employers with 10,000 or more workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits -- or make a contribution to Medicaid, the state's health program for the poor. Wal-Mart is the only known Maryland employer that does not meet that obligation.
"There's no question. If you had eyes, you could see the sea of purple here," said Alan Friedman, Ehrlich's director of legislative relations, referring to the purple T-shirts worn by SEIU members present during debate over the bill, which was also championed by health care advocates.
The union efforts extended beyond campaign contributions. Days before the veto-override vote, the state chapter of the AFL-CIO announced that it would not endorse any lawmaker who did not support the override.
Other groups active in the debate included Wake-Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch, two national organizations that monitor the company's business practices. Wake-Up Wal-Mart is funded by the UCFW, and Wal-Mart Watch receives money from the SEIU.
Among the lawmakers who received union contributions in the month before the session began was Del. Norman H. Conway (D-Wicomico), who said he sided with the unions last spring because of concerns about the state's rising Medicaid costs. But, he said, he was open to hearing Wal-Mart's case.
The day before the House voted to override the bill, he received a call from a Wal-Mart vice president in Arkansas. Conway wanted a guarantee that the company would build a proposed distribution plant with the potential to create hundreds of jobs in the county next to his rural district.
Conway said that he did not get the commitment and that he decided to stick with his original position.
Conway attributed the $1,500 in donations from two SEIU chapters more to his status as chairman of the Appropriations Committee than to his vote on the "Wal-Mart bill."
"Money doesn't influence me," he said. "I look at the issue and try to understand the impacts. I'm going to do what I ultimately think is the right thing."
Just before the session began Jan. 11, Del. Murray D. Levy (D-Charles), who voted against the bill last spring, received $100 apiece from SEIU and UFCW chapters.
Levy said he was bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from both sides of the debate. Despite the pressure, Levy did not change his mind, because he said that going after one company was not a solution to the massive problem of health care.
Wal-Mart delivered just a handful of contributions, totaling $1,650, leading up to the session. And, in one case, the company's check was returned.
Del. Joseph J. Minnick (D-Baltimore County), who did not vote in April, said he was receptive to Wal-Mart's case that "government should not be in business's business."
He ultimately voted to override the veto, however, because he said companies should help pick up the cost of health care. When he realized that Wal-Mart had written him a check for a fundraiser just before the session began, he decided to give it back.
"If I don't support their issue, I shouldn't be accepting a contribution, plain and simple -- not only Wal-Mart, but anyone else."