Candidates for Va. Governor Discuss Unions, Court Tech Sector

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 4, 2009

Members of Northern Virginia's business community quizzed the four hopefuls in the race for governor yesterday during a candidates forum that highlighted their growing concern about the rising prominence of unions in state politics.

In one of their first joint appearances of the campaign, Democrats Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell sought to win over leaders in the area's influential technology industry, pledging to invest in higher education, improve transportation and create thousands of jobs if elected.

But the Democrats also found themselves trying to allay fears that they would be beholden to organized labor, which has gained ground recently in a state known for its business-friendly atmosphere.

Labor unions have recently been among the largest contributors to the Virginia Democratic Party, donating more than $1.3 million to the party and candidates in the past year, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

The debate has intensified because of the Employee Free Choice Act, or "card check," a pro-union bill under consideration on Capitol Hill. There is concern that the legislation will have a ripple effect and erode employer-worker relations, including in Northern Virginia, said William D. Lecos, a consultant and former president of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

"It has lit a fire under the business community," Lecos said.

Over the past decade, business groups have migrated from the Virginia GOP and toward Democrats who have focused on issues seen as critical to economic growth, such as education and transportation, said Robert D. Holsworth, a Virginia political analyst. McDonnell is trying to lure that support back in part, he said, by exploiting fears that a stronger union influence will dismantle some of the state's most cherished pro-business laws, such as the right-to-work law, which forbids unions from making membership compulsory.

Overturning the right-to-work law is not a priority for labor, said Jim Leaman, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO. He accused McDonnell of making anti-union rhetoric a centerpiece of his campaign. "If he's going to base his campaign on that, I think he'll be a loser in November," Leaman said.

During yesterday's Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) forum, McDonnell called the card-check bill the most "anti-free enterprise, job-killing bill that has come down the pike in a long time."

Democrats tried to walk a fine line, emphasizing their support for Virginia's right-to-work law and giving a nod to organized labor. Deeds said he supports "the people's right to organize" but not overturning the right-to-work law, which he said gives Virginia a competitive edge.

Deeds and McAuliffe deflected questions about their stance on the card-check bill. It would allow workers to form a union by getting a majority of their colleagues to sign pro-union cards rather than having to hold a secret-ballot election, which is favored by employers.

McAuliffe rebuked Steve Mullins, a chief financial officer at two technology firms, who asked, "What can you do to assure the business community that the Democratic Party isn't just in the hands of the unions at this point?"

McAuliffe said Mullins had fallen prey to GOP propaganda. "Let's use the NVTC as a positive force," he said. "Let's not try to marginalize your effectiveness. I want to work with you to create jobs."

Because of the format of the event, Moran was not asked the card-check question. Reached by phone later, his spokesman, Jesse Ferguson, said Moran supports compromise legislation and added that it is a controversy that has been cooked up by the GOP.

"We're waiting for the compromise on this to be drawn up in Washington," he said. "It's a concern that's being manufactured by our opponents."

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