Unions Funneling Money to Deeds in Virginia Governor's Race

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Labor unions are pouring money into the Virginia governor's race in hopes of thwarting Republican efforts to retake the top job in a state that union leaders view as increasingly important to their national political fortunes.

Unions have traditionally held limited influence in Virginia politics. But labor leaders say they are going all out this year for fear that a Republican administration would be less concerned with workplace safety, health benefits and competitive wages for low-income workers and might shut union labor out of state projects.

The donations have helped fatten Democrat R. Creigh Deeds's campaign account by more than $1.4 million, but they have also complicated his efforts to convince business leaders that he would foster the kind of economic growth needed to end the state's recession.

Deeds's Republican opponent, Robert F. McDonnell, has seized on the donations as a sign that the state senator would be beholden to out-of-state interests. Republicans accuse Deeds of wavering in his support for Virginia's right-to-work law and siding with national Democrats in support of so-called card-check legislation that would remove the secret ballot from union elections. Deeds has said repeatedly that both assertions are untrue.

The candidates' positions on business issues will take center stage Thursday as the two meet in Tysons Corner for a debate sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.

Deeds's donations from organized labor are on track to exceed those collected by Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2005. Almost a fourth of the $3.5 million Deeds reported Tuesday as having collected in July and August came from labor organizations.

The donations include $250,000 from the Mid-Atlantic Laborers union, $500,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and $200,000 from the Service Employees International Union.

Union officials said their donations are driven, in part, by a Republican decision to reject $125 million in federal stimulus funds for unemployed workers and by the party's open hostility to unions during the campaign season. Republicans said the federal stimulus dollars came with unacceptable federal mandates.

"We're trying to create a balance between labor and management where they can coexist with each other," said Dennis L. Martire, a vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Laborers union, which represents 2,500 Virginia workers, largely in the construction industry. "Creigh Deeds believes in that."

Mo Elleithee, a senior adviser to the Deeds campaign, said the Democrat has won support from business and union leaders.

"They recognize his ability to work with both sides, and ultimately, that's what the next governor needs to be able to do," he said.

Virginia is one of 22 states that make it illegal to condition employment on union membership. The state's workforce also has one of the country's lowest percentages of union membership.

Democratic governors Mark Warner and Kaine won in part by convincing business leaders that they would be careful stewards of state money and friendly to business, even as they, too, accepted record donations from national trade unions.

Republicans hope Deeds will be unable to thread that needle again this year, in part because of anxieties in the business community over the federal card-check legislation. At a national AFL-CIO conference in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, President Obama said he supports the bill.

"The stakes are a whole lot higher this year," said Pat Mullins, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. "They see Virginia, with our right-to-work laws, as a proving ground. If they can pass it in Virginia, they set the agenda for the nation. I think they are pouring in as much money as they can."

Hugh Keogh, president and chief executive of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said many business leaders are concerned that union groups appear to be "flexing their muscles" in the state.

"Clearly, Virginia is a battleground right now, no question about it," he said. "So this is where they are putting a lot of their attention."

Kaine, who faced similar criticism over his donation list in 2005, accused Republicans of using unions as a "boogeyman" to scare voters.

"Hey, look, you're entitled to run the campaign you want," said Kaine, who also is chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "But they tend to have a little bit of a strategy of 'Who are we afraid of this year?' "

Union representatives said they are not interested in overturning Virginia's six-decade-old right-to-work law, and they believe the card-check issue is a fight to be waged at the federal level. Instead, they said, their support stems from a belief that Deeds would be more supportive of workers at the state level.

"I'm not too worried about his views on federal issues that he doesn't have a vote on," said Jim Leaman, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, which has 150,000 members in the state.

Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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