Unions Hope Patronage Translates to Leverage

Democrats Balance Pro-Business Ties

Labor unions are fueling the campaigns of Brian Moran, left, R. Creigh Deeds and, more heavily, Terry McAuliffe.
Labor unions are fueling the campaigns of Brian Moran, left, R. Creigh Deeds and, more heavily, Terry McAuliffe. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

Organized labor is attempting to capitalize on Virginia's shifting political landscape by investing as never before in the race for governor, a gamble union leaders are hoping will bring them leverage in a state that has long resisted their influence.

After helping Barack Obama capture Virginia in last year's presidential race, trade unions are emboldened. They are pouring in millions of dollars and placing armies of volunteers on the ground in the run-up to Tuesday's primary. Union members are making phone calls and staking signs in all parts of the state.

Union officials hope recent elections have brought lasting change and will produce a more labor-friendly administration in Richmond. But as they have become more bold, Democrats have been forced to balance that against their own effort to hold onto the centrist, business-minded voters who helped create their electoral majority.

Organized labor's largest investment has been made to start an early assault on the Republican nominee, Robert F. McDonnell. Unions have injected $1.15 million into the Democratic Governors Association, which has financed an ad campaign designed to define McDonnell as an enemy of working people, even before Democrats have chosen a candidate.

Most of the direct contributions have gone to Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee whose long-standing ties to national unions appear to be paying off. McAuliffe has collected $733,000 from unions, including an unprecedented $600,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. He has also racked up a half-dozen labor endorsements.

His opponents, former state delegate Brian Moran of Alexandria and R. Creigh Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, have amassed a small fraction of that. Moran has collected $31,000; Deeds, $16,000. But they, too, have collected their share of endorsements.

"We see this election as an opportunity for unions to have a seat at the table," said John Niemiec, president of the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics, which has endorsed McAuliffe.

Despite such pronouncements, labor's presence in Virginia politics has required some fancy footwork by the unions and those they support. The state's most popular Democrats, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, have succeeded with a centrist, pro-business message. Democratic candidates this year say they are not abandoning that. But Republicans have pounced, saying union-backed Democrats will erode the state's business-friendly environment.

Last year, 4.1 percent of Virginia workers were union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only three states ranked lower: North Carolina (3.5 percent), Georgia (3.7 percent) and South Carolina (3.9 percent).

The debate might shape the role of unions in elections -- and Virginia policy -- for years to come.

Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist and author of the blog VirginiaTomorrow, said the ground is shifting. "More people in Virginia consider themselves Democrats than Republicans," he said. "Most people are in the center. Do people consider unions a big threat? I think it's not so clear anymore."

Union activists have long been present in state politics, donating and providing elbow grease for Democratic candidates by knocking on doors, making calls and distributing leaflets. But there is ample evidence that this year is different. Beyond donations and endorsements, the three candidates have presented much more public support for unions than have past candidates.

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