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  • Proposition 226 stumbled before the primary

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  •   Labor Outspent Foes on Initiative


    By David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, June 4, 1998; Page A16

    LOS ANGELES, June 3 — Millions of dollars, thousands of foot-soldiers and the skill of a handful of largely anonymous female political operatives added up to a critical victory for organized labor in Tuesday's California primary vote on a "paycheck protection" initiative that threatened to choke off union support for liberal causes and Democratic candidates.

    Last spring, when California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and national conservative groups launched the initiative, which would have required annual, written authorization from union members for use of their dues in politics, seven of 10 voters – including most in union households – told pollsters they supported it.

    But it lost Tuesday by a 53 percent to 47 percent margin after a campaign in which teachers and other unionists vastly outspent and out-organized the proponents. The outcome slows GOP leaders' drive to enact similar legislation nationwide.

    "This was a life-or-death issue . . . the most serious effort to silence America's working families in recent history," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told reporters in Washington.

    "Paycheck protection" amendments will be offered during House consideration of campaign reform bills, but they have failed once already this year in both the House and Senate. After Tuesday's vote here, labor political consultant Will Robinson voiced increased optimism about defeating similar initiatives on the November ballot in Colorado, Nevada and Oregon.

    The confidence that union leaders expressed today is a far cry from the apprehension they felt almost a year ago when they gathered in San Diego to plot strategy against Proposition 226, as the initiative then in early signature-gathering stage came to be called.

    "The basic idea that it's right and fair for anyone to give his consent for how his money is used is very popular," said one participant. "In our early focus groups, even after two hours of argument, we could never get it below 50 percent."

    But those focus groups brought to the surface a number of concerns that the later TV, mail and phone blitz magnified. "Our guys were always asking, 'Have you found the magic bullet?'" said Dawn Laguens, the Washington media consultant brought in to make the ads. "We said, 'No, but we've found a lot of magic BBs.'"

    Voters were told repeatedly in union ads that passage of Proposition 226 was risky – it would hurt schools, harm patients' rights, weaken Medicare, send jobs overseas, even jeopardize police officers' lives and damage charities. Wilson called it "the big lie" campaign, but, with limited funds and few allies to mobilize, he saw his initiative – and his political standing as a potential presidential candidate – take a hit.

    Laguens was brought into the campaign – over better-known Democratic operatives – by Gale Kaufman, a Sacramento political consultant who was running her first statewide battle. The field organizing was coordinated by three other women: Letitia Daniels, political director of the California Labor Federation, and Arleen Holt and Amy Chapman, who moved from AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington.

    With help from the California Teachers Association, a longtime nemesis of Wilson's, the Service Employees International Union and other AFL-CIO affiliates, they mobilized a massive army. "We had so many people come in to work on getting out the vote today," Daniels said Tuesday night, "we ran out of precincts. So we put them on phones, and we ran out of phones."

    Proponents had placed the initiative on the June ballot, believing labor could not turn out its workers and voters for a primary election as readily as it could in November. That turned out to be one of several critical misjudgments. They also overestimated the financial and political support they would get from business and from national conservative groups.

    The effort for Proposition 226 began as a grass-roots campaign by three Orange County men, who had battled the teachers' unions in school board races. They quickly enlisted some dissident teachers but their signature-gathering campaign stalled until two outsiders – Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, and J. Patrick Rooney, an Indianapolis financier of conservative causes – pumped in money and enlisted Wilson as chairman of the drive.

    But Rooney soon found himself at odds with Wilson and Norquist, after an initial $441,000 investment in signature-gathering, spoke of helping raise $10 million for the June battle, but did not deliver.

    Michael R. Kamburowski, Norquist's deputy for the "paycheck protection" project, said today: "We thought there would be that much from national sources. It is a disappointment they did not come through." The Republican National Committee, which has highlighted the issue, contributed only $35,000. But Norquist said the coming state battles would be adequately funded, and the original backers said they would try again in California in the 2000 primary.

    At least as damaging was the neutrality of major California businesses. Labor used a carrot-and-stick technique to keep them neutral, gathering signatures to qualify a counter-initiative to restrict corporate political spending but then agreeing not to file it as long as business did not actively aid Wilson. The governor repeatedly urged the state Chamber of Commerce to jump in, but, with few exceptions, business said no.

    As a result, Wilson had to finance most of the TV campaign from his own PAC. Even counting "informational" ads paid for by the National Taxpayers Union and Citizens for a Sound Economy, the "yes" side was probably outspent more than 3 to 1 on television and by an even larger margin on the ground in a campaign whose costs may have exceeded $30 million.

    Tracking polls done for the "no" side showed the initial 3 to 1 advantage for Proposition 226 dropped precipitously to a 36 percent to 28 percent lead in early spring, when actual ballot language could be used. The decision to add a redundant ban on already unlawful foreign contributions – thought of as a sweetener by proponents – apparently confused voters. And a fiscal impact statement suggesting there might be costs to the state and private firms raised further concerns.

    The first union ad – targeting Norquist and Rooney as "outsiders" with agendas hostile to working people's interests – gave opponents a 9-point lead by early May. Wilson's operatives then used their first ad to rebut union claims, essentially freezing the contest. The second Wilson ad, which began just before Memorial Day, contrasted four union members speaking up for individual rights with actors playing stereotypical union bosses handing out piles of money, "put us on the offensive," said Jeff Randle, who left Wilson's staff to run the "Yes on 226" campaign. But by then, Kaufman and Laguens had shifted their message to the possible financial costs of Proposition 226, and Wilson was spending his time rebutting charges, first publicized and then retracted by the United Way, that payroll deductions for charity might be outlawed by the initiative.

    At the same time, the unions launched a telephone campaign, aimed mainly at Republican and independent households, alleging that the authorization forms required by Proposition 226 might become public, exposing home addresses of police and sheriffs' deputies.

    Furious about both these "lies," Wilson recorded and paid for almost a million automated phone calls last weekend rebutting the claims. His team also decided to make their third and final ad a rebuttal on those points, delivered by the Ventura County district attorney.

    Kaufman said: "They violated two basic rules. You never use TV to answer a phone or mail message; it just confuses people. And you never do a negative message when you're seeking a positive vote."

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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