Calif. GOP's Bid to Curb Union Funds Is Faltering
By David S. Broder
Support for the "Paycheck Protection" initiative, which would require an annual, written authorization from each union member for political use of any dues money, has eroded from an early lead of more than 2 to 1 to the point it may not pass.
The outcome has national importance for both parties. Labor has been the biggest single contributor to Democratic campaigns, investing at least $119 million in the last election cycle. President Clinton and Vice President Gore both denounced Proposition 226, as it is known, in California appearances. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who blames the 1996 union ads for wrecking his approval score and almost costing the GOP control of the House, has campaigned for "Paycheck Protection" from coast to coast.
Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who has staked his political prestige and possible presidential hopes on its approval, blamed the turnabout on an "avalanche" of negative radio and television ads, mailings and phone calls from labor. "Ironically, they are attempting to black out the truth by using the same abusive, corrupt technique of checkoff without consent that this initiative would stop," Wilson said in an interview. "But I think people will see through it and we will win."
Private tracking polls show Proposition 226 dropping close to or even below 50 percent after enjoying initial support from more than 70 percent of the voters. A Los Angeles Times poll reported Saturday that the initiative is supported by 51 percent of the likely voters and opposed by 37 percent.
National labor officials have said that stopping the initiative is one of their top priorities and have poured almost $20 million into the effort.
The "Paycheck Protection" cause has been hampered by disputes among its early backers and by the unwillingness of major California business organizations to go to the mat against labor. The falloff jeopardizes hopes by national conservative and GOP leaders that Proposition 226 would be duplicated across the country.
Going into the closing drive, opponents outspent Proposition 226 backers $11 million to $1 million on broadcast advertising. Wilson recently loaned Californians for Paycheck Protection $550,000 from his own political action committee to help pay for a closing TV drive. Overall, Wilson has supplied almost two-thirds of the $1.9 million that the committee has taken in. A separate "Yes on 226" committee conducting a grass-roots campaign for the initiative reported receipts of only $214,576. The combined total of $2.1 million is dwarfed by the $19.3 million reported by five labor and teachers' groups opposing the initiative.
Two outside groups, Citizens for a Sound Economy and the National Taxpayers Union, have been on the air with "educational" campaigns on workers' rights. Because their ads do not expressly advocate a yes vote, they can be financed through tax-exempt foundations and the two groups don't have to report what was spent on them. NTU President John Berthoud says his group has committed "over $1 million."
The push for the initiative began in California last year with three Orange County business executives and conservative activists, all supporters of school vouchers, who had been bruised by their encounters with teachers' unions in their fight for control of local school boards.
The campaign was going nowhere until it attracted the attention of some heavy hitters who had their own scores to settle with the unions. The first was J. Patrick Rooney, an Indianapolis insurance company owner who calls himself a supporter of individual and civil rights. Rooney is a major backer of school vouchers, which were defeated in California after an expensive opposition campaign led by the California Teachers Association. He also has clashed with unions nationally over his plan for medical savings accounts as a variant on Medicare.
Rooney gave almost $50,000 to jump-start the signature-gathering campaign and persuaded Wilson to become chairman of the drive. He also enlisted Grover Norquist, whose Washington-based group, Americans for Tax Reform, is an unofficial coordinating committee for national conservative causes. Americans for Tax Reform contributed $441,000 that helped pay for a Wilson letter that garnered signatures to get Proposition 226 qualified.
At the same time, Norquist launched parallel efforts for legislation or initiatives in at least 28 states and persuaded Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to make "Paycheck Protection" the centerpiece of any campaign finance reform bill that comes up for a vote. Neither GOP leader has been successful, but the issue remains alive in Congress and at least half a dozen states.
In California, which was supposed to be the pacesetter, the issue's supporters have struggled. Rooney has quarreled with both Wilson and leaders of the California initiative over control of the message and has gone his own way. Wilson has been frustrated on other fronts.
While national business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business have sent mailings to their California members, the Republican National Committee rejected Wilson's appeal for funds. "We could use a lot more help to even the odds," Wilson said.
Meantime, the AFL-CIO and the California Teachers Association, alerted early, have mobilized massively to defend the flow of membership money that powers their political operations. Union chiefs insist that most members support their political agenda. Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, said Proposition 226 would "turn us into a bunch of bureaucrats, running around getting authorization forms signed every year, instead of representing and advocating for our members."
Last winter, the unions paid for a signature-gathering operation big enough to qualify a counter- initiative that would have curbed business's political contributions. Rather than file it, they took it into negotiations with the state Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups and emerged with an agreement that business would not put its muscle behind Proposition 226.
Wilson calls it "intimidation" and said there have been union threats to individual businesses that violated the neutrality agreement. But a leader in the business community, speaking without attribution, said, "We told the governor that most of our members are enjoying labor peace and there's no point in stirring up the unions when they can so easily retaliate."
The unions hired Gale Kaufman, a veteran of the staff of Willie Brown, the former Assembly speaker who is now the San Francisco mayor, to coordinate the anti-226 campaign. She picked a newcomer to California political wars, media consultant Dawn Laguanz, to make the ads.
The spots told viewers that 226 was a concoction of a "foreign lobbyist" (Norquist) and "an out-of-state insurance tycoon" (Rooney), partners of Gingrich. The ads consciously avoided the question of political checkoffs, which the unions' polls confirmed most voters thought should be voluntary.
The ads described 226 as a threat to every popular program the unions had ever supported Medicare, minimum-wage protection, food safety, good schools. Its real goals, the commercials said, are to "weaken patient protections against HMOs, privatize education and export American jobs." They claimed it would cost the state and private business millions of dollars to administer and would hurt charities that also use payroll deductions to raise funds.
The two young men off Wilson's staff, Jeff Randle and Mitch Zak, assigned to pass 226, issued statement after statement proclaiming all this "the big lie," but it was not until two weeks ago they had the money to start airing their own ads. The first was defensive. It asked viewers to disregard all the "scare stories" and simply read the ballot language banning foreign contributions (redundantly, since they are already outlawed) and requiring union members' assent to political spending. A second, now airing, takes the offensive with four union members endorsing 226 and actors playing "union bosses" admitting that it could break up their money game.
The mismatch is even greater in the ground war.
Arleen Holt and Amy Chapman, who moved from AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington to run the anti-226 mobilization from San Francisco, have 56 paid area coordinators and field directors on their wall chart and, they say, "hundreds" of staff members assigned by member unions to defeat the measure. Their mail and phone-bank operation is designed to reach every union household and those who have voted regularly in past Democratic primaries five to eight times before June 2.
John Hein, the CTA's political chief, is running a parallel operation with its 220,000 members, using phone banks in 80 offices around the state.
Ron Nehring, hired last October to run the "Yes to 226" operation, has a paid staff of seven and relies on volunteer help to mail materials to a list of 4,700 supporters around the state.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company