Democratic Freshmen Faced Choice Between Labor and Business
By Gebe Martinez
For some freshmen Democrats in the House, their decision on a controversial trade bill was a choice between dancing with the date who brought them to the party or choosing another partner.
Those elected by wide margins may suffer few political consequences for their trade positions while there may be little comfort for 27 of the 42 freshmen Democrats who won their first campaigns by 55 percent of the vote or less.
While even some supporters of the trade bill believe it is now dead on Capitol Hill, the issue looms over the 1998 election season, especially for Democrats who are facing their first re-election campaigns. The bill was pulled from the House floor in November after Democrats refused to support President Clinton, who vows to bring the bill back in March.
Some freshmen Democrats, such as Reps. Virgil H. Goode, Jr. of Virginia and Darlene Hooley of Oregon, decided to bite the hands that fed their first runs for Congress.
Goode has received 11 times more money from business interests than from labor groups since the last election cycle. But he sided with labor unions against the bill because of major job losses in his district.
It wasn't a big political gamble for Goode, who won in 1996 with 61 percent of the votes cast.
Hooley decided to go against labor and support the bill, mostly because she thought it would be good for Oregon's exporting economy. As of Nov. 1, Hooley's campaign donations from labor were two-and-a-half times greater than from the business community.
Whether her fast track position will have any impact on her re-election bid has yet to be felt. But she is already in a politically precarious position: she won in 1996 with only 51 percent of the vote in a "swing" district that will likely be targeted by a well-financed Republican Party. This Democrat's re-election campaign will need every dime it can raise, from both labor and business.
"Let the chips fall where they may," she said after declaring her position on the trade issue.
For Hooley and others from marginal districts who are trying to balance competing interests, the fast track debate and Clinton's pledge to resurrect it in March can only be worrisome. It could be especially troubling for those freshmen Democrats who favor fast track but need campaign contributions from organized labor, the party's most dependable donor.
Like Santa Claus, labor leaders are checking their lists to determine who will be receiving their endorsement gifts in the upcoming election year. Although there has not been a recorded vote in the House on fast track, the positions of members will likely be remembered by local union members who were whipped into mounting a massive grassroots campaign against the trade bill.
"We will continue to do our job with candidates, and they may be Republicans who are with us. We are going to be working for candidates that believe in our same issues," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL- CIO, offering no guarantees that labor is committed to helping Democrats regain control of Congress.
Freshmen members of Congress "are most responsive to pressure," said Larry Makinson, deputy director of the nonpartisan Center For Responsive Politics. "I can't imagine any Democratic freshman running for re-election without trying to count on labor [support]. They are going to need it and there are not many places where you can get it. You don't want to burn your bridges."
Pushed and Pulled
Makinson noted that transportation unions are the most likely of all labor groups to give to Republicans. And in the "rust belt" states, such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and northeastern states where there is a large union presence, both Democrats and Republicans benefit from labor support, he added.
For example, two of the highest Republican recipients of labor PAC dollars are veteran members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee: Reps. Don Young of Alaska, who received $169,999 during the last election cycle and through Nov. 1 of this year, and Jack Quinn of Buffalo, N.Y., who brought in $144,400 in union donations for the same period.
Both also opposed fast track, with Quinn leading the charge among Republicans. (Quinn received the AFL-CIO's endorsement in his 1994 contest, but not in 1996.)
While Republican House members may not feel their feet held to the fire on the trade issue, Democrats have been walking on hot political coals.
They were the ones pushed and pulled by key competing interests: labor unions versus pro-business groups, liberals against moderates, and centrists such as President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore battling liberals such as House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, a labor ally with presidential ambition.
The Democratic defections only one out of five House Democrats backed President Clinton on the trade issue effectively armed the Republicans with a branding iron to emblazon the union label on the foreheads of Democrats. National Republican campaign strategists probably won't use the issue across the board but GOP challengers probably will call up the issue if it applies to their local districts, said Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
"The White House itself did say that Democratic members were basing their decisions on whether or not they could afford to lose their campaign contributions. I don't think the people in those districts would be happy to know that the labor union has direct control of their representative's votes in that way," Tucker said.
The most closely watched freshmen Democrats may be nine first-termers including seven members of the moderate "New Democratic Coalition" who defied the party's traditional labor base and favored fast track.
The largest recipient of labor PAC money within this group of free traders is Hooley, who received $195,800 from labor union PACs. Facing her first major international trade issue, Hooley said she "talked to everybody in the world on all sides of the issue" and shared the unions' concerns about including workers' rights in the core trade agreements. But she ultimately decided that fast track was good for her state.
The backbone of her first campaign was Emily's List, a fundraising group for pro-choice Democratic women candidates. But her district's make-up almost guarantees a strong GOP challenge in 1998, and she will be looking again for labor's support.
"I looked at what was best for my community" on the fast track issue, Hooley said. Labor "may not have liked it, but I think they understood."
Up to the Locals
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., may not need labor PAC money she spent $1.7 million of her own money in 1996, the second-highest use of personal money in a congressional race that year. But she may want labor's army of grassroots volunteers.
Among the first-term Democrats who opposed labor on fast track, Tauscher had the closest election last year, winning by a 49 percent-47 percent margin. And she may be challenged by Republican Brent Jones, a tight-end for the San Francisco 49ers football team.
Local unions complained about Tauscher's position, although she notes it is consistent with her past support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And when compared to the man she defeated in the last election, former Republican Congressman Bill Baker, Tauscher's supporters argue that labor is better off with her in the House.
Chavez-Thompson of the AFL-CIO insisted labor's support for candidates in the next election cycle will be based on the incumbent's entire record, not just fast track.
Top labor leaders might even forgive those who supported the trade bill because the bill did not come up for a floor vote (yet) and labor scored a big political win, Chavez-Thompson said. But she cautions that union locals may decide on their own not to lend their grassroots support, which would be a major loss for candidates.
"We are the ones that always provide the grassroots operations for moderates, conservatives and liberal Democrats. We have been the arms and the legs at the local level," she said.
In 1994, a year after the NAFTA vote opposed by labor, some of the unions' state federations "held their noses and made endorsements of the same people who voted for NAFTA," Chavez-Thomson said, because they had overall pro-labor records. But for union members on election day, "It didn't matter. They stayed home and we got a Republican Congress. They were not excited about the candidates."
For those Democrats who opposed fast track and earned labor's blessing, 1998 will not bring easy re-election campaigns, even in the midwestern and northern states where unions are strongest.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, for example, is an unabashed labor supporter from a district with a strong steel and auto worker union legacy. In his first campaign for Congress, he received $252,920 in labor PAC money, and also benefited from the AFL-CIO's $475,000 television ad campaign which claimed that Republican incumbent Martin Hoke had voted to "cut" Medicare.
Despite strong labor backing, Kucinich's 49 percent to 46 percent margin of victory in 1996 earned him a spot on the GOP's "vulnerable Democrat" list. At least one Republican challenger, state Sen. Gary Suhadolnik, has surfaced and national GOP leaders are hoping for a replay of a recent special election contest.
In the race to replace former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., labor ran a ground warfare campaign on behalf of the Democratic candidate to draw support from the large number of union households in the Staten Island district. But Republican Vito Fossella won by a 24-point margin.
Republicans are hoping the same dynamic works in Kucinich's district, Tucker said.
Further south in Ohio, four Republicans, including former Congressman Frank A. Cremeans and Ohio Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, already have lined up to challenge Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland. Strickland first won the seat in 1992, lost it two years later to Cremeans, and regained the office in 1994, with all three elections decided by 51-49 margins.
"I have a close relationship with labor. My father was a steel worker, my brothers were cement finishers," Strickland said, adding that he also was once a union member. "That's part of my heritage. It's natural labor would find me the kind of candidate they could support."
And they did. In 1996, Strickland received $295,130 from union PACs, the second-highest among all freshmen Democrats. Strickland also benefited from AFL-CIO ads targeting Cremeans.
Strickland, an opponent of NAFTA, maintains a "majority of the district agrees" with his decision to oppose fast track until human rights, worker protections and environmental restrictions are included in the main body of trade agreements.
He also acknowledges opposition from other groups. During this congressional recess, Strickland met with about a dozen leaders of the food processing industry. "I brought up fast track because I knew it was on their minds. I said, `I expect everyone of you will disagree with me on fast track,' and they did," Strickland recalled. But he also reminded them he has worked on their issues, such as standardizing food labels.
In Iowa, Rep. Leonard L. Boswell won his seat to Congress by only 1 percentage point. He expects his last-minute decision to oppose the trade bill will become a campaign issue. "I assume I'm going to be targeted (by Republicans). This is one of the things they will grab on to," Boswell said.
But the congressman maintains the GOP candidate "will be on shaky ground," Boswell says, because he opposed the measure because it did not protect child laborers.
"I lived outside the country for nine years of my life," said Boswell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "I have seen [child labor abuses], touched it. And it's so wrong."
Boswell received almost as much money from business interest as from labor and he bristled at suggestions that fast track opponents were following union demands. "Hogwash," he declared. Gephardt campaigned for Boswell in Iowa recently.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Tex., whose district includes El Paso on the Texas- Mexico border, received slightly more money from business than from labor. Two days before the trade bill was scheduled for a vote, Reyes said he would oppose the measure because his district has more dislocated workers as a result of NAFTA than any other congressional district. That same day, Levi Strauss Company announced plant closings in El Paso, resulting in 1,500 lost jobs.
Lesson to be Learned
Indeed, among the 32 freshmen Democrats who were prepared to vote against fast track, several insisted they do not deserve the union label because their decisions were based on other considerations, such as the loss of manufacturing plants in their districts.
Goode, for example, said he refuses PAC money from "traditional" labor unions, though he does accept donations from groups such as the mail carriers.
And when the White House invited him over for a chat on the issue, Goode confidently refused. "The White House isn't in the 5th District" of Virginia, where manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent years, he said.
Members who won their first elections by healthy margins may adopt the attitude taken by Rep. Jim Davis, D-Fla.: take a position, stick to it, and then hope it does not come up during the next campaign.
Davis worked closely with the White House in the failed effort to get Democratic support for the trade measure, which he believes will advance foreign trade prospects for the Tampa area he represents.
Whether fast track becomes an issue in his re-election bid "partly will depend on how well I do myself at explaining" his views, said Davis, who won his first election with 58 percent of the vote. He received almost equal money from labor and business interests as of Nov. 1.
Moderate Democrats also believe there is a lesson to be learned in Davis' ability to raise money from a broad spectrum of donors, particularly after the fast track debate highlighted the party's split between moderates and liberals.
"We need both labor and business, both moderate and liberal [money]. It's not an either/or decision," said Simon Rosenberg, executive director of the centrist New Democratic Network. "Is our House leadership [which sided with labor] steering us towards a course that we need to go down if we are going to be the majority party again?"
During the 1995-1996 election cycle, the business community's overall contributions to federal campaigns totaled $449.3 million, compared to $49.3 million by labor an 11-to-1 ratio according to a recent study by the Center For Responsive Politics.
While the business community's donations to Democrats dropped significantly after the party lost control of Congress in 1994, the high level of giving especially when compared to labor has moderate Democrats revitalizing ties with high-tech and other business community donors first nurtured by the Clinton-Gore campaigns, Rosenberg said.
The New Democratic Network plans to raise and spend $600,000 in the 1998 elections for 25 to 30 moderate Democratic House and Senate candidates, including Hooley, Tauscher and others who supported the fast track bill, the coalition leader said.
Meanwhile, labor is under attack and will be defending itself against a measure on California's ballot in June which would require unions to get annual written approval from members to use dues for political purposes.
On Capitol Hill, unions and members who opposed them on fast track will reconcile eventually, predicted Stephen Hess, a Congress watcher at the Brookings Institution.
"There's no doubt labor thinks they should be paying some price, and (the House members) will have to do some form of mea culpa to have labor enthusiastic for them again," Hess said. But as the election gets closer and Democratic seats look endangered, both sides will reunite, he added.
"These are grown-ups who will make their peace with each other ultimately," Hess said.
© Copyright 1997 LEGI-SLATE News Service