Members of the AFL-CIO’s executive council wrap up their winter meeting this morning at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. Coincidentally, the congressman in whose district the hotel lies has served as the poster child for a national crack-up between the labor movement and some Democratic members of Congress.
Second-term Congressman Scott Peters was the focus of a furious lobbying effort by the AFL-CIO and local unions to oppose granting the Obama administration fast-track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The TPP, a trade pact among the United States and 11 Pacific Rim countries, has attracted fierce opposition from labor unions, environmentalists, consumer advocates and others.
Last May, union and other activists occupied Peters’ district office. Later that month, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council tweeted that they’d formed a committee to find a challenger to run against him if he supported the trade deal, which they consider a threat to union jobs. An extensive Politico piece that month reported that the AFL-CIO threatened to spend millions of dollars against Peters, including $1 million to defeat him in the primary.
An inewsource analysis of Federal Election Commission data shows that contributions from labor unions to Peters and another local Democrat who supported fast-track, Susan Davis, did in fact drop significantly.
But the damage seems to be limited otherwise, at least so far. The Labor Council’s promised primary candidate never appeared, Federal Communications Commission records show the AFL-CIO has yet to reserve any ad space locally and Peters now says he’s likely to vote for the TPP itself.
Union contributions down but no challenger emerges
The House passed fast-track authority in June. Peters and Davis were among the 28 Democrats who joined most Republicans to support it.
In 2013, political action committees affiliated with 17 unions contributed $72,500 to Peters’ re-election campaign. Last year, the PACs of seven unions made contributions totaling just $13,250 to the congressman, an 82 percent decline.
Davis has experienced a proportionally similar drop, from $25,100 in union PAC money in 2013 to just $2,500 last year.
Union Contributions to Scott Peters and Susan Davis
Source: Federal Election Commission | Credit: Joe Yerardi, inewsource
Peters wasn’t surprised.
“The reaction that they promised, with respect to the TPA (fast-track) vote, they’ve backed up,” Peters said. “They indicated to me that that was going to be the major criteria for determining whether they would support me and so I think as you noticed and as I think will continue, the contributions have fallen way off.”
Davis declined to comment, only saying through a spokesman, “My votes are never connected to contributions.”
inewsource requested comment from every union that contributed to either Davis or Peters in 2013 but didn’t donate last year. Most either didn’t respond or declined to speak on the record. Among those who did talk was a representative of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. The carpenters are among the most visible labor opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, devoting a section of their website to the deal and supporting the Coalition for Better Trade, a pressure group dedicated to opposing the agreement.
John Hanna, the governmental affairs director for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, confirmed the union was disappointed with Peters’ vote on fast-track.
“At the end of the day, it’s difficult to find someone from the Democratic Party who’s going to match the district like I do.”
“His vote on TPA was a factor but it is not the sole factor,” Hanna said in explaining why the council, which covers San Diego, did not request the national union make a contribution to Peters last year, unlike in 2013 when the union’s PAC gave him $5,000.
But Hanna said Peters was an ally on many issues, including prevailing wage laws, and gave the congressman credit for being open-minded and honest when the two met before the vote.
“I certainly didn’t encounter somebody who had his mind made up or was just trying to placate me or just be a good listener,” Hanna said.
After first agreeing to provide an official for an interview, a spokeswoman for the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council declined to make anyone available.
Dale Kelly Bankhead, the acting secretary-treasurer of the council, told Politico Pro last week that “(Peters is) going to have to win without us, and he wouldn’t have won the first few times without us.”
Peters said the Labor Council’s failure to field a Democratic primary challenger against him showed that he was the right Democrat for the district.
“We beat an incumbent who I think was one of the most anti-immigrant members of Congress and then we beat a challenger who was one of the most anti-worker politicians or elected officials in San Diego and I think that at the end of the day, it’s difficult to find someone from the Democratic Party who’s going to match the district like I do,” Peters said.
While Davis’ seat is considered safe (she won 59 percent of the vote in 2014), Peters’ 52nd Congressional District was among the most competitive in the country the last two elections.
Labor ‘losing some of its pull’
Unions are not a particularly significant source of campaign funds for either Peters or Davis.
Contributions from labor unions accounted for just 9 percent of the money Peters raised in the 2013-14 cycle and just 13 percent of the money Davis raised during that period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a D.C.-based nonprofit research organization that tracks money in politics.
Contributions to Scott Peters and Susan Davis, 2013-2014
Source: Center for Responsive Politics | Credit: Joe Yerardi, inewsource
And in Peters’ case, the drop in union money has hardly crimped his PAC fundraising this cycle. He raised $790,000 in contributions from PACs last year, a 69 percent increase from his 2013 haul.
This raises the issue of whether the two Democrats need union support to win.
Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said Peters’ and Davis’ ability to buck the Labor Council’s wishes shows San Diego unions’ declining political influence.
“Organized labor’s losing some of its pull. You’ve got fairly safely entrenched Democratic incumbents in Congress so they don’t have to sacrifice moderate voters and independents to appease the Labor Council for things like TPP,” Luna said.
Luna said the Labor Council’s opposition to Peters — a moderate Democrat in a swing district — is similar to its decision to back progressive City Councilman David Alvarez over moderate former state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher in San Diego’s 2013 mayor’s race. Namely, he says it’s a mistake. In 2013, Republican Kevin Faulconer won and is now running for re-election without Democratic opposition.
“The labor union leadership in the city tends to move more toward ideological purity over political practicality,” Luna said.
“I think there are plenty of places for us to focus on other issues: at the local level, even, at the city level. It’s not just federal politics here.”
-Casey Hoag, UFCW
And after all the pressure, Peters said he’s likely to ultimately vote in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I’m pretty familiar with the document and I think like every document, like every one of these negotiations, it doesn’t lead to something that’s perfect but the question is whether it’s better than the status quo and I’m pretty confident that it will be better,” Peters said.
Casey Hoag, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union that contributed to both Peters and Davis in 2013 but held back last year, said the union remains “exceptionally disappointed in every member of Congress who voted for fast-track” and added that Democrats should take union threats of taking their money elsewhere seriously.
“I think there are plenty of places for us to focus on other issues: at the local level, even, at the city level. It’s not just federal politics here,” Hoag said.
As for some labor unions’ threats to support Republicans against Democrats who voted for fast-track or the TPP, the carpenters union’s John Hanna pointed to the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council’s endorsement of the Republican opponent to Sacramento-area Democrat Ami Bera this year. The endorsement followed what the carpenters claimed was Bera’s promising them he would oppose fast-track before he came out in favor of it.
But in that case, the carpenters have a Republican opponent who supports them on prevailing wage and opposes the trade deal. In San Diego, Hanna says the situation is different.
“If we had that in San Diego against Congressman Peters, we might be doing the same thing. But that’s not the alternative that we have,” Hanna said.
Republicans Denise Gitsham and Jacquie Atkinson are running against Peters.
“Does that mean we’re going to take the hard-earned dollars of our workers to give to Congressman Peters given his position on trade?” Hanna said. “It’s not likely but on the other hand, we haven’t gone out and recruited somebody to run against him as threatened by some people and we don’t feel that the people lined up against him are a credible alternative.”
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