Business interests wary of tangling with labor over Prop 32

by John Ortiz, Sacramento Bee

Sacramento boasts a cottage industry of political message
massagers, but when a chance to become the spokesman for a controversial
initiative on the coming November ballot surfaced last year, none of
the local firms stepped up.

The group backing Proposition 32,
which would fundamentally alter California’s campaign financing, turned
to 28-year-old Jake Suski, a GOP operative who has tasted victory and
defeat in a relatively brief but wide-ranging political career.

"Mostly the latter," Suski said in a recent telephone interview.

But get used to seeing his name.

Suski will be chief spokesman
for the Yes on Prop. 32 campaign; he’s one of several professionals
crafting strategy for a measure that unions view as an attack on their
very existence.

The initiative’s foes say the proposal on the Nov.
6 ballot is the latest installment in a national effort by
conservatives and pro-business leaders to kneecap organized labor.

It would ban corporations and unions from contributing to candidates. It also would forbid spending any money they receive from payroll deductions for political purposes.

unleashed a $45 million maelstrom on a similar measure in 2005 intended
to end public employee union payroll-deducted political contributions.
Supporters mustered just $8 million.

Proposition 75 lost by nearly a half-million votes, with 53.5 percent of the electorate rejecting it.

Seven years earlier, voters junked a similar measure that would have applied to private- and public-sector unions.

has been attempted multiple times and failed," said Richard Temple, a
Sacramento political consultant who wasn’t approached by the Proposition
32 campaign. "There just hasn’t been very aggressive campaigning on the
‘yes’ side."

Temple, whose clients include labor and business
interests, said unions nevertheless have some reason for concern. Those
earlier measures went to voters during the dot-com boom and before the housing bubble burst. Now the state is mired in an economic slump with high unemployment.  Voter approval of state lawmakers is abysmal.

it bans both unions and corporations from using payroll-deducted money
for political purposes, the provision would hit unions harder than
business interests because payroll-deducted dues are organized labor’s
chief vehicle for raising political cash. Corporations fill their war
chests with money from company resources and individual executive donations.

is a different environment than in the past," Temple said, and the
proponents "were more clever by putting the corporate stuff in there. I
would think it’s a little unclear how voters will react this time."

response, labor organizations have already anted up $18 million for a
campaign to defeat the measure. Supporters, many of them the same donors
who backed the 2005 proposal, have given about one-fifth that amount,
$3.45 million.

A prime reason for the disparity is that business
interests aren’t eager to tangle with labor over the issue, Temple said.
Some employ unionized workers. Others cater to them.

"So a whole bunch of people just want to stay out of the way of this one," Temple said.

Ken Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said the campaign pulls together two dominant themes in American politics: the power of labor unions and retribution.

see politicians and labor ‘ particularly public employee unions ‘ as an
unholy alliance reinforced with union dues used for political
purposes," Mayer said, dismissing Proposition 32’s impact on business
interests. "Clearly, unions are playing defense now."

Labor groups
see the Proposition 32 battle as a fight for survival, he added, which
means they’ll use whatever tactics they can to win.

Mayer had a
front-row seat for the epicenter of such a fight over the past two
years. After Wisconsin lawmakers passed a law that weakened public
employee collective-bargaining rights, unions launched a campaign to
overturn it and recall GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

Several unions
boycotted businesses because the companies or their executives supported
the legislation. The Wisconsin State Employees Union, AFSCME Council
24, reportedly asked businesses to display union signs in their windows.

to do so will leave us no choice but (to) do a public boycott of your
business," the letter said. "And sorry, neutral means ‘no’ to those who
work for the largest employer in the area and are union members."

courts eventually overturned part of the Wisconsin law, but Walker won
the recall after supporters outspent the unions that tried to unseat him
7 to 1.

"There was a lot of ugliness that surrounded that whole
thing," Mayer recalled. "That’s always a possibility when you have a
huge hot-button labor issue."

In California, Teamsters Joint
Council 42 President Randy Cammack in April publicly "invited" former
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican and Proposition 32
supporter, to breakfast to talk over the measure. The location:
Riordan’s downtown Los Angeles restaurant, the Original Pantry.

"I didn’t think he’d show up," Cammack said, "but he did. We had a pretty good conversation back and forth."

Are more union "visits" to businesses coming?

"Let’s put it this way: Our side is willing to talk to anybody about this issue," Cammack said.

In an interview last week, Suski said he knew that taking on such a highly charged campaign account carried professional risks.

he’s used to it. Suski has worked for former GOP Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger, handled campaign finances for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s
failed U.S. presidential bid and worked for Jon Huntsman’s presidential
campaign until it folded in January. In April, he signed up with the
Proposition 32 campaign.

"There’s an aversion by political
professionals in Sacramento to shaking up the status quo too much," said
Suski, who characterizes the proposed law as an even-handed constraint
on the influence of both unions and corporations.

He says its impact "outweighs any personal consequences."

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