Perhaps taking a cue from the hardball Chicago political tactics of President Obama and his cadre of Windy City advisers, state Senate Democrats in New York sent a fundraising letter to local union bosses last week that even Democratic activists described as, “pay-to-play run-amok.” The chairman of the New York Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, State Sen. Jeff Klein, told union leaders that they could secure seats on a soon-to-be-created “Labor Advisory Council” for donations of $50,000 to the Democratic campaign.
“Advisory Council chairs,” said Klein, “will have the unique opportunity to advise the Senate [Democrats] on the structure and focus of the Labor Advisory Council. In addition to all meetings, conferences and events that are included with Advisory Council membership,” the letter continues, “the advisory chairs will be invited to an exclusive meeting with the Senate majority leaders [and] will actively participate in the essential policy conversations that help construct our 2010 campaign strategy.”
Republicans charge that the letter is part of a two-step strategy to squeeze money out of the unions, usually a reliable source of campaign contributions for the Democratic Party at both the state and national levels. Republicans charged that majority Democrats first announced $180 million in budget cuts aimed at state workers’ unions, then sent the letter as a signal to the unions that the funding would be restored once contributions started flowing in.
“It sure looks like a shakedown,” said one Senate Republican spokesman. Democrats deny that the budget cuts were orchestrated to boost their fund-raising efforts.
The overt promise of influential advisory positions to union leaders is reminiscent of President Obama’s penchant for rewarding his organized labor supporters with posts in the administration on various boards and commissions of the federal government. The most prominent of Obama’s union backers, Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern, was recently appointed to serve on Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. And SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger holds positions on Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board and Vice President Joe Biden’s Middle-Class Task Force.
SEIU endorsed Obama early in the Democratic primary, while the AFL-CIO and other organized labor groups largely backed then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s primary bid. In total, SEIU’s political action committee spent nearly $28 million in support of President Obama’s campaign, according to Federal Election Committee filings.
Another controversial presidential appointment tied to SEIU is had been languishing in the Senate. Obama named labor lawyer Craig Becker to fill one of three vacant seats on the National Labor Relations Board. Becker is an associate general counsel to SEIU, and previously served on Obama’s transition team, helping shape the Department of Labor for the incoming administration.
Becker’s nomination has drawn several holds in the Senate, including from at least two Democrats. But last week, Obama used a recess appointment to seat Becker as soon as Congress left town for the Easter break. Republicans had warned the President in a letter signed by all 41 GOP senators not to fill the seat with a recess appointment, citing Becker’s work in the transition.
“We … are concerned that Mr. Becker’s service on the Presidential Transition Team while still employed by the SEIU violates your own stated ethical principles,” Senate Republicans wrote. “Mr. Becker has admitted that he substantially wrote several of the Executive Orders you issued shortly after taking office. Those Executive Orders clearly benefited the SEIU and the AFL-CIO. Such actions undermine the confidence we and members of the public can have in Mr. Becker’s judgment, as well as his objectivity,” the letter said.
Now in New York, Senate Democrats seem to be taking a page from the President’s playbook, promising influential advisory positions for donations.
The stakes in New York are high for both Democrats and the unions. The state is facing a gaping $7.4 billion deficit, and steep spending cuts have been proposed. Unions want their allies in the state Democratic Party making decisions about how the government will close the gap, and how much of that burden will be borne by their members.
Democrats maintain control of the State Senate by the slimmest of margins – two seats – and face stiff political headwinds going into the campaign season. A Quinnipiac poll taken at the end of 2009 showed nearly three-in-four New York voters were dissatisfied with the state legislature’s job performance, and an overwhelming 76 percent said that state government is dysfunctional. Just under half of respondents said their state senator should be voted out of office.
New York Senate Democrats need union support to maintain their hold on the chamber. Like President Obama, they appear ready to reward union bosses with positions of influence in exchange for their support.