Purple Reign

In an election year of really big spenders, the Service Employees International Union stands out.

The purple people eaters are out in force this election season. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is as well known nationwide for its relentless style of political hardball on behalf of 1.6 million members—including janitors, home health care workers, nurses, and public employees—as for its distinctive purple T-shirts. According to SEIU Local 775 spokesperson Adam Glickman, his union will spend $65 million this year in an effort to defeat President Bush. Two thousand "SEIU heroes" have taken leaves of absence from their jobs to move to key battleground states and work on behalf of SEIU-backed candidates. Other SEIU volunteers will spend evenings and weekends knocking on doors and calling people in a massive effort to get out the vote. SEIU's political style is mirrored in its aggressive organizing, which has made it the second-largest union in both the U.S. and in Washington, where it has 60,000 members.

Washington is one of the SEIU's targeted battleground states. The union has set up a call center in a trailer in downtown Seattle where volunteers and "heroes" staff the phones. Glickman says the union has spent more than $1 million in Washington on two races. SEIU pumped $200,000 into a Seattle Democratic primary race, backing a challenger to veteran budget writer Rep. Helen Sommers in Seattle's 36th legislative district (Sommers prevailed), and has spent $875,000 in the governor's race, in which SEIU is backing Democratic centrist and state Attorney General Christine Gregoire over conservative former state Sen. Dino Rossi. That doesn't count all the donations they are making directly to candidates, initiatives, and political party committees.

SEIU's spending comes in a year when so-called independent expenditures—that's money spent promoting a candidate or cause but not given directly to a campaign—have exploded in the wake of Congress' passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law in 2002. In 2000, for instance, more than $25 million in "soft money," the unlimited donations from big business and big labor, flowed through committees run by the Washington Democratic and Republican parties, according to the Institute on Money in State Politics. McCain-Feingold put an end to soft money donations to political parties, so now the cash is spent independently for or against candidates, presumably without coordination with the politicians or parties.

This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce leads Washington's pack of big spenders with the $1.5 million campaign against former Insurance Commissioner and Democratic attorney general candidate Deborah Senn. But the chamber doesn't have any ground troops to add to its TV air war. The Building Industry Association of Washington, a perennial big player in state politics that backs conservatives, has a budget of $800,000 for all state races for the entire campaign season. SEIU has spent more than that, with five weeks to go. SEIU members are "the biggest political players in the state," says Moxie Media political consultant John Wyble, who works for SEIU on occasion.

SEIU has been around for decades in Washington, but it started to be a major force in 2001, when it spent $1.3 million to launch and pass Initiative 775, which paved the way for the unionization of home health care workers. Those workers are contractors with the Washington state government who receive poor wages for taking care of elderly and disabled people in their homes. In 2003, SEIU used I-775 to organize 28,000 of them into a union and won $37 million of their requested $98 million in wage increases from the Legislature over two years, despite a state budget deficit of $2.6 billion. SEIU home health care workers still don't make a living wage, however: They are paid $8.43 an hour; in October it will increase to $8.93.

SEIU was not satisfied with the Legislature's performance. In fact, the union was outraged at the way the state government dealt with the fiscal crisis. SEIU's Glickman explains that most states faced serious deficits during this economic downturn, and most adopted a balanced approach: increasing taxes and cutting services. Washington, instead, only made cuts. Democratic Gov. Gary Locke spearheaded the no-new-taxes approach, and it was quickly picked up and skillfully advanced by the new Republican chair of the state Senate's powerful Ways and Means Committee, Rossi. The Democratic controlled state House of Representatives and its chief budget writer, Sommers, countered with a combination of tax increases and cuts but could not overcome opposition to new taxes of any kind by the governor, the Senate, and many Democrats in the House.

Fast-forward and guess which political races SEIU targeted this year? The re-election of Sommers and Rossi's bid for the governor's mansion. "It was Helen Sommers and Dino Rossi who bear the responsibility for writing that budget," says SEIU's Glickman. "Our members came away convinced they needed to hold politicians responsible." Glickman ticks off a list of what the Legislature cut during one of the worst recessions in recent memory: unemployment benefits, health insurance for low-income people, and education. While SEIU is right to be outraged about the Legislature's budget priorities, their assignment of responsibility is faulty. Sure, Rossi deserves their ire—he constantly claims that his no-new-taxes budget combined fiscal responsibility with compassion. It failed the latter test. Sommers, on the other hand, advocated for a balanced approach before, during, and after the budget crisis. While Sommers is moderate on fiscal matters, favoring less social spending than liberal Democrats, she's by no means averse to taxes—she has favored an income tax for three decades. Targeting Sommers seemed like a terribly wrongheaded strategy.

University of Washington political scientist Mark Smith says SEIU is taking a page out of the conservative playbook. The Club for Growth, for example, is a national organization that targets moderate Republicans by supporting conservative challengers in GOP primaries. Smith says that strategy makes sense if you are sure you are going to have a majority of your liking in a legislative body and want to make that majority more ideologically pure. The Washington Legislature, by contrast, is evenly divided. The SEIU could end up with a Republican Legislature, notes Smith. "It's a high-risk strategy," he says.

SEIU's Glickman insists that the union's support does not fall on one side of the party line. It is rewarding legislators who support their members—including conservative Republicans like state Sens. Don Benton of Vancouver and Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield. "We are not a partisan organization," says Glickman.

Maybe. But when the SEIU uses its resources to try to replace a moderate Seattle Democrat with a more liberal Seattle Democrat, the union diverts resources that could be going to picking up or defending Democratic races in swing districts. If the state House goes Republican, the SEIU's members will be very badly hurt. Says Sommers: "They need new leadership with better judgment."


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