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Ad War Begins Over Use of Union Dues

Measure would require members' annual permission to use money for politics. Backers call it matter of fairness. Foes call it threat to workers' voices.


SACRAMENTO — With six weeks to election day, the testy fight over a ballot measure designed to weaken organized labor's sway in California politics is about to get serious on the small screen.

Boosters of Proposition 226, which would require unions to ask permission annually before using a member's dues for politics, have been buoyed by a 30-second TV ad financed by a business-friendly Washington think tank.

Meanwhile, the measure's foes Tuesday launched a union-backed $8-million advertising blitz that will last until election day, June 2.

It's all part of a tug-of-war to capture the attention of a voting public that, so far, has hardly a clue about the ballot measure. Each side will try to fill that vacuum via TV.

Boosters hope to characterize Proposition 226 as a matter of fairness for union members irked by organized labor's use of their dues. In California, more than 90% of union political dollars flow to Democratic candidates and causes.

Foes want to persuade voters that the proposition masks a conservative drive to slash Medicare and Social Security, weaken patient protections, privatize schools and curb workers' rights by weakening union clout.

"People right now don't have any idea what to think about Proposition 226," said Gale Kaufman, campaign strategist for the measure's opponents. "We'll win if the voters learn that this ballot measure isn't about paycheck protection. It's about weakening the voice of working men and women in the political process."

To that end, the first television ad rolled out by opponents doesn't aim at the guts of Proposition 226, but rather at some of the people behind it.

The 30-second spot, which will air around local news broadcasts and in prime time for at least a week, warns that "a closer look" at Proposition 226 reveals that it is supported by "a foreign lobbyist, multinational corporations and an out-of-state insurance tycoon."

An actor peering through a magnifying glass turns to the camera and comically comments: "Hey, what are they doing here?"

The commercial goes on to say that Proposition 226's real intent is to privatize education, weaken health care and export American jobs. It concludes with a newspaper headline calling the measure "the Big Lie," suggesting that the real motive is to hurt unions, not help workers.

Proposition 226 boosters ridiculed the commercial before it hit the screen.

"This is laughable," said Sean Walsh, spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, who is chairing the Yes on 226 campaign. "If we want to show big-money special interests trying to exert influence, let us look at the union bosses who are taking money from workers nationwide and pouring it into California.

"Quite frankly, what we really need a magnifying glass on is what their dues are being used for. These labor unions have opposed education reform, class-size reduction, reform that has actually expanded jobs in the state. If we want to talk about the Big Lie, this ad is it."

The measure's foes said that some of the groups and individuals supporting Proposition 226 oppose efforts in Congress to strengthen patient protections against HMOs, supported the failed 1993 California school voucher initiative and endorsed the NAFTA trade accord, which one policy think tank says has cost the United States nearly 400,000 jobs.

Though no one is named in the commercial, the reference to a foreign lobbyist applies to Grover Norquist, leader of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington group that contributed $441,000 to get Proposition 226 on the ballot. Norquist is registered with the federal government to represent the Republic of the Seychelles and for UNITA, the erstwhile Angolan rebel outfit.

"Calling names may be a clever strategy to attack an initiative," Norquist said. "It also suggests they think their arguments are pretty weak. If they talk about the issues, they lose."

The insurance tycoon cited in the commercial is J. Patrick Rooney of Indiana. His spokesman, K.B. Forbes, said Rooney has a long history as a champion of civil rights for the working man and woman, and sees Proposition 226 as an extension of those beliefs. "The issue is about protecting workers' pay," Forbes said.

Proposition 226 also has the backing of a plethora of firms that support Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Washington nonprofit group that financed the paycheck protection television ad now playing in California.

The group's commercial, which began airing a week ago and reportedly cost $1 million in air time, ominously warns the "working men and women of California" to beware that unions might be taking money out of their paychecks "and spending it on political causes without your permission."

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