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NRA, Unions Fight for Blue-Collar Voters

CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Election: Conflicted loyalties on gun control issue shape a shadow war that could tip the balance in crucial states.

October 22, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

And it's in these states at the fulcrum of the election that the NRA and the AFL-CIO are concentrating their efforts. Measured by sheer organizational heft, this competition is a mismatch. The NRA claims 4.1 million members nationwide; the AFL-CIO counts more than 13 million, which doesn't even include the 2.5 million teachers in the National Education Assn. The NRA said it will spend $12 million to $15 million on the election; organized labor is bound to spend many times that.

For its grass-roots mobilization, the NRA relies on volunteer coordinators organized by congressional districts. The unions back their volunteer efforts with a spine of paid staffers, like Todd Cook, a Service Employees International Union aide supervising a computerized calling center that's contacting 700 to 900 Michigan union members an hour from a big purple trailer beached in the parking lot of the state AFL-CIO headquarters in Lansing.

Yet the imbalance isn't as great as it appears, because the NRA has proved effective over the years at influencing sympathetic voters beyond its membership. In the most recent Los Angeles Times Poll, Bush ran about a dozen percentage points better among white men and white women who own guns than those who don't.

That gives the NRA a much larger universe to work with beyond its own membership. Here in Michigan, for instance, the NRA counts just fewer than 200,000 members, compared with about 975,000 active and retired members for the AFL-CIO. But 1 million people in Michigan hold hunting licenses, and the NRA is in the process of contacting all of them--as well as residents who hold permits to carry concealed weapons, subscribers to hunting magazines and owners of pickups.

That particular bit of demographic targeting was amply validated at the NRA rally in Flint last week: The parking lot outside was jammed with muddy pickups. Inside, flannel shirts outnumbered flannel suits by a good 20 to 1. Eventually, so many NRA supporters turned out (at least 5,000) that the group, which had booked itself into a hall in a hockey arena, had to commandeer the hockey rink for the overflow crowd and shuttle its speakers from one room to the other.

At the rally, and at an earlier gathering outside Lansing, LaPierre and NRA President Charlton Heston repeatedly appealed to union members to cross their leadership and support Bush. "Remember only freedom," Heston insisted at one point, "not what some shop steward . . . tells you."

These NRA rallies--which the group also held last week in Pennsylvania and Virginia--are only the most visible component of a multi-front siege of union workers. Last month, the NRA's magazine included a lengthy article that argued that, while gun control was a signal divide between Bush and Gore, "there is no longer much meaningful difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to policies that affect union workers."

Late last week, the group also inserted into an hourlong infomercial it runs on cable stations an extended segment of interviews with union members who are backing Bush because of his views on guns. And here in Michigan, NRA activists have been leafleting auto plants with fliers that charge, in bold black letters: "Al Gore wants to ban guns in America."

Union officials remain cautiously optimistic that they can minimize defection on guns, though in private union polling, the issue is a clear divide. In Michigan, a recent union survey found that Gore leads Bush by about a 6-1 margin among union members who say they are unsympathetic to the NRA; the 40% of union members sympathetic to the gun group split about evenly between the rivals.

But Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's national political director, said that most of those drawn to Bush on the gun issue are among the one-fourth of union members who usually vote Republican anyway. Interviews with more than a dozen union members at the NRA rallies supported that judgment: Almost all expressed conservative views across the board, particularly concerning abortion rights.

Yet the race is close enough here--and in such demographically similar states as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania--that union officials worry that even a slight increase in defection to Bush around guns could sink Gore. As they try to hold wavering members, the unions generally are emphasizing bread-and-butter issues such as workplace safety and Social Security, which they believe trump gun control for most members.

But union activists such as John Swiantek, a representative from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, finds himself debating the gun question almost every day as he distributes pro-Gore leaflets at union plants around Michigan. "Most people don't understand the issue," he laments. "When people give the flier back to us, they say it's because, 'I don't want a man who's going to take my gun.' "

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