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Labor Swiftly Deploys Anti-Recall Volunteers

A Ventura phone bank provides a glimpse of unions' ability to rally votes for Gov. Davis.

August 21, 2003|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

With 47 days until Californians vote up or down on the recall of Gov. Gray Davis there is little time to spare on the phones at Laborers International Union, Local 585.

Union organizers, who opened the phone banks in Ventura last weekend, are focused on getting out the no-on-the-recall vote.

"We're not arguing with anyone on the phone," said Marilyn Valenzuela, the Tri-Counties Central Labor Council executive secretary. "If they say a solid yes to the recall, we move on."

Larry Miller, president of the Ventura County Federation of College Teachers, said: "You may give up three good, solid votes wasting time with somebody who has already made up his mind."

The next weeks will be a test of California's powerful unions and their ability to get out their voters.

"I don't think labor can be blamed for Gray Davis' problems," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. "On the other hand, I think everybody is watching to see if labor can deliver for Gray Davis -- including Gray Davis himself. I don't think there's any other single force out there capable of influencing the election they way labor can."

A roadmap for labor's fevered efforts is laid out in the contents of the Local 585's nondescript headquarters. One wall of the conference room is covered with the day's running tally of phone calls made, another with precinct maps. On the long oak table are stacks and stacks of phone numbers: about 78,000 high-likelihood voters who are either registered Democrats or union members and their families.

Next door in the meeting room are 10 mismatched telephones and volunteers to staff them. And there's room for seven additional lines elsewhere in the building as the Oct. 7 recall election draws closer.

Working systematically through the lists, volunteers punch in the phone numbers and hope for an answer.

"Can we count on you for a no vote on the recall?" "Have you folks decided you're going to vote no on the recall?" "Marque no en el recall?"

These calls -- backed by the thousands of labor and Democratic Party volunteers willing to walk precincts door to door, mail absentee ballots and check back on election day -- may well provide Davis with his best hope of turning around dwindling support in the polls.

Labor leaders have watched the polls closely, openly worried about support for Davis registering as much as 10 points below the 50% he needs to keep his job. Faced with such numbers, some in the union ranks already have decided not to bank solely on Davis' survival and have endorsed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as a backup gubernatorial candidate.

Others believe they should pursue a "no" on the recall campaign exclusively. They have 47 days to turn the numbers around.

"Do we have enough time? Yes," said Valenzuela, the labor council's executive secretary, surveying the preparations she has made to fight a recall effort. "If we don't have any more flubs."

For unions' anti-recall army there have been plenty of stumbling blocks. Without a clear list of polling places that will be open Oct. 7 -- expected to be compressed by as much as half -- union callers are left to warn voters that their regular location may not be available. Every "no" vote that is reached is strongly encouraged to vote absentee and will be mailed an application if it is requested. Some voters, particularly the elderly, are confused about how to cast the vote they intend, incorrectly thinking a "yes" on the recall would support Davis, volunteer callers say.

Ted Costa, one of the original backers of the recall campaign, believes unions will have a tough sell with their members, many of whom signed the recall petitions, he said. "They're going to have a hard time sending out a little flier saying here's how you vote," he said. "I don't think their membership will go along with that."

Unions have traditionally been a powerful force in shaping California politics. In recent years, Times exit polls have found that about three in 10 California voters say they come from union households. Of those, 55% voted for Davis last year, compared to 34% for his challenger Republican Bill Simon Jr., who is also a candidate in the recall election. By contrast, voters overall gave Davis 47% of the vote to Simon's 42%.

"The key to union power is money and manpower," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "Every campaign needs a ground war, and unions provide the troops. Republicans like to rely on small business, but they don't have the same grass-roots organizations. It's hard to find anyone outside of the major parties with the same level of sophistication as the unions. Organizing people is what unions do."

Valenzuela needed only a week and half to get union members in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties hitting the phones.

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