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Labor Leaders May Vote to Hedge Their Bets on Recall

August 26, 2003|Megan Garvey, Henry Weinstein and Gregg Jones | Times Staff Writers

The state's powerful labor federation meets today to take up the contentious issue of whether to support Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as a backup candidate in the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis -- a move that, if it occurs, would mark both a shift in strategy and a significant lift for Bustamante.

But even as many Democratic leaders have coalesced behind a hedge-the-bets strategy, pairing a "no" on the recall vote with a "yes" for the lieutenant governor's backup candidacy, labor has remained fractured.

Five hundred voting delegates are expected to be on hand in Manhattan Beach as the California State Federation of Labor makes its formal recommendations for the Oct. 7 ballot. The delegates represent about 1,300 unions, many of which remain divided over how to defeat the recall effort without risking the election of a new governor whose policies would be hostile to labor's interests.

The chief question is whether to throw the considerable resources and manpower of organized labor behind Bustamante, who ignored the pleas of labor leaders to stay out of the recall race.

Members of the state federation's executive council met into the early evening Monday, preparing an agenda for the larger meeting today, including whether even to bring the question of the backup endorsementto a vote.

A formal endorsement of any candidate or position requires the support of two-thirds of delegates.

Bustamante's campaign would welcome the state federation's backing, particularly because it would bring nearly all the state's major Democratic groups and leaders in line with his campaign strategy. In the last few weeks, Bustamante has met with half a dozen unions that have requested interviews, said his campaign strategist, Richie Ross, although he has not aggressively pursued labor endorsements.

In the days leading up to Monday's executive council meeting and today's broader discussion, state federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski sought input from union leaders on whether to endorse Bustamante.

The state federation has promised to spend $5 million in direct efforts to defeat the recall effort, using thousands of volunteers to work phone banks and go door to door and sending out hundreds of thousands of job-site fliers and direct-mail appeals.

So far, labor's statewide script has been to urge a straight "no" on the question of recalling Davis. The second question on the ballot -- the vote on a successor for Davis if he fails to get more than 50% on the recall question -- has not been addressed by labor's volunteer callers.

But a formal endorsement of Bustamante would almost certainly mean those same callers would include a recommendation that union households cast a vote for him.

About three in 10 California voters identify themselves as coming from union households, Times exit polls have shown.

In recent days, a growing number of unions, such as the California State Employees Assn. and California Teacher's Assn., have endorsed Bustamante, even as they have urged a "no" vote on the recall question. On Monday, Democrats in the state Senate also hedged their anti-recall stand by supporting Bustamante as the best candidate in the event Davis is voted out.

"Having two bites at the apple is infinitely better than one," Senate leader John L. Burton of San Francisco told reporters.

The position, the same adopted last week by California's 33 Democratic representatives to Congress, is one that some union officials feel they should be taking as well.

"The second question needs to be answered," said Rick Eiden, president of the Orange County Central Labor Council. "That is: If there is a recall, who is the most qualified candidate? We think it's Cruz Bustamante."

Jerry Butkiewicz, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, said, "We have to do what our membership wants."

At a conference two weeks ago, he said, 80 rank-and-file members were asked if they planned to vote against recalling Davis. "One hundred percent raised their hands. Then we asked how many would vote for a candidate on the second part of the ballot. All 80 raised their hands."

But some top labor leaders have consistently said they believe their energies and money should be devoted exclusively to beating the recall effort.

Carroll Wills, spokesman for the California Professional Firefighters, said union President Dan Terry had gone into Monday's executive council meeting "firm in his view that his desire and his first choice is to keep the eye on the ball."

Wills said that those favoring the "no, period" strategy felt energized by The Times poll Saturday that indicated about 45% of voters would vote "no" on the recall question, while another 5% are undecided.

Recent polls by other news organizations and nonpartisan groups had shown Davis down by 10 points or more.

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