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Parties Go Toe-to-Toe Over Union Dues

Republicans and Democrats are pouring money into the Prop. 75 campaign, which could affect labor's pull in Sacramento.

November 05, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — In the final days leading up to the special election, both the Republican and Democratic parties are pumping large sums of money into the fight over how public-employee union dues can be spent.

The late donations on both sides of Proposition 75 are tacit acknowledgments from the parties that the measure's biggest effect would be on Sacramento's partisan dynamics, in which unions give almost all of their money to Democrats.

Over the last eight days, the state Republican Party has given more than $1.4 million in support of the proposition, which would require public employee unions to obtain a member's permission each year before using dues money for politics. The Democratic Party donated $944,599 during the same period.

"Clearly for the parties this is bigger than any other proposition on the ballot and bigger than any individual policy question could be, because this could possibly shift the balance of power in Sacramento," said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "We've seen in other states where these initiatives have passed and they've cut Democratic fundraising."

Those on both sides of Proposition 75 downplayed the partisan roots of the fight throughout most of the campaign. The proposition's backers have insisted that the measure is intended to protect the wages of rank-and-file public employees. While opponents have painted the proposition as an attempt to silence unions for criticizing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, they have sidestepped the tight alliance between the unions and Democratic lawmakers.

But on Friday, leaders in both parties acknowledged the importance of the measure.

"We believe these unions are so important as our allies, both financially and politically, that we need to step up to the table and help them in what is probably the biggest fight of their lives in California history," said Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

Karen Hanretty, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said that, of all the governor's initiatives, Proposition 75 "has a lot of interest to party members. Public employee unions spend a great deal of money and exert a great deal of influence in Sacramento, almost all to Democrats."

The Democratic Party has done more than just donate money to the campaign. Torres said it has sent out millions of pieces of mail to party members urging them to help defeat it.

The party's national leaders also have joined in to help. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry denounced the measure in Los Angeles last month, and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have written and e-mailed supporters in California asking them to help defeat it. No other initiative on the ballot has brought a similar level of national involvement from the Democrats.

Unions have spent more than $40 million to defeat the measure, about 10 times the amount spent by the backers. A Los Angeles Times Poll released this week showed that the efforts have succeeded in erasing much of the measure's original popularity among voters. Though the poll showed the measure trailing, 40% to 51%, nearly four in 10 union members still support it, and strategists in both parties say it may be one of the closest fights in Tuesday's election.

"Union households have shown support for this measure, which means they understand this is about choice," said Eric Beach, a spokesman for the proposition's backers.

In another sign of the stakes involved, union forces this week transferred $935,557 to the dues battle from the political fund they have been using to defeat Proposition 76, Schwarzenegger's proposal to curb state spending. Every public poll has shown that measure trailing badly, and the governor's advisors have all but admitted it is likely to lose.

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