Three days after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for his special election agenda alongside U.S. Sen. John McCain, union leaders Thursday imported fellow Sen. John Kerry to help with their fight against Schwarzenegger's most popular initiative.
Joined by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a news conference outside a downtown firehouse, Kerry said Schwarzenegger's Proposition 75 to curb union political spending was part of a national effort to give Republicans and corporations an unfair edge in governing.
"They want a one-sided argument: their side," Kerry said.
Kerry's appearance underscored the fears held by many labor leaders and Democrats about Proposition 75, which would require unions to obtain the permission of members each year before using any of their dues for politics.
It is the only one of the eight measures on the Nov. 8 ballot that has majority support, according to public polls that also show most Californians disapprove of the entire election.
Kerry addressed a broader concern among Schwarzenegger's opponents: that efforts to discredit the entire election, which they have condemned as a waste of money, could backfire by discouraging some Democrats from participating.
A poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 40% of likely voters supported the special election, while 53% believed it was a bad idea. The unions added two initiatives to address the cost of pharmaceutical drugs and electricity rates in hopes of giving their voters something positive to turn out for, but polls show those measures languishing, along with most of Schwarzenegger's agenda.
"Some people are saying to themselves, 'I don't think I should vote; I don't like it,' " said Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat. "That is exactly the wrong thing to do."
At another campaign event Thursday at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, where Latino politicians assailed Schwarzenegger's agenda, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said the governor seemed to be counting on Latinos' sitting out the election. "If he thinks that, he doesn't know Latinos," said Delgadillo, who is running for state attorney general.
Barbara O'Connor, a political science professor at Cal State Sacramento, said people "generally don't want the election."
"They're not interested in it," she said, "so doing anything to drum up interest would provide some excitement around the issue and the election."
At the firehouse, Kerry countered the arguments McCain made Monday, when the Arizona Republican -- best known nationally for his efforts at campaign finance reform -- embraced Schwarzenegger as having the "guts to take on the special interests."
"Real reform applies to everybody," Kerry said. "If you want real reform, then give the same rules to everybody in the political system, which this doesn't do. This is slanting the system against these workers, and that's just plain not fair."
In 1998, Kerry voted against a similar measure in the U.S. Senate. The measure failed. Though he said Thursday that he favored evenly applied campaign finance changes, Kerry voted in 2001 against another unsuccessful proposal that would have required both unions and corporations to obtain permission from members and shareholders before spending money on politics.
The Schwarzenegger campaign suggested that Kerry's Los Angeles appearance showed a lack of confidence among opponents of the union-dues measure. A Field Poll in late August found the measure ahead 55% to 32%, with 13% undecided.
"Both [U.S. Sen.] Barbara Boxer and [state Treasurer] Phil Angelides decried McCain's appearance, saying that it clearly is a sign of desperation for their campaign that they would have to bring in someone from out of state to campaign on their behalf," said Todd Harris, a campaign spokesman. "If Sen. Boxer and Mr. Angelides are correct, then it would appear that [the Democratic effort to block] Proposition 75 is in serious trouble."
The Schwarzenegger campaign also tweaked Kerry for having previously backed the weakening of teacher tenure -- which Schwarzenegger is supporting through Proposition 74 -- by inviting him to endorse the measure. Kerry declined to discuss any of the other propositions.
The involvement of national leaders in initiative campaigns is fairly unusual in California, but more could be on the way as both sides try to gin up enthusiasm for the Nov. 8 election, which political analysts and polls say has turned off much of the electorate.
National Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean is scheduled to be in the Bay Area on Sunday, and there has been some conversation about having him make a campaign appearance, strategists said.
Kerry's potential appeal stems from last year's presidential race, when he beat George W. Bush 54% to 44% in California. The choice of venue had resonance as well: firefighters unions were a key Kerry ally in his presidential campaign, endorsing him early in the primary season and sticking by him when many had written off his candidacy as dead.
Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at UC Riverside who studies the initiative process, said few national politicians can intervene successfully in a state ballot fight.
"McCain works because [Schwarzenegger] needs to goose the Republican faithful," Bowler said. "McCain is a twofer because he has this big reputation that appeals to middle-of-the-ground voters."
But Bowler said he doubted that Kerry's presence would have great effect.
"It's not clear that the Democrats need any big national figure," he said. "They don't need to persuade anybody; they just need to turn out and vote."
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.